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Story of Muscle Shoals: A passionate mix of music, race and pop culture magic

I watched a documentary of this on "Independent Lens", titled Muscle Shoals.  I would highly recommend it for anyone who is big into music of the last 40 years.  The film was at Sundance this year, and is available on Netflix.

Story of Muscle Shoals: A study in music, race and pop magic -

Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Etta James’ “Tell Mama,” Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way Love You,” the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” – they were all recorded there by a strange and driven record producer named Rick Hall. 

And most of the principal players are in this film talking about the sessions, usually accompanied by videos of the sessions themselves. Where did they find some of those videos? It’s amazing stuff.

Just the present-day interviews are mind blowing. There’s Sledge talking about how he approached his first recording session ever, the one that resulted in “When a Man Loves a Woman,” just as he did when he sang in the field while picking cotton.

Meanwhile, the engineer of the session recounts how he had to keep wildly adjusting the volume on the board to try and get an acceptable level for what turned out to be one of the great R&B ballads of all time.

And there’s Gregg Allman remembering how his late brother, Duane, talked Pickett into covering the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” during a lunch break in a recording session that found Duane playing backup for the most widely known R&B singer the era this side of Otis Redding. Pickett and Allman had stayed back while everyone else went into town because they didn’t like the looks they got from regulars at the restaurants in the small Alabama town.

Wait until you hear the tape of that recording of “Hey Jude” and the unbelievable, soaring, fluid guitar fills played by Duane Allman. And that’s followed by one of the Swampers describing Duane Allman’s guitar work on “Hey Jude” as the birth of Southern Rock.

Who are the Swampers?

That’s one of the most remarkable story lines in this film, which is packed with them. 

The Swampers were the studio band Hall put together at his FAME Studios. Four young white guys from rural Alabama who had worked in rock bands that played frat parties at the University of Alabama, as well as sock hops and square dances in around Muscle Shoals.

Barry Beckett (keyboards), David Hood (bass), Roger Hawkins (drums) and Jimmy Johnson (guitar) – they are the players on so many of the funkiest R&B hits of the 1960s and ‘70s. They are all over the film playing, talking performing on video of sessions filmed in the 1960s.

“We just didn’t expect them to be as funky as greasy (pronounced greezy) as they were,” Aretha Franklin says in the film.

Jerry Wexler, the legendary Atlantic Records producer who signed Franklin after CBS Records dropped her, fell in love with the Swampers, particularly Hawkins’ drumming, and brought many of his major singers down from New York to record – until a racial incident during a session involving Franklin’s African-American husband and a white trumpet player wound up later that night with Hall and the singer’s husband trying to throw each other the fourth floor balcony of a nearby motel.

The story of the Swampers, with the complexities of race and music that it explores, is in its own right worth two hours of anyone’s time.

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