Muscle Shoals Review – An All Access Pass into Rock and Roll History

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“Muscle Shoals,” from Magnolia Pictures and Ear Goggle Productions, presents the inspiring journey of a group of unknown musicians plucked from obscurity and placed center stage as they create rock and roll history.

Directed by Greg 'Freddy' Camalier, and produced by Stephen Badger, “Muscle Shoals” begins in a town buried deep in the south, with Rick Hall, a man destined for greatness, sitting on the porch of a depilated shack exposing his humble beginnings.

Overcoming presumed insurmountable obstacles, Rick Hall was born in poverty, on the scope of humble; his beginnings would be considered extreme. He and the members of the original Fame Studios rhythm section would say off the charts.

These men, Roger Hawkins, (drums) David Hood, (bass), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and Spooner Oldman,(organ), along with Hall, were local to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, population 8,000, a town situated on the Tennessee River, known by the locals as “The River that Sings” and was steeped in tradition and respect and most known as the birthplace of disability advocate Helen Keller.

Rick Hall, as he tells his story, begins explaining his life as a child, a dirt floor, no indoor plumbing, deep poverty, the death of his baby brother, the separation of his parents, the death of his first wife; sorrow upon sorrow left its mark in the soul of this man.

The music of sorrow, a song few have heard and even fewer understand, music birth in the cotton fields, in hope, in the song of hurt, pain and struggle became a song that would propel the tiny town and these five men into rock and roll history.

After deciding he wanted to make music, with determination he began to pursue his dreams, he was considered driven, for the 1950’s, and was fired. It was then his wife died in a car accident. After this tragedy he returned to the music business with a determination to, as he said, “kick ass and take names.”

The jam sessions included a group of local teenagers, wanting to be a part of this 28 year old man’s vision. Like all, they were along for the ride not sure where it would take them.

History walked in the door as Rick Hall met a young Percy Sledge and they decided they would cut a record. That record “When a Man Loves a Woman” was playing in the background when Hall telephoned Jerry Wexler, a former Billboard journalist tuned music producer, and at that time one of the most influential men in the business and he agreed to sign him. According to Wexler, “we cut and pressed” the Percy Sledge tune that went to number one.

That began a lifelong relationship with Hall, one that saw good days and deeply dark days and even according to Hall, “war.”

The falling out between Wexler and Hall came over the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin who, after five years with CBS records, couldn’t find a hit or her voice. The session musicians at FAME were nervous, as the story is described, and after getting one good demo, her husband and the trumpet player “were drinking from the same jug” which ended badly. Wexler and Hall were finished after that day. And vengeance often doesn’t stop until one or the other is in the grave.

Wexler offered the studio musicians, the original FAME Rhythm Section, gigs to play in New York as Aretha was completing her first album. Every song that established her as the Queen of Soul was produced with a group of white guys jamming out a tune that they were born to play.

Wexler, hell bent on destruction, offered the guys their own studio in exchange for an exclusive contract that excluded Rick Hall. Wexler believed he had completed the ultimate revenge, steal the studio musicians from Hall and Hall would be finished, over. If Wexler took the sound that made him famous his clients would head for the tune that was producing Gold.

Simultaneously, Hall had just signed a life changing deal with Capital records and was in the process of explaining the deal to the guys when they broke their news. The war years began. Wexler and Muscle Shoals Studio and Hall, Capital Records and Fame Studios, became the most sought after recording rooms in the world.

Sorrow can depilate or drive you and these men are living witness of inner strength, drive and determination. Rick Hall took his sorrow and anguish after the death of his father wrote the song “Patches” which was recorded by Clarence Carter and went Gold and on to win a Grammy.

The interviews contained in this 111minute documentary are every music lovers dream. Bono describes the music of the river, Mick Jagger remembers the early Stones recording sessions, Keith Richards talks about the tunes, Steve Winwood tells about the innocence of the musicians, Donna Jean Godchaux, of the Grateful Dead, explained the moment she knew it was special.

Wilson Picket talks about his Soul brother Rick Hall; Aretha explains the demise of Wexler and Hall. Story after story is recounted including when Paul Simon called and asked for the “colored’ band and back-up that sang on the Staples Singers and being told you can have them but they’re mighty “pale.” 

The list of luminaries Cher, Gregg Allman, Lynard Skynard, Boz Scaggs, Bob Dylan, Candi Staton, Etta James, Alicia Keys,  Everyone from Capital – Mac Davis, Joe Tex, the Osmond Brothers, Clarence Carter, Otis Redding, Bobby Gentry, Paul Anka, Tom Jones all were a part of the hit producing FAME Recording Studios and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios.

“Muscle Shoals” is more than a historical overview of the recording industry, it profoundly details the humanity, the sorrow that shaped lives, and became the fuel to drive these men. It is inspirational.

“Muscle Shoals” was an official selection at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival and the 2013 Full Frame Film Festival. “Muscle Shoals” took the Audience Award Winner at the 2013 HotDocs Film Festival.

“Muscle Shoals” can be seen nationwide and also on VOD, Google Play and across other streaming platforms.

“Muscle Shoals” a must see documentary.