Movie Review: Muscle Shoals (2013)
Having grown up hearing how white performers made a mint off of, or stole outright, black music, it’s fascinating to see, in Greg Camalier’s excellent documentary “Muscle Shoals,” just who was backing some of the great black performers of the 1960s. Wilson Pickett on “Mustang Sally”? White dudes. Percy Sledge on “When a Man Loves a Woman”? White dudes. Aretha on “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”? The same white dudes, a group of guys from or near Muscle Shoals, Ala., called the Swampers. In this doc, they’re variously called “funky,” “groovy,” and, courtesy of Aretha, “greasy” with a z, but the best description comes from a man who never played with them. Bono, U2’s frontman, calls them “a bunch of white guys who looked like they worked at the supermarket around the corner.”
So how did they get together? And why did some of the greatest singers in the world begin to make a pilgrimage to Muscle Shoals, Ala., in order to make music?
It starts with tragedy.
Greasy with a Z
Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios, a rinky-dink place in Muscle Shoals, was raised in Franklin County, Ala., after his mother left both he and his father to become a prostitute. Wait, it gets better. He married young but his wife died in a car accident when he was behind the wheel. Wait, still better. Once he made some money, he bought his father a tractor and the tractor eventually killed him.
Like Dilsey, Rick Hall endured. His father instilled in him a drive to make it, to be somebody, as Hall says in the doc. So after his wife’s death, along with several others, he started FAME Studios—Florence Alabama Music Enterprises—and in a few years produced Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” which became a Top 40 hit in 1962 and was covered by the Rolling Stones two years later. He found Percy Sledge working as a hospital orderly and produced his song “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which has become one of the great R&B classics. He came to the attention of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who sent him Wilson Pickett. Among others, “Mustang Sally” resulted.
Aretha showed up. She’d been misused by her previous record label, Columbia, so Wexler sent her to Muscle Shoals where they recorded “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You),” which went to No. 1 on the R&B chart. But a contretemps occurred between her husband and a backing musician, Hall made it worse, and Aretha cut out for New York to record, with the Swampers, the rest of the album. Yes, including “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
That was just the beginning. Etta James showed up. The Staples Singers. Duane Allman, Jimmy Cliff, the Rolling Stones. Hell, even the Osmonds.
Some of the best documentaries connect things we didn’t know were connected, and that’s what “Muscle Shoals” does. I didn’t know so much music, so much great and long-lasting music, came out of one small Southern town. Attempts to explain this fact sometimes verge on the mystical. “At different points in time, on this planet, there are certain places where there is a field of energy,” Jimmy Cliff says. I like Bono’s explanation better. Of various musical traditions, he says, “It always seems to come out of the river.” Of the Muscle Shoals sound, he adds, “We felt the blood in that. We felt the pulse of it. And we wanted some.”
Without a pulse
The tragedy of Rick Hall, who’s known so much tragedy, is that eventually everyone leaves Rick Hall. His first backing band split to create their own recording studio in Nashville so he promptly created another, made up of Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood and Roger Hawkins, who became the Swampers, made music history, and eventually broke from Hall, too, at the end of the 1960s.
What is it about the end of the ‘60s that led to so many breakups? Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, my parents, your parents.
Like the breakup of the Beatles, the breakup of Hall and the Swampers created disparate sounds, a few good songs, but less magic. Hall produced the Osmonds and Paul Anka, and he wrote, and convinced Clarence Carter to perform, “Patches,” a treacly story-song, which, in an era of treacly story-songs, went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1973. The Swampers recorded the Rolling Stones (“Sticky Fingers”), backed Paul Simon (“Kodachrome”), refused to cut down Lynryd Skynyrd’s rambling “Free Bird” and thus lost the band.
Hall won awards during this period—nominated for a Grammy in 1970, Billboard’s Producer of the Year in 1971—but the doc doesn’t acknowledge that this later music, while popular, was tinny, maudlin and forgettable. It didn’t have a pulse. The subsequent decades are glossed over because not much worthwhile happened. One wonders why. Do even the most talented, the most driven, get only a moment? The river is still there, after all. It keeps rolling. Does Hall not hear it anymore? Or is it something else? All of us only have so much to say and only a moment in which we have the opportunity to say it. Maybe this was their moment.
If so: damn.