And they've been known to pick a song or two
~Lynyrd Skynrd, "Sweet Home Alabama"
In the Northwest corner of Alabama sits an unlikely musical hotspot, a cluster of towns - Florence, Sheffield, Muscle Shoals - where anonymous musicians backed up the big names: Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger.
The biggest recordings from this area came from two studios: Muscle Shoals Sound Studios (owned and operated by the musicians who played there), and FAME Studios. Both are still open for business, and in 2009 The Black Keys recorded their Brothers album at MSSS. Many of the musicians are still there as well, including some of those "Swampers" Lynyrd Skynyrd sang about.
Here is the story of how an exceptional group of musicians turned a tiny town into a musical destination and created a sound that artists are still seeking.
"Steal Away" - Jimmy Hughes
"Laugh It Off" - The Tams
"Everybody" - Tommy Roe
"Hold What You've Got" - Joe Tex
603 East Avalon Avenue, Muscle Shoals, AlabamaRick Hall started FAME studios (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) in 1959 in Florence, Alabama, and moved the operation to Muscle Shoals in 1961. Their first hit was a song by Florence native Arthur Alexander called "You Better Move On." Alexander is the answer to the trivia question: Whose songs were recorded by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones?
Spooner Oldham (keyboard player at FAME, later recorded with Bob Dylan and Neil Young): We did a hit recording, "You Better Move On," by Arthur Alexander, and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones started covering the songs which Arthur had written. So we knew from that that some different sound waves were going out there to catch the ears of English folks.
Rick Hall (told to Barney Hoskyns): When we started out, Nashville paid union scale and you were in trouble if you didn't get four sides in three hours. I can't believe anybody can cut four hit records in three hours. I spend a minimum of three hours per song.
David Hood (bass player at FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios): The FAME Studio, Studio A, was patterned after RCA Victor, the studio in Nashville. Rick had gone up there and gotten measurements, dimensions of the building, because that was such a successful studio, and at the time Rick was aspiring to get work done in Nashville. So when he built that studio he based the dimensions and the echo chamber, which was our live chamber, on what was at the RCA Studio in Nashville.
Spooner Oldham: The studio itself had this interesting echo chamber at the time. It was essentially a concrete block wall, or four walls with stucco on it. And then you'd place a little speaker and a microphone in there. That's the echo chamber. Many folks had different variations thereof. That's the kind they used to use. And then they went on to different kinds of echo stuff, electronic echoes. But that's the way that started, just a small room with stucco, with hard surfaces that really echo.
Johnny Townsend of Sanford-Townsend Band: I never really liked recording in Nashville. They just did things a different way there. It was more cookie cutter type recording and I was never into that. I liked to get the musicians together and spend hours, even days working things out and getting them like WE wanted them, not the way some song factory's idea of how things were supposed to be done. In the Shoals, if you needed a hired gun to come in and knock out some part for your song, whether it be guitar, bass, drums, horns or whatever, you just pick up the phone and call one of your friends to come over and lay it down for you. It was a kind of community environment you can't get in the big recording centers.
Rodney Hall (general manager at FAME, son of Rick Hall): I think the first black man I ever saw was Wilson Pickett. Clarence Carter and Candi Staton and those people were all at our house when I was a kid. There were no decent hotels here so they had to stay at our house when they came. We got to spend a whole lot of time with them.
Johnny Townsend: Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham had written a song for the artist Mighty Sam and they had some records pressed up to try to get some airplay. I think it was Spooner's uncle who had a used car dealership and he and Dan borrowed an old station wagon one week and drove up to Tennessee and filled it up with liquor. They started driving around Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia, stopping off at radio stations handing out Mighty Sam records along with complementary booze. This is how they broke one of the first hits out of that area.
"I'm Your Puppet" - James & Bobby Purify
"Mustang Sally" - Wilson Pickett
"I Never Loved A Man" - Aretha Franklin
"Shake, Rattle and Roll" - Arthur Conley
"Tell Mama" - Etta James
"Up Tight, Good Man" - Laura Lee
The Swampers at FAME
1964-1969In December, 1964, the first FAME rhythm section left for Nashville, and the guys who would become known as "The Swampers" moved in: Jimmy Johnson (guitar), Junior Lowe (guitar), David Hood (bass, father of Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers), Roger Hawkins (drums), Spooner Oldham (keyboards).
David Hood: In 1967 Rick was just going multi track. It had been mono prior to that. And so fixing things in those days was a whole lot harder than it is nowadays. Sometimes if there was a missed note or something like that, you wouldn't do anything about it, you'd let it go. Nowadays you fix everything. Nothing is real.
Spooner Oldham: It was a combination of good engineers and good players, and hopefully good songs that made it special for us. Those who heard it and bought it know there are things like "Mustang Sally" from Wilson Pickett out of there. And "Land of a Thousand Dances," those were sort of up-tempo danceable kind of things. That was sort of neat, interesting.
David Hood: When we started working there at FAME, by that time it was a successful studio. We measured every studio we ever worked with against that studio, because we just thought, man, this is the greatest place in the world. Your first love, your first car, everything, you compare to the first. And that's the way we were. We really thought that FAME was the greatest.
Spooner Oldham: It was never said "be creative" or "do what you want." But in retrospect, I was never told what to do. Maybe one suggestion along the way. But that was part of it, it was just the openness of the player's ability to do as they wish and hopefully that was the right thing to do. Because there's a freshness to that sometimes. Sometimes you're reaching out for something, you don't know if it'll work. But when it works it really makes you feel good, because you're trying your wings in unknown territory.
Johnny Townsend: Duane Allman decided he wanted to be a Muscle Shoals guitar player and camped out in his car in the parking lot at FAME for weeks until he was able to convince them that they should give him a try. They finally relented and let him play on the Wilson Pickett version of "Hey Jude." That was the beginning of Duane's storied career and it started in Muscle Shoals.
When word got out that Aretha Franklin recorded in Muscle Shoals, many singers who wanted to lace their songs with a touch of soul made a pilgrimage to Alabama in search of that sound.
Aretha made the area a musical destination, but she recorded just one song in Muscle Shoals: "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)." The session produced one of Aretha's greatest hits, but there was a reason why she never came back.
David Hood: Ken Laxton, the trumpet player, was making remarks to Aretha that he thought were kind of cool and hip and all that. And Aretha and her husband Ted thought, "Who is this white guy talking smart and trying to jive with us?" And it was taken wrong, I think. I don't think he was really trying to cause problems. But it was taken wrong, and people were drinking on the session - not me, but some people were - and it just got blown out of proportion and it ended up in a big argument and ended the session. So that's why Aretha didn't record in Muscle Shoals after that. She left.
Backed by the Muscle Shoals musicians, Aretha Franklin's version of "Let It Be" was released two months before The Beatles'. Paul McCartney sent a demo of the song to Atlantic Records so Aretha could record it. One of David Hood's biggest regrets: not grabbing that demo after the session. It has never surfaced.
David Hood: By the time we would do the session, they would have it picked what we were going to do. That was a preproduction process. That's expensive having a bunch of musicians sitting around, and that's what our talent was: being able to come in and record and work up an arrangement on things pretty quickly. That meant, of course, we weren't sitting around getting paid for two or three days. We would come in and do it quickly and cheaply compared to what a lot of other people would do.
Johnny Townsend: Some of the greatest stuff had to be the things that Aretha cut there. She became an icon the minute she stepped in front of a microphone. "Never Loved A Man The Way That I Love You," "Respect"... wow. Her talent seemed to have no end but the folks with the insight and foresight to put her in the right environment for success deserve a lot of the credit as well.
"Take A Letter, Maria" - R.B. Greaves
"I'll Take You There" - The Staple Singers
"Kodachrome" - Paul Simon
"Hurts So Good" - Millie Jackson
"The First Cut Is The Deepest" - Rod Stewart
"Old Time Rock and Roll" - Bob Seger
Muscle Shoals Sound Studios
1969-1978, reopened in 1999: 3614 Jackson Highway, Sheffield, AlabamaIn 1969 keyboardist Barry Beckett, drummer Roger Hawkins, bassist David Hood, and guitarist Jimmy Johnson pooled their resources to break from FAME, and the quartet bought their own recording studio at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield, Alabama. Then-president of Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler, helped the Swampers purchase and install an 8-track recording machine compatible with Atlantic's equipment. Wexler believed in the band, and wanted them for his own projects.
David Hood: Rick was signing an exclusive deal with Capitol Records, and he wanted to put us on a salary, or a guarantee, and it was $10,000 a year. We were already making more than that working with all these different people, but he wanted to sign us to an exclusive agreement for $10,000 a year, and we thought, well, that's not going to work.
We bought an existing studio at 3614 Jackson Highway. It was Fred Bevis Recording, and it was just a little 4-track demo. It was a studio, but no masters had been recorded there. Jimmy and Roger were friends with Fred Bevis, the guy who owned that studio. Fred realized early on after having built the studio that he really didn't know what to do with it, so he talked Roger and Jimmy into buying the studio from him. In order to have a house rhythm section, they brought us into the partnership, Barry Beckett and myself, for very little money. We at first had a small part of the ownership of the studio.
We weren't going to keep it Bevis Studio, so after we left Fame we were sitting in the office thinking, well, what are we going to call this place? There was a pine tree out in the parking lot. We thought, maybe Lone Pine Recording. We thought of a bunch of names and they were silly. I threw out the name Muscle Shoals Sound, and we all laughed. And the reason we laughed is here where we live is four towns. It's Florence on the north side of the Tennessee River, and then on the south side it's Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals are three little towns. You have to live here to know when you're in one or the other, because there are places where you can stand with one leg in one and one leg in the other. But only people that live here really know where those spots are.
So we had left FAME in Muscle Shoals, and Rick was really pissed off at us and was trying to get us and was hoping that we wouldn't succeed. So I thought, let's call it Muscle Shoals Sound just to get at Rick. This area is known as the Muscles Shoals area, but we were in the city of Sheffield, which is probably two miles outside of the boundary of Muscle Shoals. We thought it was funny, and we all laughed. But then after we started thinking about it, we thought, well, that's not a bad name. So that's how the name came up.
And the studio, we compared it soundwise to FAME. It was our goal to make it sound as good as FAME. At first we didn't think it sounded all that good, but we worked with it. I think sooner or later we equaled or passed FAME, but it was not really the building. The building was a crackerbox building. A loud truck driving down the street or a heavy rainstorm, you'd have to stop working, because it was not built as a studio. It was a just a commercial building that had been adapted for studio use.
Losing his top musicians didn't sit well with Rick Hall, but the competition bred success.
Rodney Hall: The main brunt of it was probably two or three years. And then they made up, but I don't know that everything was forgiven at that point. But I think it's all forgotten. I told my dad over the years, and I told David and those guys: if they'd never left you, this would have been a one-horse town. It would have never been as big as it became.
The Rolling Stones stopped by on their way to Altamont in 1969 and recorded "Brown Sugar," "Wild Horses" and "You Gotta Move" at MSSS. In the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, there is a scene where the band is listening to playback of "Wild Horses" in the studio.
David Hood: Since we owned our own studio, to get business to come to our studio, we would tell people we would work what would normally be a three hour session, we would do six hours, or something like that. They could come in and the musicians would work twice as long for what would be union scale, which wasn't nearly as much back in those days.
We, of course, had to borrow money and bought first the 8-track, and then 16-track, and then 24-track recording equipment, new mixing console. But those things don't affect the sound. The thing that affected the sound the most was the fact that since it was a small studio, we couldn't change things much. So the drums were always in the drum booth, the bass was always next to the drums, the piano was always where it was located. We just worked on refining that and getting as good a sound as we could under those circumstances, and it just came to be a good sound.
Millie Jackson: It sounded and felt like a gig, rather than a recording. It was everybody trying their best to get the job done. Now, let's go eat. Be back in an hour or see you tomorrow at 10:00.
Spooner Oldham: The food was good around those parts. There were things that made it special besides the studios and players. The Rolling Stones, they came in and they were their own musicians, so it wasn't like a studio band helping them. They were their own thing. But they were obviously looking for whatever it was coming out of there.
Atlantic Pulls the Plug
The first year of business at MSSS was tense. Projects were hard to come by. Cher recorded an album there and named it 3614 Jackson Highway in honor of the place, but the record was a commercial flop. Then, a breakthrough: R.B. Greaves wrote "Take a Letter, Maria" and recorded it with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The single reached #2 on the Hot 100 and was certified gold.
David Hood: "Take a Letter, Maria" was just a fluke. We all thought it was good when we cut it, but we didn't think it was anything all that special. And here it becomes a hit. It was our first gold record after we had gone out on our own, after we had left Rick. We were getting pretty nervous, because we thought Atlantic was going to quit using us and we were going to go broke. So it was a big relief when R.B. Greaves came along.
The hit record kept them going, but in 1971, Atlantic moved their Muscle Shoals business to Criteria Studios in Miami.
David Hood: They wanted us to move to Miami and be the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and we didn't want to go. We talked about it, and we thought, well, we don't know Miami. This is our home. So we told them we didn't want to do it. And when we did that, they called the loan. So then we had to go to the bank and borrow the money to pay them back what we owed them. They started doing the recording that they'd been doing with us in Miami with the big suppliers. At first that was a scary thing.
Around this time, Stax Records, the Memphis label that was home to Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, The Staple Singers and Luther Ingram, was in the midst of a spectacular collapse brought on by bad business deals. Trying to save the label, they turned up the engines and cranked out as much product as they could, outsourcing lots of it to Muscle Shoals Sound Studios as Atlantic was leaving.
David Hood: Booker T and the MG's decided that they were going to quit being the house band for Stax, so Stax needed a rhythm section to record with. That's when they came to us with Johnny Taylor and the Staple Singers and different people. So it just happened to work out that way. But Atlantic left, Stax comes in, takes their place, we just keep rocking on.
"Patches" - Clarence Carter
"Bring It On Home To Me" - Lou Rawls
"One Bad Apple" - The Osmonds
"Hurts So Good" - Millie Jackson
"I'm Just A Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin')" - Candi Staton
"I Can't Let You Break My Heart" - Bettye Swann
FAME After The Swampers
1969-TodayFAME studios lost four of their top guns on the same day, but they still had plenty of business, no shortage of musicians in the area, and their mastermind Rick Hall.
Rodney Hall: After those bastards left (laughs) - I'm kidding. They left in '69 and as they left, FAME Records was really starting to kick off. We signed a deal with Capitol Records and had Candi Staton and Clarence Carter, George Jackson, Bettye Swann - a lot of soul artists on our label. And then we did the same kind of deal with United Artists. My dad kind of moved into the pop field and started doing Paul Anka, The Osmonds, Wayne Newton and Wild Cherry. But then later on in the '80s he morphed into country and started doing country stuff. So we've been around the block.
Rick Hall was Billboard magazine's Producer of the Year in 1971, thanks to his success with The Osmonds, who aren't what comes to mind when you think of the Muscle Shoals soul sound, but were wildly successful. "One Bad Apple" was a #1 hit, and Donny Osmond was a teen idol, which made life interesting when he came to The Shoals.
Shenandoah, Jerry Reed, and The Gatlin Brothers were some of the big artists who recorded at FAME in the '80s. In the next decade, studio business started to decline, and publishing became the big earner. They got a big bump with the publishing rights to the John Michael Montgomery song "I Swear," which became a #1 hit for the R&B group All-4-One.
Rodney Hall: The music business has been decimated. Nobody has budgets to record, mechanicals (royalties from cover versions of songs) aren't being made. So it's just a tough time for everybody in the music business. But there have been other lean years from time to time. Since the '80s, publishing has been our mainstay. It's been our money maker. Studio has just been a tool, really. You always have to spend money to upgrade, and with the proliferation of technology, there's not a lot of money to be made in it anymore. Everybody has a studio in their bedroom.
Seger, Simon, and Stewart at The Shoals
By the mid-'70s, with heavy demand for the Aretha Franklin sound and the legend of Muscle Shoals growing, the biggest names in the business went to Alabama for a piece of the action. What they found often surprised them.
David Hood: Rod Stewart, I think, was a little intimidated by our track record at the time. When he first came in and saw us, he asked (engineer) Tom Dowd, where's the band? And Tom said, "That's the band." He thought that they were trying to pull something on him, because he'd seen these white guys sitting out there at the instruments. He thought the band that he was coming to record with was Aretha Franklin's band and gonna be a bunch of black guys. So he was suspicious of us from the start.
Johnny Townsend: There was no place like the Shoals for recording. Because that was about the only thing going on in that area. We would always get rooms at the Holiday Inn in downtown Florence and carpool it over to the studio and be talking about the music all the way. Because they didn't have the kind of distractions like New York or L.A. you could get much more focused, and because their studio rates were so much less expensive, you could block it out for days, or even weeks at a time and basically camp out in the studio.
Muscle Shoals was also a lot more efficient than what many artists were used to, as Paul Simon found out when he came to town.
Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios from 1970-1972. They recorded their first album there - the one with "Free Bird" - but Skynyrd didn't get a record deal until they redid the album with Al Kooper in Georgia. Why didn't their Muscle Shoals demo sell the band? Because the tape got kinked in transit and when record labels heard it, the sound was terrible. Lynyrd Skynryd mentioned their time at Muscle Shoals in "Sweet Home Alabama," where they popularized the musicians as "The Swampers." The name originated with Leon Russell, whose producer Denny Cordell came up with the name. Leon presented them with a gold record for their work on his album Leon Russell and the Shelter People which read, "Presented to The Swampers." This is where Ronnie Van Zant first saw it.
So he was thrilled with that, but then he got us to come to New York and record "Still Crazy After All These Years." When he was in our environment down here, things worked the way we wanted them to work. In New York, we were in his territory and he spent a whole day just working on the intro of that song while I sat there making double scale. The next day we came in and cut the rest of the song. And that was about it. I made a lot of money just sitting around working on that song.
The studio also formed "Muscle Shoals Sound Publishing Company," enlisting songwriters like George Jackson, Randy McCormick, and Phillip Mitchell to work in-house. Muscle Shoals became much more than a studio: it was a musical institution. Some of Bob Seger's most memorable work originated there.
Jerry Masters, engineer at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios: We cut a demo of "Old Time Rock and Roll" on the writer of the song, George Jackson, there at the studio when we didn't have anything else to do. It was a great demo, along with some others we cut that day. Seger liked the song so much he tried to cut it himself, but after numerous tries, with the Swampers and with his band, he finally gave up. He and Punch Andrews decided to buy the demo track from us and put his vocal on it, and that ended up being the record. It's a classic. We also did "Night Moves," "Katmandu," and several more that were on the Silver Bullet Band LP. So the classic "Old Time" was in reality a demo we cut on the writer a couple of years earlier.
David Hood: Bob was great. Bob was another one of those accidental things. Bob came, he had hired Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford, who were contract producers for Atlantic. They had the ability, along with their Atlantic duties, to cut some outside acts occasionally. And so Punch Andrews and Bob were looking for a place to record, and a producer. Bob had some reasonable success in the midwest, but had not had a huge hit or anything, and they were looking to have a hit record. They were still pretty inexperienced in the music business, because they hired these two producers to cut an album with Bob. Their deal was they were going to pay the producers so much money per side, and Punch and Bob thought that meant per side of album, where in reality, that means per song, not per album side.
So after we got into the studio and were recording, this fact becomes known, and they don't have enough money to pay Brad and Dave. So they said, "All right. If you can't pay us what you're supposed to pay us, we're outta here." They pack up, session's over, we're all sitting around in the studio, so Bob and Punch talked to us and asked if we'll help them finish the record - they will pay us and give us a point on the productions we do with them. So everything we recorded with Bob Seger, we get a production royalty on.
Getting a piece of the publishing is often the difference between a studio that stays in business and one that folds when times get tight. The Swampers developed a lot of business savvy, and were ready with songs - ones that they owned - when the need arose.
David Hood: At that time we were doing a lot of R&B sessions - Millie Jackson, just everybody. So we might say, "Well, we've got the Staple Singers coming in two weeks, we need some songs for them." And when they would come in, the producer would come in with the artist and all his songs, they would invariably find a song that they didn't like or they wouldn't have brought enough songs for one album. So we got a song on nearly every album we did, and that's how we built our publishing company, was by getting songs on albums that people were coming in to record. Sometimes they would be the hit songs, but other times they would be just an album cut. In those days, when people would buy albums, each song on the album made the same money as one of them that's a single.
The Muscle Shoals Sound
Listening to anything recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section reveals a few qualities that set the band apart: first, loud low end; prominent bass. Second, bassist David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins sound like they were born simultaneously and haven't lost rhythm since. Third, all the players are serious craftsmen that listen to each other and do what's right for the song. No egos.
This strategy would be downright dangerous if the band was anything less than great, but with all those top-notch players shooting from the hip, working together in the best interest of the song, it really worked. Muscle Shoals recordings regularly climbed the Billboard chart - it's amazing to think that all that racket came from a place where you couldn't even buy a beer at the time. There was nothing to do in Sheffield but eat dinner and roll tape.
David Hood: Musicians, when they play, have a sound just like somebody's voice has a sound. Just like when you hear your wife call your name, you know it's your wife. Well, the same with your musicians. You have a sound that's identifiable to some degree, even if you try not to have that, you can't help but have that. It's like your accent. And so I guess the sound as much as anything is just the deficiencies of the building and then the style of the players.
Johnny Townsend: There were a lot of our musician friends who never attained the recognition, or status that the "Section" did but guys like Pete Carr, Tippy Armstrong and Wayne Perkins carved their names on that wall and made their contributions as well. My friend Tippy played on "The Harder They Come" by Jimmy Cliff, which was a template for every reggae song that came after. That was Tippy's guitar on that record that gave the song that feel. We all give him credit for inventing Reggae, which isn't that much of a stretch.
A quirky studio space with a lot of character helped, but the most important element of the Muscle Shoals experience is a little harder to define. It's easy to tell when somebody smiles while talking to you on the telephone - and it's easy to tell that the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section had a blast at 3614 Jackson Highway. Muscle Shoals recordings have plenty of analog warmth, plenty of human warmth, and energy to burn. All the players felt comfortable enough with each other to take musical risks - and pull them off, even when things didn't go according to plan.
Millie Jackson: Jimmy Johnson was sooooooo upset because he broke his Wah Wah pedal on the song, "I'm Through Trying To Prove My Love To You" and I decided I liked the broken sound better and we used it. Apparently so did Rod Stewart because he tried to copy the sound on the song "Say It Isn't True."
David Hood: It just so happened that the roof leaked in our studio right over the recording console, and as a short term fix, we taped sanitary pads across the ceiling just to absorb the water so it wouldn't drop down on the recording console. So we had Paul Simon, who's got hit record after hit record walking in and seeing this place with Kotex on the ceiling. He must have thought, what in the world have I gotten myself into?
Stranger in Town - Bob Seger
Luxury You Can Afford - Joe Cocker
Communique - Dire Straits
The Original Disco Man - James Brown
Coconut Telegraph - Jimmy Buffett
Slow Train Coming - Bob Dylan
The Swampers on the River
1978-1985: 1000 Alabama Avenue, SheffieldBy 1978, The Swampers needed to expand. They were renting the studios at 3614, and the guy who owned them wouldn't sell, so they bought the building at 1000 Alabama Avenue, on the banks of the Tennessee River in Sheffield. Originally a steam generating plant with hydroelectric dams, it was a Naval Reserve training center for a while.
David Hood: We found that the Naval Reserve building was empty and available, so we just kept on that, bought it for $31,000. Turned out it belonged to the City of Sheffield. We bought that and spent a lot of money building modern studios in it. We needed the space. We had more business than we could handle, and there was no place to go. So that's when we moved.
At first, we were really worried because we thought, we've got to have a sound as good as the sound we had at the old place. But we worked that out pretty quickly.
They kept the name Muscle Shoals Sound Studios at the new location. With two studios and 24-track equipment, they hosted Steve Winwood, the Oak Ridge Boys, Levon Helm and Bob Dylan, who recorded his last Top-40 hit, "Gotta Serve Somebody" there with Mark Knopfler on guitar.
Business for country and rock acts was steady, but they didn't do disco at Muscle Shoals Sound, and that slowed demand for the studios, as traditional soul and R&B was falling out of favor.
Malaco Takes Over
Malaco Records, based in Jackson, Mississippi, was home to a variety of gospel, soul and blues artists, including Bobby Blue Bland, Z.Z. Hill and Little Milton. By 1985, they were ready to expand just as one of the Swampers, Barry Beckett, was ready to move on.
David Hood: We stayed there as owners until 1985. We had been doing a lot of work with Malaco Records and they were interested in the studio and our publishing company. At the same time, Barry wanted to produce, so he wanted to go to Nashville, and none of us could afford to buy the other out.
So when Malaco made us an offer to buy the studios and the publishing, we thought, well, this is a way we can take our partnership apart, let Barry go do what he wants to do, and we'll do what we want to do. So we sold the studios and publishing to Malaco. Roger and Jimmy and I stayed on to help run the studios for Malaco, and Barry went to Nashville to start a career as a producer.
Barry Beckett did very well in Nashville. He produced Hank Williams Jr.'s album Born to Boogie for Warner Brothers, and formed his own company, Beckett Productions, where he produced albums fro Kenny Chesney (his first two albums) Alabama (For The Record, 1998) and Phish (Rift, 1993). Beckett died in 2009 at age 66.
Malaco sold the building to Cypress Moon Productions in 2005, who turned it into a film studio. The recording studios are still there, although Malaco sold off the recording equipment, which was replaced with digital gear. David Hood retains an office there.
The Black Keys at The Shoals
After the Swampers left the building at 3614 Jackson Highway, it became a music store, and then an appliance shop before falling into disrepair. In 1999, Noel Webster bought the place.
Noel Webster: It was abandoned. People hadn't been in the building for about a year, and the property itself was condemned by the city, it needed a roof in the '70s when they were cutting here. That's one of the things we did, put a brand new roof on it. Re-did all that. But everything in the studio survived. The walls, booths, sconces, all the control room glass, all the signatures on the walls, everything was just left miraculously. So we re-painted it, went back to work.
In 2009, The Black Keys enlisted producer Mark Neill to work on their new album. Neill specializes in analog, with a vast collection of vintage gear and an extensive knowledge of how to use it. They started the project at Neill's studio in La Mesa, California, where they worked until the idea of recording at a historic southern studio got stuck in their heads. Sun Studios in Memphis was booked for tours during the day, so they called Noel Webster and blocked off two weeks at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, arriving with a truckload of Neill's gear in August.
Noel Webster: Mark Neill did the production, and he and I discussed what pieces of equipment were going to be used, how they were going to be wired, mic placement, all that kind of stuff. It's effortless to record in this building. We just used the same techniques that they used in the '50s and '60s and '70s, and that's what seems to work. Our equipment is hot-rodded a little bit, so it's not like you can go out and buy a piece of equipment that's in this building and use it somewhere else. It's modified, put it that way.
Ten days in Sheffield made the Black Keys yearn for the excitement of their hometown: Akron, Ohio. They stayed at the Marriott in Florence, ate at Cracker Barrel, and shopped at Wal-Mart. With nothing to do but make music, they pounded out 10 of the 15 tracks for the Brothers album, then disparaged the area in a Rolling Stone article, which refereed to it as a "ghost town."
Their producer Mark Neill was far more charitable, saying the citizens of Northwest Alabama "rolled out the red carpet for us," and the environment kept the guys focused and present for their 10 a.m. sessions.
"I think what we found out, honestly, is that Pat and I can really do it anywhere," Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys told the Florence newspaper TimesDaily. "We can create music anywhere. What we learned about Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and probably all the old studios for that part, is that it's not about that room. It's about those musicians, and the engineers that recorded them. That's what makes the sound."
Neill had a different opinion about the room, telling Sound on Sound: "Things were happening that were very, very transcendent, as soon as they began playing. First few takes, we literally couldn't believe what we were hearing. Dan and Pat were kind of looking at each other saying, 'That doesn't even sound like us.' Seriously."
The tracks got a production sheen with digital effects added in post production, and the result was a Grammy win for Album of the Year.
Camaraderie and Controversy: Muscle Shoals Today
When Noel Webster bought the building where the Swampers recorded from 1969-1978, he worked to renovate the place while keeping the vintage sound.
Noel Webster: We always had clients in here working. In fact, we had to do our renovations amongst all that. So we would record an album and then take some time off and work on the building, and then go back and record another album. That's the way it works. Use your downtime wisely. We put the original consoles back in here - everything is back the way it was. We added the mastering lab to the hit factory in here. It's the same as it was, same furniture, same everything. So when you walk in here, you get the tone in this room with the right equipment, the stuff that the guys had verbatim. The audio path is identical.
Several other studios operated in Northwest Alabama over the years. Quin Ivy started Norala Studios in 1965 (and later Quinvy Studios) to take the overflow from FAME. With Rick Hall's blessing, he often used the same musicians that recorded at FAME. His biggest acts were Jeanie Fortune and Percy Sledge. Other studios that cropped up in the area include Broadway Sound, who recorded The Commodores and Z.Z. Hill, and Wishbone, which recorded Charlie Daniels and Shenandoah.
Noel Webster: This room has a very nice signature to it. Tom Dowd designed it. There's not a place on earth that sounds like this. The floor shakes under your feet when you play in here. That's why Ronnie Van Zant never wore shoes on stage. It's a 100 year old red oak floor. The building is a little twisted, which is really cool, because there's no standing wave in the building, there are no parallel surfaces. And the room is incredibly bright and sounds gorgeous. So any way you stick a mic, you don't get standing waves, and it's just a wonderful thing.
When Webster bought the place, he also acquired rights to the name "Muscle Shoals Sound Studios," and he later trademarked the name. This is a sore spot among the guys who started the original studios, since they are still in the area but can't use the name. You can come to Alabama and work with Jimmy Johnson or David Hood or Spooner Oldham, but you can't do it at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. They would prefer that the "Muscle Shoals Sound" be associated with the guys who created it instead of the building that housed it for nine years.
On June 2, 2006, the studio was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Swampers haven't been welcomed back, but what was once an abandoned building is now a functioning studio and quasi-museum. It could get a lot of work as more musicians seek out the sound that gets lost in modern technology.
Over at FAME Studios, they've been open in the same location since 1961, one of the oldest continuously operating recording studios in the world. Band of Horses, Matisyahu, and Drive-by Truckers all recorded there in the '00s.
Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Jimmy Johnson and Spooner Oldham are all based in the Muscle Shoals area. Johnson still does production work, and Hood and Oldham remain active as musicians.
Rodney Hall: I think that there's a soul here just hovering around. It's hard to explain. But it's a small town and we're all kind of knit together, kind of a family type situation. Not just here at FAME, but I'm talking about David Hood and all those guys. I consider them my musical family. We work together and back each other up. And I think that this area, the reason it's been so musically blessed is that back in the '50s, '60s, even '70s, there was very little to do here. It was a dry county and there weren't any clubs, there weren't any restaurants. So there was nothing to do except sit around on your front porch with your family and your friends and play music. That's been handed down through the years, and it still exists today, as a matter of fact.
June 16, 2012
Additional reporting by Nicholas Tozier
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