Last winter when the band traveled to Memphis we stopped at the Stax Records Museum. Some of my earliest childhood memories are rooted in the Stax library; my older brother and oldest sister would listen to "Soul Man" by Sam and Dave on the Stax label, Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music," countless Motown artists, and many others. (We moved to west Michigan when I was about 7; the older siblings spent their music-formative years in the Detroit suburbs, and I'm glad they taught me how to read the labels on the 45 rpm records, forming not only my literacy education but also my musical tastes!)
Because it's a studio and not a record label, I don't recall seeing anything specifically from the Muscle Shoals studio as a youngster, but I picked up a DVD at the Stax museum about this small town in Alabama that was home to two of the most influential recording studios in the country. I showed it in class at the end of the year, and I was excited to learn some new things myself.
The Muscle Shoals sound started in the early 60s at FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. A few years later, the house band, calling themselves "The Swampers," left FAME and formed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. These four influential session players would go on to back up countless top recording artists on several different labels. Fun fact: you've all heard Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home, Alabama," right? The line that goes, "now Muscle Shoals, they had the Swampers"? Well, there you go. A reference to this studio and its awesome house band. House bands were a big thing back then; Motown had one (it was a session bass player with the Funk Brothers that came up with the famous bass intros for "My Girl" and "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," for instance) . So did several other studios. These house musicians were featured on dozens of recordings and were a big reason artists sought to record at Muscle Shoals.
This was also the studio that brought together an unlikely pair to record a cover tune: Wilson Pickett, an African American born in Alabama but raised in Detroit (where he developed his music), and Duane Allman, a white southerner, got together in 1966 to do an amazing cover of the Beatles' "Hey Jude." (In my opinion, Pickett's soaring vocals, Allman's screaming guitar riffs, and the Muscle Shoals Horns' background licks far outshine the original Beatles recording , though admittedly I've never been a huge Beatles fan.) This version peaked at #13 on the Billboard charts. According to an interview in the documentary, it was shortly after this that the Allman Brothers got going, followed soon after by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and "southern rock" was born.
Check it out sometime! A quick Google search brings you lots of hits for Muscle Shoals. Here are a few of my favorites from way back, including the Allman/Pickett version of "Hey Jude." Pay some special attention to the horns, the Hammond B3 organ, and the great guitar stuff. I've also included the Allman Brothers' "Soulshine," which I heard this past summer for the first time in some many years, and what a great tune to make the connection between gospel music and rhythm and blues/rock styles.