sun 14/07/2024

Storyville - Muscle Shoals: the Greatest Recording Studio in the World, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Storyville - Muscle Shoals: the Greatest Recording Studio in the World, BBC Four

Storyville - Muscle Shoals: the Greatest Recording Studio in the World, BBC Four

History of the big sound from the little town in Alabama

FAME Studios boss Rick Hall (left) with soulman Clarence Carter

Back in the days before you could bash together an album on a phone, recording used to involve a group of musicians playing together in the same room. Finding the perfect studio ambience and acoustic was 90 per cent of the battle, and many a veteran musician will tell you that the studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama were the greatest of them all.

Many of these old troupers had been rounded up by film-maker Greg Camalier for this fine and evocative documentary, which avoided the Brian Pern-style cliches of the bog standard rock-doc by being packed with great stories, brilliant music and loads of human interest. Equally, it was a resonant portrait of a time and a place. Muscle Shoals, with a population of 8,000, barely qualifies as a town, but Camalier let his camera linger thoughtfully over local landscapes of swamps, forests, cotton fields and the Tennesee River, which was traditionally known as the "Singing River" by the Yuchi indians (studio drummer Roger Hawkins, pictured below).

It was Rick Hall's FAME Studios which first put the town on the map, and Hall himself was as much a star of the show as such glittering interviewees as Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Aretha Franklin. Kind of a dark star in Hall's case, though. A ruthlessly driven man from an impoverished background, whose life has seen a daunting share of setbacks and deaths, Hall set out to break big in the music business, and knew he was on the right track when the first song recorded at his own studio, Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On", became an international chart-topper.

Soon Hall was cranking out soul classics like "Land of a Thousand Dances" and "Mustang Sally" with Wilson Pickett, and he thought his ship had come in when Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler brought Aretha Franklin (pictured below) down to Alabama to record "I Never Loved a Man". Nobody hearing these records could believe that Hall's superb squad of studio musicians - including Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett - were all white (when Paul Simon asked to record with the black musicians at Muscle Shoals, he was warned that "these guys are mighty pale"). It was especially amazing that this emancipated music-making was going on when Alabama's governor, George Wallace, was loudly espousing a policy of "Segregation Forever".

However, the uncompromising Hall fell out badly with Wexler, who bankrolled the founding of the new Muscle Shoals Sound Studio by a quartet of the FAME musicians (the so-called "Swampers") so he wouldn't have to work with Hall ever again. The new setup gained a big boost when the Rolling Stones dropped by to record "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses", and subsequently everyone from Elton John and Dylan to Boz Scaggs and Willie Nelson clamoured to record there.

Hall, meaner than a rattlesnake with a knot tied in its tail, refused to quit. Even though he failed to spot the potential of the up-and-coming Allman Brothers Band (too hippyish for his disciplinarian tastes), he inked a lucrative deal with Capitol Records and enjoyed a lavish new streak of success. Judging by recent footage of him producing a recording session, he hasn't wasted any of his precious earnings on a diploma from charm school.

Amazingly this emancipated music-making was going on when Alabama's governor, George Wallace, was espousing a policy of 'Segregation Forever'


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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This was a treasure trove of stories giving background to all those wonderful hits we have learned to love. There was enough here in terms of narrative on two rival studios and their musicians to fashion a drama but how much better it was as a documentary. I particularly liked the perplexed awkwardness of studio musicians who were suddenly required to go on tour and appear before thousands rather than hunker down in the studio and then go home to their families at night. This revealed the hidden side of making popular music and maybe should be viewed alongside Morgan Neville's recent Oscar-nominated doc (that I haven't yet seen) 20 Feet from Stardom

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