I live just two hours from Florence, Alabama and regularly travel the highway right next to them. I had never heard of it and really didn’t think twice about driving right past their turn. Until a couple of weeks ago. I won’t make that mistake again. Let me share why…
That picture will give you an idea of the beauty I’ve been driving right past for years. I just had no idea what Florence had to offer. Now that I do, I’ll be heading back… and soon.
Before I get into the music story of North Alabama, let me explain this area first. There are actually four little towns right here together. Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia and Sheffield, collectively referred to as The Shoals. We drove in and out of these towns the entire visit, and I never did figure out where one ended and the next began. So I will just refer to the area as The Shoals, like the locals do.
The Music Scene
Have you ever heard of The Shoals being referenced in the same breath with music? I live between Memphis, the home of the Blues, and Nashville, the heart of Country Music… so I have some powerhouses around me here in Tennessee. But, I literally had never even heard of Florence and the Shoals at all, much less connected to music. I have since learned they are so intricately woven together… so much so, I’m a little bit embarrassed and shocked that I haven’t heard of the area. If you haven’t either, you will be in the know too after reading this article. (That’s what homeschoolers do … model life-long learning, right?!!)
The “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin, passed away this week, and she was just one of the many greats whose careers were launched right here in The Shoals! Who knew? There were a couple of real movers and shakers in the music business who really put this area on the map. Here in northern Alabama are a couple of little recording studios that end up influencing the world’s music scene!
Rick Hall and FAME Studios
Rick Hall is probably the primary reason The Shoals area has anything to do with music at all. But because he was the producer and mainly stayed behind the scenes, I guess I never knew his name. Let me tell you he is VERY highly regarded in the music industry.
His studio, FAME was involved with almost every genre of music from country to R&B. FAME worked with and was a part of the launch of so many legends: Aretha Franklin, the Beatles, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, George Strait, Little Richard, Paul Anka, Tom Jones, the Osmonds, Jerry Reed, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Lou Rawls, Alabama, Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell, Shenandoah, Tim McGraw, Mac Davis, the Gatlin Brothers, Bobbie Gentry, and so many more. Per Rolling Stone magazine, by January of 2018, the studio and its publishing company have been responsible for an estimated 350 million record sales! They have opened up for tours, and the studio is essentially the same as it was when many of the legends recorded there.
What was his secret to success? I would say it started with the Muscle Shoals sound. The Swampers were the house band and have been credited with that sound. But when they departed and started their own studio, Rick Hall just kept going and growing. So they may have been what helped launch FAME, but they were not the only, or even the primary, ingredient. Rick Hall was – he was the architect of that sound.
We toured FAME, which by the way is still in the business of recording and publishing to this day. More recent recording projects include working with The Gregg Allman Band, Third Day, Michael McDonald, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Aloe Blacc, Chord Overstreet, Keb Mo, John Paul White, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Matisyahu, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Band of Horses, Drive by Truckers, Bettye Lavette, Cyril Neville, the Civil Wars, Anderson East, and Jamey Johnson to name a few. I didn’t even know about Matisyahu! He is one of my all time favorite singers! Check out One Day… and listen to the lyrics.
The Swampers and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios
So as embarrassed as I am about not knowing about the music in The Shoals area… I’m even more so about The Swampers. These gentlemen were the “House Band” over at FAME during its start. David Hood on bass, Jimmy Johnson on rhythm guitar, Roger Hawkins on drums, and Barry Beckett on keys. They began working together at Rick Hall’s FAME Studio where they became well-renowned in the recording industry for playing a unique style of funky R&B with artists such as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Etta James. They left to form their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, and it was the first publishing and production company to be owned and operated by a group of musicians. They are really credited with that “sound” of Muscle Shoals… affectionately referred to as a funky, soulful Southern “swamp” sound. And you will be SHOCKED to discover all the albums they were on.
An estimated four hundred gold records have been recorded in the Muscle Shoals area and quite a few of those are thanks to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Some of the greatest names in rock and R&B recorded here — Cher, the Rolling Stones and the Black Keys are just a few of them. The National Register of Historic Places now recognizes their building, where Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded the original version of “Free Bird” and the Rolling Stones wrote and recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses.”
Speaking of the song “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones. Rumor has it that Keith Richards locked himself in this bathroom and wrote this song which ended up on the “Top 500 Greatest Songs of all Time” list by Rolling Stone Magazine.
Paul Simon recorded Kodachrome on the piano you see here.
The studio also worked on many other hits from Bob Seger, Traffic, Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens, the Staple Singers, Joe Cocker , Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Arthur Alexander, Jimmy Hughes, Percy Sledge, Johnnie Taylor, Staple Singers, Bob Seger, Clarence Carter, Little Milton, Dr. Hook, Sawyer Brown, Rod Stewart, Duane Allman, Boz Scaggs, Paul Simon, Joe Cocker, Glenn Frey, Julian Lennon, Delbert McClinton, and the Oak Ridge Boys. Are you as shocked as I was? How in the world is it even possible that I had never heard of them? Literally, they created the sound track of my youth!! Thank you to Dr. Dre and Beats Electronics for their donation to restore this piece of history!
There are quite a few books written about the area sharing how these studios created a sound that still reverberates across generations. Here are a few:
Alabama Music Hall of Fame
We had one more stop at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame before we ended our music tour of the area. And I’m so glad we visited. We got a personal guide to give us an introduction to Alabama’s musical achievers and the history of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. We explored memorabilia from Elvis’s original music contract to the group Alabama’s tour bus! they had costumes, musical instruments, and even a recording booth, if you have a song you would like to belt out!
I didn’t realize Sam Phillips is from this area, and he has donated the largest collection of Sun Studio memorabilia outside of Memphis to the Alabama Hall of Fame…. including this piece of history.
Sam Phillips sold the Elvis Presley contract to RCA for $35,000 plus $5,000 in back royalties owed Elvis. One thing I love about this museum is they understand how overwhelming all of this information is. So they gave us a scavenger hunt form to complete while we toured the museum. At the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, they honor Music Achievers in three ways:
- Exhibits illustrating their accomplishments.
- Placement of permanent bronze star in the walk of fame.
- Induction to the Hall of Fame.
You will find the original recording equipment from Sun Studios:
Even the RCA dog, Nipper:
The New York Times calls this area “a holy place in the evolution of rock ‘n roll.” The legacy here in Muscle Shoals makes even the biggest stars walk in with awe and humility. I highly recommend you plan a trip to The Shoals area. There is so much to do there! We will be writing a series on the area so you can see just how many fun and educational things there are to do there. But watch this music documentary, Muscle Shoals, before you visit. It will help you get better acquainted with the area and help you put the puzzle pieces together before you go so when you are there, you will understand the significance of the places you are visiting. I wish I had watched it first. I’ll be going back now that I have. When you visit, stop by the Visit Florence AL Visitor’s Center … be sure to tell Randa we sent you!