Immerse yourself in the Muscle Shoals Sound in northwest Alabama

This small building by the side of the highway in Sheffield, Ala., is the home of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where some of the biggest names in music recorded hits in the 1960s and ’70s. CONTRIBUTED BY ART MERIPOL / ALABAMA TOURISM DEPARTMENT
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This small building by the side of the highway in Sheffield, Ala., is the home of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where some of the biggest names in music recorded hits in the 1960s and ’70s. CONTRIBUTED BY ART MERIPOL / ALABAMA TOURISM DEPARTMENT

World-famous studios and festivals make this a music mecca

MUSCLE SHOALS, ALABAMA — Los Angeles, New York, Nashville. Those are cities where you would expect the world’s most influential musicians to record. But since the 1960s, many have quietly bucked the trend, recording some of their best work in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The small town tucked into the northwest corner of the state has far fewer distractions than big cities, and artists quickly discover there’s not much to do except focus on their music.

The first stop for visitors is FAME Studios, founded in 1959 by the late legendary record producer Rick Hall, known as the “Father of Muscle Shoals Music.” Originally established in Florence, Alabama, the studio’s name is an acronym for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises. But it relocated 8 miles away, across the Tennessee River, to Muscle Shoals in 1961.

Hall is the architect of the distinctive Muscle Shoals Sound, rooted in blues, soul, R&B and country. The sound was largely driven by the talented Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a group of session players nicknamed the Swampers.

Studio President Rodney Hall, son of founder Rick Hall, at work at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. 
Courtesy of Wesley K.H. Teo
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Studio President Rodney Hall, son of founder Rick Hall, at work at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Courtesy of Wesley K.H. Teo

Credit: Wesley K.H. Teo

Credit: Wesley K.H. Teo

Hall’s rise from grinding poverty to self-made music industry titan is a classic American rags-to-riches story. He grew up in rural northern Alabama where his father was a sharecropper. His mother left when he was 5. The following year, Hall’s father gave him a mandolin that sparked a love of music. He went on to learn the guitar and fiddle, and by the mid-1950s, he was writing music and playing with a band called the Country Pals on a radio show.

Mentored by Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records and Sun Studio in Memphis, Hall was inspired to open his own studio. FAME’s reputation grew, and in the ’60s and ’70s, it was a recording mecca for R&B and soul singers such as Clarence Carter, Etta James, Wilson Pickett and the Staple Singers.

Hall had a deep appreciation for “Black music.” Getting Black artists to travel to racially segregated Alabama in the ’60s, the height of the civil rights movement, wasn’t always easy, but sometimes those who did saw their record sales soar.

Pickett, for instance, was uneasy about traveling South, but if he hadn’t, some his most iconic songs like “Mustang Sally” and the party-starter “Land of 1000 Dances,” both released in 1966, may not have been hits. In 1968, he recorded a version of “Hey Jude” in Studio A featuring Duane Allman’s fiery guitar licks, marking the dawn of Southern rock.

The entryway to FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where some of the biggest hits in rock and soul history were recorded. (Ralph Daily)
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The entryway to FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where some of the biggest hits in rock and soul history were recorded. (Ralph Daily)

Today, Studio A looks much as it did then. The original Wurlitzer electric piano stands in the corner, and a Danelectro baritone guitar waits for a player. The center of the room is a maze of music stands and microphones.

Several FAME instruments represent pivotal moments in 20th-century music, like the Apollo baby grand piano in the new VIP room that was played by Aretha Franklin on her first chart-topping single, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You).”

In 1967, legendary record producer Jerry Wexler brought Franklin, then an unknown 24-year-old singer, to FAME. She and the Swampers clicked in Studio A, and the music came together smoothly, but behind the scenes, a storm was brewing.

Ted White, Franklin’s manager and husband, had been drinking. He demanded that Hall fire band members he thought were flirting with his wife. The atmosphere became so tense that halfway through recording “Do Right Woman Do Right Man,” the session was cancelled.

After a shot or two of courage, Hall went to White’s hotel room hoping to work things out, but the situation devolved into a drunken brawl, and by the end of the day, Hall had made enemies not only with White, but Wexler.

From the rubble of that alcohol-fueled session and an aftermath fraught with bitterness and contempt emerged Franklin’s soul-stirring first hit album, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You),” galvanizing the career of the woman that would one day be revered as the Queen of Soul.

The whole story is dramatized in the Franklin biopic, “Respect,” starring Jennifer Hudson, opening in theaters Aug. 13.

A roster of musical royalty recorded at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield. Contributed by Art Meripol
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A roster of musical royalty recorded at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield. Contributed by Art Meripol

Fortunately, most of the recording sessions that took place at FAME were far less dramatic.

A general admission tour of Studios A and B reveals how a blend of state-of-the-art technology and low-tech, vintage equipment produces that funky, one-of-a-kind Muscle Shoals Sound. A new VIP Backstage Tour provides access to previously off-limits areas of the studio, including Hall’s office and the publishing office teeming with hundreds of music awards. Studio president Rodney Hall, Rick Hall’s son, says it “dives into more of my dad’s life.”

FAME Studios is a microcosm of America’s musical history, but it’s no dusty museum. It’s still very much a working studio where contemporary artists including Jason Isbell, Alicia Keys and Bob Dylan come to record.

But FAME isn’t the only game around. Three miles away in the town of Sheffield, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio reveals another chapter in the region’s music history. When the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (bassist David Hood, keyboardist Barry Beckett, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and drummer Roger Hawkins) defected from FAME to produce their own music, they started the studio in 1969 with a loan from Wexler.

It’s hard to believe some of the most iconic pop, rock and country songs of the 20th century sprung from this unassuming, concrete block building. It looks just as it did in 1969 when Cher put it on the cover of her album “3614 Jackson Highway,” named after the studio’s address.

Duane Allman (right) meets and jams with future Allman Brothers Band members Berry Oakley (left) and Jaimoe Johanson (center) (at FAME Studios in 1968 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. (Photo by House Of Fame LLC/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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Duane Allman (right) meets and jams with future Allman Brothers Band members Berry Oakley (left) and Jaimoe Johanson (center) (at FAME Studios in 1968 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. (Photo by House Of Fame LLC/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Credit: House Of Fame LLC

Credit: House Of Fame LLC

Inside, tour guide Chase Brandon showcases the piano Paul Simon played on his 1973 hit, “Kodachrome.” He holds up the Rolling Stones’ 1971 “Sticky Fingers” album that features a provocative close-up of a zippered blue jean crotch on the cover and talks about the night the British rockers came to town.

“They were in the middle of their U.S. tour (in 1969), but they had a few nights off, and they were itching to record somewhere in the South,” Brandon said. “Jerry (Wexler) told them to go to Muscle Shoals. They were fans of the Muscle Shoals Sound.”

The band recorded three songs — “Brown Sugar,” the album’s opening track that shot to the top of the charts; “Wild Horses,” the sorrowful ballad Keith Richards supposedly wrote in “the loo”; and the haunting blues song, “You Gotta Move.”

“Sticky Fingers” ended up being the Rolling Stones’ best-selling album of all time.

Like FAME, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio is a working studio. Contemporary musicians such as Chris Stapleton continue to come to this out-of-the-way town on the banks of the Tennessee River, hoping to capture a little of that Muscle Shoals magic.

Live musical performances take place at a variety of venues during the 40th annual W.C. Handy Festival July 32-Aug. 1. Contributed by Alabama Department of Tourism
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Live musical performances take place at a variety of venues during the 40th annual W.C. Handy Festival July 32-Aug. 1. Contributed by Alabama Department of Tourism

No trip to Muscle Shoals is complete without hearing some live music. There are a number of bars in Florence that offer entertainment most nights, including On the Rocks and Swampers Bar and Grill at the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa.

Florence also hosts a couple of music festivals. The 40th annual W.C. Handy Music Festival runs July 23-Aug. 1 and features a variety of events including the Handy Street Party (5 p.m. July 24, in front of Wingery and Records at 105 S. Poplar St.) and the Street Strut and Parade (10 a.m. July 31, beginning at Wilson Park).

The Shoals Southern Soul Music Festival will be held at McFarland Park (200 Jim Spain Drive) Aug. 14.

Whatever you do, don’t miss the opportunity to hear a contemporary take on the Muscle Shoals Sound.

IF YOU GO

Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is 250 miles northwest of Atlanta.

Sights

FAME Studios. $15 general admission, $30 VIP Backstage Tour. 603 E. Avalon Ave., Muscle Shoals, Alabama. 256-381-0801, www.famestudios.com

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. $15. 3614 Jackson Highway, Sheffield, Alabama. 256-978-5151, www.muscleshoalssoundstudio.org

Alabama Music Hall of Fame. $10-$12. 617 Highway 72 W., Tuscumbia, Alabama. 256-381-4417, www.alamhof.org

Entertainment

Swampers Bar and Grill. Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. 10 Hightower Place, Florence, Alabama. 256-246-3662, www.marriott.com/mslmc

On the Rocks. American-style pub featuring live music most evenings. 110 N. Court St., Florence, Alabama. 256-760-2212, www.florenceontherocks.com

Events

W.C. Handy Music Festival. July 23-Aug. 1. Various venues. 256-766-7642, www.wchandymusicfestival.com

Shoals Southern Soul Music Festival. $45-$65. Aug. 14. McFarland Park, 200 Jim Spain Drive, Florence, Alabama. 256-740-4141. www.visitflorenceal.com

Stay

GunRunner Boutique Hotel. Trendy hotel with rooms named after local notables. $189-$400. 310 E. Tennessee St., Florence, Alabama. 855-269-4724, www.gunrunnerhotel.com

The Stricklin Hotel. Boutique hotel in downtown Florence. $139-$189. 317 N. Court St., Florence, Alabama. 256-248-9982, www.thestricklin.com

Eat

Odette. Elegant ambiance and American fare with a Southern touch. Entrees $12-$30. 120 N. Court Street, Florence, Alabama. 256-349-5219, www.odettealabama.com

360 Grille. Revolving steak and seafood restaurant on top of the Renaissance Tower at the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. Entrees $23-$110. Hightower Place, Florence, Alabama. 256-246-3662, www.mariott.com/mslmc

Info

Florence-Lauderdale Tourism. 200 Jim Spain Drive, Florence, Alabama. 256-740-4141, www.visitflorenceal.com