Saturday, November 2, 2013

Muscle Shoals

If Hitsville USA was synonymous with the fabled Motown recordings of Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Temptations, and so many more, than Muscle Shoals Sound Studios is no less celebrated for the particular brand of Southern Soul and Rock that emanated from its amplifiers. Formed in 1969 when session greats Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass) who were collectively known as The Swampers left FAME-the studio in which they’d become to “go to” guys for such legends as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, and Percy Sledge-Muscle Shoals soon made its mark as a place where the Mick Jagger’s of the world could walk down the street and not be bothered by the locals. The Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section-as they soon became known-was the first rhythm section to own its own studio and, eventually, its own publishing and production companies. 

That distinctive accompaniment and arrangement has been heard on a tremendous number of legendary recordings, ranging from Rod Stewart, the Osmond Family (oddly enough the biggest selling album ever recorded there), Bob Dylan, The Staple Singers, and Paul Simon. Fame Studio founder Rick Hall recollect s how Rhymin’ Simon called him wanting to “get some of those Black musicians” to record with him. Little did Simon, and most of the music listening public, realize that Beckett, Hawkins, Johnson, and Hood were all white. Such is a stuff of great story making and telling, although the complicated relation between the two competing studios is not made readily clear. Director Greg "Freddy" Camalier tells that story with a nice mixture of awe and precision. 

It would be too easy to get caught up in the minutiae of Muscle Shoals-obsessing over trivial bits that only the most fanatical would care to know about-but Camalier instead wisely focuses on the music and its impact on the day. At the center is Hall, who rose up from abject poverty to become owner and principal architect of FAME, the studio which land the groundwork for Muscle Shoals to follow. His is a fascinating tale of perseverance, an ear for talent, and impeccable timing. Muscle Shoals works best when staying the course, including interviews with Steve Winwood, Keith Richards, Atlantic Records head honcho Jerry Wexler (with whom Hall often battled) but loses a bit of focus when delving into the “mystical elements of the bayou. We all know it was an extraordinary place, but at times Camalier seems determined to drive that point home again and again. Still, for any music lover this is primo stuff. Muscle Shoals strikes a near perfect balance between trivial pursuits and an advanced degree; having a solid working knowledge of the era only adds to the pleasure but even the most informed are likely to learn something new about the hallowed ground of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. 

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