Trains and rivers run through America like blood brooding through the veins of a thoroughbred. There are few things more magical to a working man than looking down that track at a crossing, seeing the long gleam of sunlight glinting on metal stretching a ribbon far away from where you are, or where you’re going. And there is a special quality of light and sound in the early morning on a river laughing at a boy wishing to divine its secrets and catch a fish. You put trains and rivers together and boy you’ve got something.
Before I was wheels up I was a kid growing up on the Connecticut River just north of Hartford. Our house was about 4 miles, a short bike ride, from the spot near the train trestle over the river where I spent weekend mornings with a Boy Scout buddy fish hunting. I always found structures like train trestles interesting because they were designed to work with nature, to allow a human invention like a train cross an obstacle created for a similar purpose. Trains were created to move goods and people long distances. Rivers were created to move water long distances. That these two forces could work together without seriously interfering with each other makes a boy wonder.
These tracks carried some commuter traffic but mostly were used by long, long freight trains. There were moments when you were lucky enough to be in that spot when one of these belching beasts came along and spilled that wonderful noise over the singing river, completely dominating the morning for a spell then fading into the distance, returning you to the sound of the waiting cicadas, rushing water and the wind rustling the weeds. The fish shared my love for the place and were in plenty in that spot where the pylons supporting the trestle slowed the river in small eddies. We all paused as the train broke the afternoon, then we went back to the thrust and parry of the hunt.
Muscle Shoals is a place like that that, but with a deeper spell. The Shoals rest in Northwestern Alabama on the Tennessee River in a place the early Natives, the Cherokee and the Yuchi, called The River That Sings. The Yuchi believed a young woman resided in the river and sang them songs. In 1839 the US Army moved the Yuchi from the Shoals to a reservation near Muskogee Oklahoma where there were no singing rivers. A tribal elder, a woman who was a leader in the singing and rituals of the tribe, could not find any waters like the Tennessee that could support their songs and the tribe became a fractured waste. This she could not stand, so she walked back to the Shoals. Walked. Took her 5 years.
By the early 1960’s there were R&B musical centers in the country creating their sound and turning out records. There was New York, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals. All were large metropolitan areas with large culturally diverse populations to draw talent from and sell records to. All except Muscle Shoals, that in 1960 had about 5000 black and white people sharecropping cotton, working at the Ford plant outside town or in the stores and markets. But the river was still there, still singing, and one of the locals that heard that singing was Rick Hall.
Hall grew up the son of sharecroppers, his father also working in a local saw mill. They lived in a hut in the woods with a dirt floor, no internal plumbing, sleeping on straw they cut from the fields. No neighbors, and in Hall’s words no kids to play with. He would say they lived like animals. When he was young his mother got fed up and moved out, moving to the big city. Through family they later learned she made her living in the red light district. This was a profound moment in the young boy’s life and he determined to not follow this pattern, became obsessed with making something of himself. What was available to him was music.
A relative gave him a mandolin, and he later acquired a guitar. Teaching himself, by the time he was in high school he was playing in a band in the area. Hall wrote songs and started meeting people in the business. In 1959 he and a sax player buddy Billy Sherrill were hired by a promoter named Tom Stafford to start a publishing company/recording studio in Florence named the Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, or FAME. The relationship only lasted a year, and in 1960 Sherrill and Stafford fired Hall because he was too driven, a hard taskmaster in the studio and inflexible in his vision. But Hall left with the rights to the name.
Hall returned to the Shoals, married, worked in a local factory and continued playing in bands. In 1961 his wife was killed in a car accident and his father died within two weeks of that. Hall retreated into the bottle but continued with his music, writing songs and playing in bands.
He was exposed to a cross section of music with black artists in the area drawing from country music and the white musicians listening to the black R&B happening at the time. Here is a story that was not unique to Muscle Shoals; this confluence of styles was happening all across the country but it developed in a distinctly different way in the Shoals, and Hall was knee deep in it.
In 1961 he set up a makeshift studio in a converted tobacco barn and recorded a local kid named Arthur Alexander and a song titled “You Better Move On”, using the musicians from his band on the track.
Within a year the song became a major hit, licensed to Dot Records, and later recorded by the Rolling Stones. The Beatles used another FAME produced Arthur Alexander song “Anna”. Suddenly Rick Hall had the money to finance the building of a proper studio on Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals, the FAME recording studio. Hall again hired his musician buddies and recorded another local named Jimmy Hughes. Hall himself recalled the session, saying he called they were rolling, sat and listened to the sound, and wept. His words. It was “Steal Away”. Hall had his sound.
There was this local kid picking cotton as a boy, singing in the fields, who got a job in a hospital in Sheffield AL as an orderly. He loved singing to the patients as they tried to sleep. He was good. He got hired for an Elks Club gig and a local DJ heard him. This, ladies and gents, is how shit happens. The DJ brought Percy Sledge to Rick Hall’s studio to record “When A Man Loves A Woman”.
Hall knew what he had. He’d met a NY producer through his contacts who had told him if he ever had a hit to call him. Probably just to blow him off. Hall called Jerry Wexler with that song and everybody made SO much money.
Wexler at the time had a problem. One of his clients was a young black singer from Detroit signed to CBS Records, who had no idea what they were doing with her, and mired in the closet collection of collusion that still lays turds on our cultural landscape. Aretha was with CBS records and going nowhere. Wexler waited until CBS dropped her (!!!) and signed her up to Atlantic. He called Hall and proposed they bring Aretha Franklin down to Muscle Shoals.
Now. Here comes a girl, a black girl from Detroit, to a small, I mean small mean town. They could have paved the entire town for less than a truck load of Moon Pies. Hall had lost the original band to NY after the hits they’d done, so he hired a bunch of kids just out of the local high school who were thrilled to work for anything that would keep them out of the factory.
Franklin and Wexler walked into this studio in the deep south. Cotton fields within sight of the front door and a white boy scout troop in the studio looking small for their instruments.
Interviews with the band describe an Aretha nervous, aloof, unsure of herself and the surroundings. She had a song, and played it for the band, but it was halting and thin. The musicians, all in their teens, were feeling their youth but knew shit when they heard it. Wexler was perplexed because he was accustomed to sessions where all the musicians had charts. You did a few takes, recorded, then went to 21. But these guys weren’t those guys. These kids had to hear the river.
All the musicians caught the bad vibe and were stalled. This was how they worked. You wait for the belching beast to cross the river, and this time it didn’t. Aretha was noodling on the piano and folks were ready for the tombstone when Spooner Oldham on keys sets the three feel free. I think that this thing, this waiting for something to happen and then all guys get it, is the essential element of the Muscle Shoals sound. As soon as Spooner swept the keys, everyone, including Aretha, flew.
Can you imagine sitting in the booth listening to that. As the French would say, sheksder flinginhaben! Aretha still credits those sessions as the turning point in her career. Yep.
Of the many credits to Hall was he was a boy from Alabama and color blind. In the mid sixties this was not a popular position, and the record companies were shit blind idiots. Wait. That hasn’t changed. Anyway Hall just used musicians and recorded what crossed his bridge. Jerry Wexler had a deal with CBS and Stax Records and was told they wouldn’t deal with the racial fallout. So Jerry called Rick Hall and asked if he could bring a client named Wilson Pickett to Muscle Shoals. Sure. Yeah, OK. One of the songs recorded there was Pickett’s cover of “Mustang Sally.”
Pickett bounced back to Memphis studios for a spell, but when he was recording again in Muscle Shoals, a long hair guitar player, who had been following the crazy beautiful sound coming from Muscle Shoals, had just came back South from a horrible experience in an LA . He was enamored with the Shoals sound and wanted so bad to be a part of it he pitched a tent outside the parking lot of FAME and waited for an opportunity, any way he could be a part of what he’d been hearing. Remember. I said lived in a tent and waited.
Rick Hall was not aghast at using good musicians who would work for scale. So the tent hippie joined sessions and played backup. As Jimmy Johnson, the Swampers guitar player described, “This guy could really play. I was in awe. But it was a hard time in Alabama. You might be able to go to lunch at Woolworth’s with a black guy, but you go with a black guy and a guy with long hair and that could be a problem”.
So during a session the cracker barrel boys went to lunch and Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett stayed in the studio. Duane showed Wilson an arrangement Duane thought would lay right for Pickett. When the boys got back from lunch they were surprised to be recording a Beatles song.
A goat had been let out of the pen.
Musicians everywhere wanted a taste of the river flowing through Muscle Shoals. The Stones recorded “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” in the Shoals. After the Staples Singers recorded “I’ll Take You There” at the Muscle Shoals studio Paul Simon told his manager he wanted to use ‘those black guys’ on that recording. He was told he had to go to Muscle Shoals to make that happen, and after finding out how pale these guys were recorded “Kodachrome” and “Still Crazy After All These Years”. The list of artists and groups that HAD to go to Muscle Shoals to get that sound is a roll call to radiance. Every artist that went there, for one reason or another, testified that there was something special, unique and ethereal about the place that created the atmosphere that permeated the trees, the gardens, the studios, and the people.
It’s the river. Rick Hall, who lived it, loved it, hated it and in ways defined it, passed away January 2 2018. You were a tough old broad Rick. But that passion to prove you weren’t a sharecropper brought us gold. Thank you sir.