Muscle Shoals Welcomed Everyone

(Editor’s note: Bob Vickrey’s stories are always welcomed by readers. Today he shared a piece from one of his best friends Kenneth Williams. The two had grown up together in Galena Park, a suburb of Houston. Vickrey wrote: “Ken has always been one of the most articulate people I know, and I always look forward to reading his thoughtful messages when they pop up in my inbox. I thought this one was particularly brilliant and was worth passing along to you. This one looks to me like it deserves a wider audience.” This editor agrees with Bob.)


Aretha Franklin recorded in Muscle Shoals.

Kenneth Williams thanked Vickrey for recommending Echo in the Canyon and then wrote: It prompted me to also revisit the P.B.S feature Muscle Shoals. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

This is a tale so unlikely as to seem more fiction than fact. It is astonishing that the early roots of rock and roll can be found in the mud flats of the Tennessee River in a three-red light hamlet called Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Between the walls of two ransacked recording studios was recorded the lamentations of the southern worker – set to song. It was the blues and gospel of the black sharecropper, the hillbilly banjo and fiddle of the Scots Irish coal miner, the protest folk song of the factory worker – mixing to create a combustible sound that would shake the world to its core.

The phrase American Melting Pot is used so often it has almost become a cliché. But in rural Alabama was an American experiment in American diversity – unplanned, unsupervised.

Adding to this unbelievable tale was that the studio musicians were a group of white Caucasian churchgoing teenagers with flattop haircuts straight out Mayberry or Happy Days.

Racial segregation was not limited to the lunch counter or the bus station, of course. Major recording studios, in ways obvious and hidden, discriminated as well.

The owners of the studios in Muscle Shoals said anyone that wanted to play was welcome, particularly black performers, and they started to come Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, the Staple Singers.

The first charter was Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman.” Then Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally, Land of a Thousand Dances.

The word was out – James Brown, and Bob one of our favs – the Big O – Otis Redding.

Then one day an African American nineteen-year-old girl showed up. They didn’t know what to do with her in NYC so that sent her to Muscle Shoals. In the documentary, original studio musicians recalled that before she sang a note, they said she had an air of confidence, a self-assurance they had never seen before. They said the recording session was their greatest moment in the music business.

Outside the building is a plaque that reads.” Inside this building is where Aretha Franklin recorded R-E-S-P-E-C-T. ”

The British Rockers great fans of blues and R&B heard of the sessions and wanted to test the waters far themselves. (Keith Richards labeled Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee River the “Lourdes of Rock and Roll.”)

What started as a trickle became a flood: Mick and Keith, Clapton, Elton from London; Paul and Artie, Sedaka and Paul Anka from NYC.; Ronstadt and Henley from L.A.

From Tom Jones to Tony Bennett every kind of music was welcomed. Bacharach and Hal David stayed in a cheap motel outside of town as they wrote and recorded with Dionne Warwick.

It is perfectly appropriate – yet highly ironic – that the part our country that carries the deepest scar of America’s original sin would provide – through music – a healing balm of reconciliation even I dare say a type of redemption. I think the Wilson Pickett quote with great joy and humor expresses it best!!

“I love my redneck cracker family.” Wilson Pickett.

Outside the studios was the primal nature of nature: forests, swamps, the swelling hush and flow of the river that in its simplicity mirrored the primal need inside to simply pluck a string, beat a drum, blow a horn – Sing A Song!!

Wilson Pickett

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3 Responses to Muscle Shoals Welcomed Everyone

  1. howard yonet says:

    great story !!!

  2. Christine Odionu says:

    Hi Sue,
    I saw this documentary Muscle Shoals at the Laemmele in Santa Monica when it first came out. Love Love Love it.
    Christine Odionu

  3. Waldemar Kalinowski says:

    Lovely story. We visited the area and the studios in the early 80’ties traveling to Florence, Alabama for a film shoot with Sybille Shepherd and Larry McMurthy.

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