Recently I saw the 2013 documentary, Muscle Shoals. I consider myself rather knowledgeable when it comes to music. The music of the 60’s to the 80’s anyway. I was certainly familiar with the music of Lynyrd Skynrd, Aretha Franklin, Traffic, Wilson Pickett, and Jimmy Cliff (to name a few), but I had no idea that they were backed by “The Stampers.” (Leon Russell named them that when he recorded with them.) The Stampers are a bunch of white rock studio guys from Muscle Shoals, Alabama who played on some of the biggest records of the time.
The movie focused on the story of how the Muscle Shoals sound was born. And the drama between Rick Hall, the man who put these musicians together, and the band’s subsequent departure to do their own thing. In between were stories of perseverance, synchronicity, magic. Along the way were some amazing performances and glowing words from Etta James, Alicia Keys, and Keith Richards, to name a few.
The sound is quite distinct – it’s not the Memphis Sound nor the Blues of New Orleans, not like Chicago or Detroit. Muscle Shoals is its own soul. A little more gritty, more sultry maybe. Funky to be sure. It’s a shame that so few people, including the well-read me, know their names: Rick Hall, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Jimmy Johnson. Lynyrd Skynyrd knew and wrote about them, “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers; And they’ve been known to pick a song or two. Lord they get me off so much. They pick me up when I’m feeling blue. Now how about you?” Aretha Franklin found her groove with them. Percy Sledge had his first hit out of Rick Hall’s studio.
Maybe it was the merging of rock with soul and country, along with the heartbeat of the place, that turned on so many musicians, from so many different places. It could have been the ear of Rick Hall who brought it all together. I like the notion that came from the “Singing” River. That is the name the Native Americans gave The Tennessee River which runs by Muscle Shoals. Local legend tells of a great grandmother who was taken away from the river and was surprised that no other river sings. Perhaps it was the water that made the magic. You can’t deny its power.
Listen to any number of great records and you will find it.
Check out this extensive list of the songs and artists The Stampers worked with. Staggering!