Santa Cruz Good Times

Sunday
Apr 19th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Juke Box Heroes

film mick-jaggerHitmaking funk studio celebrated in rousing music doc ‘Muscle Shoals’

Musical heroes don’t come much more unsung than the so-called Muscle Shoals Swampers. A handful of young, white hometown boys, session musicians at the FAME recording studio in backwoods Muscle Shoals, Ala., they were responsible for laying down some of the funkiest R&B and soul tracks to come out of the 1960s and ‘70s, behind such stellar artists as Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett. Pretty much unknown to the public, they finally get the recognition they deserve in Muscle Shoals, Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s raucous musical documentary on the founding of FAME studio and the distinctive brand of funk produced there.

Early on, the question is posed, “How could so much work come out of such a nondescript little town?” Muscle Shoals is a rural village on the Alabama side of the Tennessee River, which the Native American people called “the river that sings,” believing it inhabited by a singing woman who protected them. Bono of U2, observing there’s always a river involved in musical movements, like the Tennessee or the Mersey in Liverpool, has a more visceral idea: “It’s like the songs come out of the mud.”

But the chief architect of the Muscle Shoals sound turns out to be Rick Hall, founder of the FAME studio. The son of a dirt-poor sawmiller who grew up without plumbing, sleeping on a straw mattress, Hall suffered more than his share of loss and tragedy. But after an emotional tailspin (during which he says he was “a drunk, a vagabond, and a tramp”), the onetime guitarist in a local rock band decided to make it in the music business. He started FAME Publishing, which soon segued into a recording space. Among the first records he produced were the classic “Steal Away” by Jimmy Hughes, and the Arthur Alexander hit, “You Better Move On.”

To cut these records, Hall called in the other guys from his previous band for back-up. With guitar, bass, drums, and a vibrato-heavy electric organ, they became the in-house rhythm section behind such iconic hits as Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” Aretha’s blistering “I Ain’t Never Loved A Man” (her first break-out record after four years singing bland pop tunes for another label), and Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Mustang Sally.” It’s not like they planned the style; the singer would start noodling around and the band would just pick up the vibe. “All ‘funky’ was, we didn’t know how to play it smooth,” laughs one.

What started out as a home-grown operation built on local talent (Alexander was a local bellhop; Sledge was a hospital orderly) became a Mecca for artists searching for that distinctive groove, from Etta James to The Rolling Stones (who cut “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” there), from Clarence Carter and Bob Seger to Jimmy Cliff, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Paul Simon. Duane Allman pitched a tent in the FAME parking lot until he got a job there; the Swampers (so named by frequent FAME visitor Leon Russell) went on tour with Traffic.

Camalier also touches on the grit of Hall and his crew recording black artists (let alone going out to eat with them) in the George Wallace era, Hall’s brief partnership and ultimate rift with powerhouse Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler, and the departure of the original Swampers to start their own studio across the road. (Hall recruited a new group of local musicians and kept on keepin’ on.)

This film isn’t quite as transcendent as 20 Feet From Stardom; no one in Muscle Shoals has quite the same irresistible allure as the sassy lady back-up singers coming into their own in that film. And Camalier makes a few minor missteps on the way. Dates are rarely mentioned, so unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of the year certain songs were released, you have to guess at the timeline from clothes and hairstyles. And the finale, a staged reunion between three remaining Swampers and producer Hall to cut a gospel song with Alicia Keys, feels tacked-on and superfluous.

But music is the message here, accompanied by lots of juicy backstage footage of the artists at work. Get your funk on and enjoy. 


MUSCLE SHOALS ★ ★ ★1/2 (out of four) With Rick Hall, Jerry Wexler, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, and Mick Jagger. A film by Greg “Freddy” Camalier. A Magnolia release. Rated PG. 111 minutes.

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

Smells Like Team Spirit

The organizers of TEDx Santa Cruz don’t just talk about this year’s theme, ‘radical collaboration’—they live it

 

Pluto Retrograde, Aries New Moon, Lyrid Meteor Showers

As the Lyrid meteors, radiating from the star Vega in the Harp constellation, begin showering heaven and earth with light, Pluto, planet of transformation (or die) turns stationary retrograde (Thursday, April 16), 15 degrees Capricorn. Retrogrades have purpose, allowing humanity time to review, reassess, research and reinvent while returning to previous situations. Retrogrades are times of inner activity, seeds sown in bio-dynamically prepared soil. Pluto retrograde is the most serious and resolute of retrogrades—a pure tincture, or, as in homeopathy, a “constitutional” touching the essences of all that matters. Pluto offers deep insight into confusion or puzzlement and areas where transformation is still incomplete. It’s valuable to have one’s astrology chart to follow what area of life the major planets— especially Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto—are influencing. These outer planets have long-term and lasting effects on our psyche, inner/outer life events, how people see us and how we see and process our world. Pluto, retrograde for five months (until Sept. 24) offers deep earthquakes of change, awakens humanity to the task of building (Capricorn) the new culture and civilization, flailing our inner world about, deepening us until we transform and do things differently. Pluto is an unrelenting teacher. New moon (29 Aries) is Saturday, April 18. With the personality-building keynote, “Let form again be sought.” Mars anchors the new creative fires of Aries into our world. The New Group of World Servers participates together in the new moon festival, while also preparing for the Taurus Wesak, Buddha Full Moon Festival (May 3). Join us everyone.

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Film, Times & Events: Week of April 17

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Mighty Leaf

Radicchio from Dirty Girl Produce, wine etiquette fail, and a treat from Gayle’s

 

What would you like to see a TED talk about?

Hydrogen-gas cars that are coming this summer. Scott Oliver, Santa Cruz, Professor

 

37th Parallel Wines

I visited the Capitola Mall recently to check out the newly launched Third Fridays Walking Art Tour, and was surprised to find an impressive assortment of artwork from local artists.

 

New Bohemian Brewery

New Santa Cruz brewery focuses on European style lagers