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Southern Music Magic, Skydog, Wicked Wilson, and Everlasting Fame

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At different points of time, on this planet, there are certain places, where, there is a field of energy.
-Jimmy Cliff (From movie trailer Muscle Shoals)

You’re in rock ‘n’ roll heaven, there.
-Keith Richards (On recording at Fame Studios)

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two
 Lynyrd Skynyrd “Sweet Home Alabama”

How does Duane Allman aka “Skydog” fit into this blog? Well, if it wasn’t for Rick Hall, Wilson Pickett, Fame Studios, and the Beatles, there most likely would have never been Southern Rock, or the Allman Brothers Band. But more about all that later.

Sam Phillips, Rick Hall and The Singing River

Fame (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios, were originally founded in Florence, Alabama by a son of a sharecropper named Rick Hall, it later moved to various unremarkable studios and small towns, but the sound that was produced there in Northwest Alabama is known universally as the Muscle Shoals sound. 

Producer Sam Phillips, the gentleman who discovered Elvis and and built Sun records was originally from Florence, Alabama, and was an early mentor of Hall’s, offering much encouragement and direction.

During a 2015 interview with The New York Times, Hall recalled those early days. “We would sit up and talk until 2 o’clock in the morning and Sam would tell me, ‘Rick, don’t go to Nashville, because they’ll eat your soul alive.’ I wanted to be like Sam — I wanted to be somebody special.”

Nearby these Fame studios was the Tennessee River, also known by the local Native Americans serendipitously as the “Singing River.” The house band, which was to become legend to musicians all over the world, was the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, The Swampers.

Queen of Soul

In early 1967, a young singer named Aretha Franklin arrived in the small Alabama town of Muscle Shoals and Fame Studios – up to that point her career was one of unfilled potential. At the age of 25 Franklin was already a music veteran; she had recorded nine albums, none of which had showcased her true, transcendent talent.

Here’s Mick Brown of England’s Telegraph on the fateful session;
“Over the course of just a few hours, in a studio where she had never worked before, with musicians whom she had met for the first time that day, Franklin would record not only the most important song in her career, but one of the greatest songs in the history of pop music, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. What made this record all the more remarkable was that the backing musicians who provided the soulful and unmistakably black sound were in fact white – country boys who had grown up in the 1950s and 1960s in what at that time was the most racially troubled state in America.”  

Because of a misunderstanding between Franklin’s husband and a horn player, Aretha recorded only one song there. But it would go to the top of the charts around the world, and made her the unchallenged Queen of Soul.

Musical Mecca 

What was it that drew so many to find and capture the volcanic sound that was literally pouring out of the walls way down there?

In the Golden Age of this period (1962-72) Muscle Shoals and Fame Studios became a musical Mecca, the epicenter of a generational harvest of blues, rock and soul music. A wellspring of varying sounds from a diverse a group of a
rtists that ever strode the planet. They were all seeking some of the aura of a region that produced the grittiest and best soul music of the era.

Time and space does not permit me to specifically list all the game-changing sounds that were made in these tiny towns in Northwest Alabama, so I’ll follow with a list. For a real immersion into this incredible story, see this fabulous documentary Muscle Shoals, ASAP. (By the way, the movie has inspired a spanking new TV series, Muscle Shoals with rock icon Anne Wilson of Heart as executive producer.)

Herewith a list of some of the singers and musicians who contributed to the legend of the Muscle Shoals Sound: Aretha FranklinWilson Pickett, Bob DylanThe Rolling StonesPaul SimonElton John,  Etta JamesPercy Sledge, Clarence CarterArthur ConleyArthur AlexanderBob SeegerCherLynyrd SkynyrdDuane Allman Jimmy CliffRod Stewart and the Black Keysto name perhaps the most famous.

​There also influential songwriters and producers like Spooner OldhamDan Penn, and Jimmy Johnson.

 Wild Horses Couldn’t Keep Them Away

​Musical savants like The Rollings Stones were keenly aware of what was going on with the Muscle Shoals Sound. So it’s no surprise also they also heard its siren call beckoning them across the Atlantic Ocean.

The rebellious rockers went to Alabama in December 1969 and recorded three songs that fully incapsulated the country, blues and R&B sound of the region.  From Dec. 2-4 — the Stones put down the basic tracks and live vocals on “Brown Sugar, “Wild Horses” and You Gotta Move” at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Ala. Stones producer Jimmy Miller couldn’t make the sessions, so Fame studio producer Jimmy Johnson filled in as engineer and producer for the seminal recordings.

​On Dec 3, the band cut “Brown Sugar,” written primarily by Mick Jagger. “The lyric was all to do with the dual combination of drugs and girls,” the singer said in the liner notes of the Jump Back LP. “This song was a very instant thing, a definite high point.”

Richards added, “We knew we had one of the best things we’d ever done.”

“Being there (Muscle Shoals) does inspire you to do it slightly differently,” said Jagger.

“I thought it was one of the easiest and rockingest sessions that we’d ever done,” said Richards. 

Those sessions were as vital to me as any I’ve ever done. I mean, all the other stuff – Beggars Banquet and other stuff we did: “Gimme Shelter,’ ‘Street Fighting Man,’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ you know?” he concluded. “But I’ve always wondered … that if we had cut them at Muscle Shoals, if they might not have been a little bit funkier.”

A Crash Course at The Big House

During a visit to Charleston, S.C. once, my wife and I decided to make our drive back to Florida a bit more of an adventure, so we decided to visit a place we had read was truly exceptional; Big House, also known as the Allman Brothers Museum, in Macon, Georgia.

It was indeed an enchanted place. The museum is a beautifully refurbished rambling house on 2321 Vineville Avenue, close to Mercer University.  In various reincarnations it housed the Allman Brothers and was also a Bed & Breakfast before becoming the Big House.

We soon meet four other pilgrims who stopped by the Big House on their way to meet their families for a summer vacation. It was soon revealed that all of us had seen the Allmans in concert and we began to swap stories of our experiences.  Soon after those exchanges a bespectacled young man with dark wavy hair appeared seemly out of nowhere. He told us he had been eavesdropping on our rather animated conversation and decided he just had to ask if we would be interested in seeing a video of perhaps the most important 8 minutes in Southern Rock history. Well, “hell yes” we all chimed in!
The young man, who was in his mid 30s it turns out, was the museum curator, and of course was a true disciple of both the Allmans and rock ‘n’ roll. He quickly adjusted the several monitors in the main hallway to play the aforementioned video. It turns out it was a brief segment from a broadcast of a CMT series that featured important moments and characters of Southern music history. This particular episode featured interviews with Wilson Pickett, Gregg Allman, Rick Hall, and producer Jimmy Johnson talking about their various experiences with some of the greatest musicians to ever set foot in a studio. Here’s how it went down.

Jimmy Johnson:
“There was always a slight problem when we would go out, (in Northwest Alabama) all of us white boys with a black artist, that we’d get looks, okay? But there was nothing as bad as going out with a long-haired hippie with us white boys. They couldn’t stand that, right? And so both of them stayed back.”

Gregg Allman:
“So, they went on lunch break and my brother went up to Wilson and he said, “Uh, “Man, why don’t you cut ‘Hey Jude’, you know, that Beatles song?”

Wilson Pickett:
“And at that point, I was mostly trying to create an original career for Wilson Pickett, right? My songs.”

Rick Hall:
“Pickett and I, in unison, both said “Look, are you crazy? We’re gonna cover the Beatles?” And, of course, Duane said “Exactly.”

Jimmy Johnson:
“While we were gone, Duane changed our whole session. When you get to the vamp, it goes into just an unbelievable groove. Duane Allman was playing such great guitar fills that something happened in that vamp. And all of a sudden, there was southern rock. That was the beginnings of the Allman Brother Band.​”

Soon after hearing this Beatles cover song for the first time,  Phil Walden, founder of Capicorn records, called Rick and pleaded with him to hold whoever was the guitar player at the studio. Mr. Hall did, and soon the universe began to spin in a different direction.

One could also say some cat named Eric Clapton was impressed: “To this day, I’ve never heard better rock guitar playing on an R & B record. It’s simply the best.”

Of course Duane and Eric would go onto to play together on one of the best LPs ever set to Vinyl, Layla.

What was the impact on our culture of this man named Rick Hall and his magical studios in the backwoods of Alabama?

Rick Hall and his family gave me my first job in the music business, and nobody in the industry ever worked harder than Rick. Nobody. American music wouldn’t be the same without his contributions.
-Jason Isbell (Co-Founder Drive By Truckers)

R.I.P. Rick Hall (1932-2018)