‘Muscle Shoals’: How White Musicians Changed the Musical Landscape, Crossing Racial Boundaries

Water. Is there magic in water? Is there magic in the singing Tennessee River near the small town of Muscle Shoals? This documentary looks how white musicians in a small Alabama town became the band that changed the musical landscape and brought America southern soul music with the Muscle Shoals sound produced by The Swampers.

This documentary begins with water, drops hitting a stone, small waves lapping on a rock shore.

“Magic is the world that comes to mind when I think of Muscle Shoals. It’s about alchemy; it’s about turning metal, the iron in the ground, the rust into gold ,” Bono tells us.  “You’re going to listen to the greatest voices that ever were.” He later comments, “It’s like the sound came out of the mud.”

To take us back, the soundtrack gives reminds us of a time when the popular dances included the Pony, the Bony Moronie, the Mash Potato, the Alligator and the Watusi. That would be Wilson Pickett and “Land of 1000 Dances.” Although that song was first recorded by its writer Chris Kenner in 1963, the best-known version is Pickett’s 1966 recording done during his first sessions at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

While Pickett supplied the vocals, Chips Moman and Jimmy Johnson were on guitar, Spooner Oldham on keyboard, Roger Hawkins on drums, Junior Lowe on bass, Charlie Chalmers and Andrew Love on tenor sax, Wayne Jackson on trumpet and Floyd Newman on baritone sax.

Yet it was the Jimmy Hughes 1964 “Steal Away” that signaled the birth of the Muscle Shoals sound.

In this documentary, director Greg “Freddy” Camalier tells us something about what makes Muscle Shoals special. This is the place that Helen Keller lived and first learned the word water. Long before that it was a special place for the Native Americans, the Euchee (also Yuchi). One man, Tom Hendrix,  recounts how his great, great grandmother was taken from these shores and forced to live in what is now Muskogee, OK where the Native Americans, “They couldn’t sing; they couldn’t dance; they couldn’t hold ceremonies.” The man’s great, great grandmother walked back on a journey that took her roughly five years.  In her memory for over 30 years,  Tom Hendrix built a stone wall he calls Ishatea.

Although the area first belonged to the Native Americans, it was dominated by the white population. Racism was an issue outside of the music studios and the musicians and the singers couldn’t necessarily dine together.

The man behind the Muscle Shoals sound was Rick Hall, a white man who grew up bitterly poor, but desperately determined to make something of his life. While some of the musicians feel they weren’t great players individually, they were great players together.

In 1966, Hall helped license Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” to Atlanta Records.  “I used to call them my family,”  Percy Sledge recalls.

Hall wasn’t always easy to get along with. An argument with Aretha Franklin’s husband resulted in a physical altercation with her husband Ted White in 1967.  Yet Hall produced Etta James.


Eventually, four musicians decided to move on, leaving FAME Studios for form their own studio, something Hall viewed as a betrayal.

The foursome–Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, Jimmy Johnson on guitar and David Hood on bass–formed the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama in 1969. They were the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, but also know as the Swampers.

Beckett (1943-2009) recorded with Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Duane Allman and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The other three are  still alive.

Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the acts that was ahead of their time. Hall eventually turned to mainstream pop and produced singers like Donny Osmond. In 1971 Billboard named him Producer of the Year.

A lot of famous names appear to give their opinions including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Clarence Carter, Etta James and Alicia Keys.

This documentary gives an interesting perspective on how the integration and infiltration of black singers into the mainstream required a white man who appreciated black music and black musicians who could see beyond black and white. You’ll never be able to listen to “Sweet Home, Alabama” again without thinking about Hall and the men (and women) of Muscle Shoals and the famous artists who went there to record.

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