Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Visit To "Muscle Shoals"

The best stories, whether they’re fact-based or fictional, give you a real sense of place & time. In the case of the fascinating music documentary, Muscle Shoals, which was originally released in 2013. The film gives us an in-depth look at the Alabama town where two well-regarded studios have given us classic music by Percy Sledge, The Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Arthur Alexander and many others. It’s also the story of producer Rick Hall, a fascinating man who survived quite a bit of personal tragedy and went on to open the celebrated FAME studios. Hall is a determined, driven man, who changed the shape of his destiny & the lives of many others. He gathered a talented crew of studio musicians that came to be known as the Swampers, who became the backbone of the “Muscle Shoals sound.”

For many of those interviewed in the film, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Steve Winwood & reggae icon Jimmy Cliff, the town & its atmosphere have as much to do with the sounds they recorded there as the music itself. They all talk about the special energy of the place, and how being there affected them. Many artists found that the trajectory of their careers were changed by recording in Muscle Shoals, including Aretha Franklin, who was having trouble finding a sound on record that matched the intensity of her live shows. Until she headed to Muscle Shoals, and did a session with the Swampers for the song “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You),” and her career changed forever. That’s just one of the classic tunes that were recorded at FAME studios.

Another interesting fact brought out by the film is that many people thought the Swampers were black, due to the funky, R&B laced grooves they were creating; in fact, they were mostly white. But they were playing & recording with many black artists at a time when the civil rights movement was at its height. Hall points out that there were no color lines in the studio, and everyone got along with each other. The Swampers became one of the most in demand backing groups in the business, even attracting the attention of Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, who eventually brought them to LA to play on some sessions there.

That success caused a rift with Hall, and the Swampers eventually broke off and founded their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. They became just as successful in their own right, and the town found it had two studios producing memorable music by Paul Simon, The Staple Singers, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan & many others. The film is filled with excellent performance clips, and that footage coupled with the behind the scenes stories really make the movie worth viewing. There’s also some interesting background about of Lynyrd Skynyrd, who made some of their first recordings in Muscle Shoals, and even mention the Swampers in their song “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Muscle Shoals is about a remarkable town, an amazing group of people and the wonderful music they made. The story of Rick Hall, the Swampers & the music that sprang from this celebrated place is essential viewing for rock & roll fans. The film was produced & directed by Greg 'Freddy' Camalier. Along with Standing In The Shadows of Motown (2002) and 20 Feet From Stardom (2013) this is one of the best documentaries about the people “behind the music” I've seen. The movie is now available on DVD, Blu-ray & for online viewing at various sites, including Netflix. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UDe4JrFAIQ.

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