Hitmaking funk studio celebrated in rousing music doc ‘Muscle Shoals’
Musical heroes don’t come much more unsung than the so-called Muscle Shoals Swampers. A handful of young, white hometown boys, session musicians at the FAME recording studio in backwoods Muscle Shoals, Ala., they were responsible for laying down some of the funkiest R&B and soul tracks to come out of the 1960s and ‘70s, behind such stellar artists as Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett. Pretty much unknown to the public, they finally get the recognition they deserve in Muscle Shoals, Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s raucous musical documentary on the founding of FAME studio and the distinctive brand of funk produced there.
Early on, the question is posed, “How could so much work come out of such a nondescript little town?” Muscle Shoals is a rural village on the Alabama side of the Tennessee River, which the Native American people called “the river that sings,” believing it inhabited by a singing woman who protected them. Bono of U2, observing there’s always a river involved in musical movements, like the Tennessee or the Mersey in Liverpool, has a more visceral idea: “It’s like the songs come out of the mud.”
But the chief architect of the Muscle Shoals sound turns out to be Rick Hall, founder of the FAME studio. The son of a dirt-poor sawmiller who grew up without plumbing, sleeping on a straw mattress, Hall suffered more than his share of loss and tragedy. But after an emotional tailspin (during which he says he was “a drunk, a vagabond, and a tramp”), the onetime guitarist in a local rock band decided to make it in the music business. He started FAME Publishing, which soon segued into a recording space. Among the first records he produced were the classic “Steal Away” by Jimmy Hughes, and the Arthur Alexander hit, “You Better Move On.”
To cut these records, Hall called in the other guys from his previous band for back-up. With guitar, bass, drums, and a vibrato-heavy electric organ, they became the in-house rhythm section behind such iconic hits as Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” Aretha’s blistering “I Ain’t Never Loved A Man” (her first break-out record after four years singing bland pop tunes for another label), and Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Mustang Sally.” It’s not like they planned the style; the singer would start noodling around and the band would just pick up the vibe. “All ‘funky’ was, we didn’t know how to play it smooth,” laughs one.
What started out as a home-grown operation built on local talent (Alexander was a local bellhop; Sledge was a hospital orderly) became a Mecca for artists searching for that distinctive groove, from Etta James to The Rolling Stones (who cut “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” there), from Clarence Carter and Bob Seger to Jimmy Cliff, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Paul Simon. Duane Allman pitched a tent in the FAME parking lot until he got a job there; the Swampers (so named by frequent FAME visitor Leon Russell) went on tour with Traffic.
Camalier also touches on the grit of Hall and his crew recording black artists (let alone going out to eat with them) in the George Wallace era, Hall’s brief partnership and ultimate rift with powerhouse Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler, and the departure of the original Swampers to start their own studio across the road. (Hall recruited a new group of local musicians and kept on keepin’ on.)
This film isn’t quite as transcendent as 20 Feet From Stardom; no one in Muscle Shoals has quite the same irresistible allure as the sassy lady back-up singers coming into their own in that film. And Camalier makes a few minor missteps on the way. Dates are rarely mentioned, so unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of the year certain songs were released, you have to guess at the timeline from clothes and hairstyles. And the finale, a staged reunion between three remaining Swampers and producer Hall to cut a gospel song with Alicia Keys, feels tacked-on and superfluous.
But music is the message here, accompanied by lots of juicy backstage footage of the artists at work. Get your funk on and enjoy.
MUSCLE SHOALS ★ ★ ★1/2 (out of four) With Rick Hall, Jerry Wexler, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, and Mick Jagger. A film by Greg “Freddy” Camalier. A Magnolia release. Rated PG. 111 minutes.