Aretha, Clarence and Muscle Shoals: Another Special Place In Time

A new year and a renewed vigour to find out more about the music that’s accompanied me through life. In 2020, I finally got round to pinning down Laurel Canyon on the map. I’d known about it as a place for years, and of how it became a hotbed of creativity for those musicians who went to live there in the late 1960s, but I’d never taken the time to investigate the geography of it. The special place I’m going to pin down this time, is Muscle Shoals.

Strangely enough, although I’d often heard of Muscle Shoals as the place where musicians gravitated to whenever they wanted to create a bit of rhythm and blues magic, it hadn’t clicked that the spelling is not the one used for the shellfish. Anything linked to the word shoal must surely be fishy related and coastal I thought, but no, Muscle Shoals is a smallish town (called a city in the US) in the far north-west corner of Alabama. It does sit on the Tennessee River however and early settlers did find a shallow area where mussels and clams were gathered. Before the distinct spelling for the shellfish came about, they simply called the place Muscle Shoals.

The first film I went to see back at our local cinema after a pandemic-enforced break of 18 months, was Respect, the Aretha Franklin biopic. I learnt so much more about her from watching it, and now understand how she became the Queen of Soul. None of that might have happened however if she’d not made her way down to Muscle Shoals at a crucial juncture in her career.

Rick Hall, Producer/Engineer and his FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals

In the late 1950s, a very driven local lad called Rick Hall set up a recording studio in Muscle Shoals and recruited session musicians from nearby Sheffield and Florence. These musicians became known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and despite being individually unremarkable, they soon became a tight unit and ended up creating a unique sound, fusing the blues, country and gospel. It came as a great shock to many black artists, such as Wilson Pickett, to find his backing band full of very ordinary looking ‘white dudes’.

The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section later known as the Swampers

But back to Aretha Franklin. After years of trying to make it as a jazz singer, she was persuaded to start finding songs that ‘moved her’ rather than trying to come up with a polished image. After securing a deal with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, they both headed down to Alabama where she paired up with Rick Hall and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Their modus operandi was not to work with an arranger, or with sheet music, but to instead jam their way to a hit record. Her first recording with them was, I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You). The hits then just kept on coming. Aretha had found her new ‘sound’.

I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) by Aretha Franklin:

Many artists and bands recorded at Rick Hall’s studio over the years, the Rolling Stones, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton, Etta James, Clarence Carter and many more. As often happens however, in 1969 the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section jumped ship and set up their own rival studio, also in Muscle Shoals. Rick wasn’t deterred and soon replaced them with new musicians who also knew how to create that very special crossover sound. Both studios did well and this small town, for a time, became the unlikely epicentre of the music business.

When trying to learn more about Muscle Shoals earlier on this week, I discovered a wonderful 2013 documentary on YouTube (link here). You may well have seen it already, but if not I would thoroughly recommend it. It explains how the Muscle Shoals sound could really only have happened in that geographical area. Those ‘white dudes’ had grown up absorbing black music so it was part of their DNA. There were no barriers when making music together and whether black or white, everyone had ‘soul’.


In 1974 the band Lynyrd Skynyrd had a big hit with the song Sweet Home Alabama. I’ve always liked it but only now understand the significance of the following lines of lyric:

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 feelin’ blue
Now how about you?

The song is a bit of a controversial one, and was written in answer to two songs by Neil Young. That verse however was added to acknowledge the help given to the band by the Swampers in their early days, making demo reels with them at their Muscle Shoals studios. A nice tip of the hat. Lynyrd Skynyrd remain connected to Muscle Shoals, having since recorded a number of times there and making it a regular stop on their concert tours

Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd:


But this is the song that’s stayed with me more than any other since watching the Muscle Shoals documentary. In the interviews with an older Rick Hall, it came across loud and clear he had been brought up dirt poor and although he knew his dad had done his best, the desire to pull his family out of poverty was the driving force behind his phenomenal work ethic, without which there would have been no Muscle Shoals sound. Patches was a song written by the lead singer of Chairmen of the Board, but when Rick Hall heard it he felt it related to his own personal history, and he persuaded Clarence Carter to record it at his FAME Studios. In 1971 it won the Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song.

Patches by Clarence Carter:


As happened with my Laurel Canyon post, I finally feel as if I understand what happened in Muscle Shoals back in the 1960s/70s and how it came about. I also now realise it’s not a place on the Alabama coast after all, but a small town on the Tennessee River. The geography of the place definitely had a lot to do with the magic that was created there but none of it would have happened without Rick Hall, or Patches as he was called as a boy, because his clothes were so ragged. Without him there would have been no studio, and no Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Without those musicians there would have been no special sound, and perhaps no Aretha. Most definitely a very special place in time.

Until next time…

Patches Lyrics
(Song by Ronald Dunbar/Norman Johnson)

I was born and raised down in Alabama
On a farm way back up in the woods
I was so ragged that folks used to call me Patches
Papa used to tease me about it
‘Cause deep down inside he was hurt
‘Cause he’d done all he could

My papa was a great old man
I can see him with a shovel in his hands, see
Education he never had
He did wonders when the times got bad
The little money from the crops he raised
Barely paid the bills we made

For, life had kick him down to the ground
When he tried to get up
Life would kick him back down
One day Papa called me to his dyin’ bed
Put his hands on my shoulders
And in his tears he said

He said, Patches
I’m dependin’ on you, son
To pull the family through
My son, it’s all left up to you

Two days later Papa passed away, and
I became a man that day
So I told Mama I was gonna quit school, but
She said that was Daddy’s strictest rule

So every mornin’ ‘fore I went to school
I fed the chickens and I chopped wood too
Sometimes I felt that I couldn’t go on
I wanted to leave, just run away from home
But I would remember what my daddy said
With tears in his eyes on his dyin’ bed

He said, Patches
I’m dependin’ on you, son
I tried to do my best
It’s up to you to do the rest

Then one day a strong rain came
And washed all the crops away
And at the age of 13 I thought
I was carryin’ the weight of the
Whole world on my shoulders
And you know, Mama knew
What I was goin’ through, ’cause

Every day I had to work the fields
‘Cause that’s the only way we got our meals
You see, I was the oldest of the family
And everybody else depended on me
Every night I heard my Mama pray
Lord, give him the strength to make another day

So years have passed and all the kids are grown
The angels took Mama to a brand new home
Lord knows, people, I shedded tears
But my daddy’s voice kept me through the years

Sing,
Patches, I’m dependin’ on you, son
To pull the family through
My son, it’s all left up to you

Oh, I can still hear Papa’s voice sayin’
Patches, I’m dependin’ on you, son
I’ve tried to do my best
It’s up to you to do the rest

I can still hear Papa, what he said
Patches, I’m dependin’ on you, son
To pull the family through
My son, it’s all left up to you

Author: Alyson

Whenever I hear an old song on the radio, I am immediately transported back to those days - I know I'm not alone here and want to record those memories for myself and for the people in them. 50 years ago the song "Alfie" was written by my favourite songwriting team Bacharach and David - The opening line to that song was "What's it all about?" and I'm hoping that by writing this blog, I might find the answer to that question.

24 thoughts on “Aretha, Clarence and Muscle Shoals: Another Special Place In Time”

  1. A very interesting post, Alyson, and I’m glad you got your mojo back.
    You touch on the controversy of Sweet Home Alabama, and you could write a whole book on that one (great tune though). Here’s a little something that tells a snippet of the story…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had heard of the Drive By Truckers, but had never heard anything by them. While the video seems to tell a more balanced version, is it true? (By the way, although I‘ve lived in Germany for almost 40 years, I was born in Alabama and grew up a bit there and later and Texas, so I understand the “southern man”.)

      Consider these Skynyrd lyrics:

      https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/lynyrdskynyrd/godguns.html

      Yes, by a later incarnation of the band. Yes, earlier lyrics might be seen to be in conflict (though the band says not). Probably neither Skynyrd want to be known as anti-Young nor does Young want to be known as anti-Skynyrd.

      Of course, some people change with time and are not completely honest about that.

      Then there is the question as to whether the singer is voicing his own words or playing a role, perhaps a satirical one.

      So it’s complicated, but I’m not sure that the view of the Truckers is the correct one.

      I’m probably the only reader here who immediately recognized the name Bear Bryant. My father was a graduate of Auburn University, the rival college (at least as far as football) to the University of Alabama, and detested Bryant.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. First of all thanks Phillip for sharing that snippet about you having been born in Alabama and having lived in Texas – Makes sense.

        As for the Lynyrd Skynyrd song I feel I have opened a can of worms as I really just wanted to concentrate on the Muscle Shoals connection in this post. Having said that always interesting to find out more about the background to songs and of the history of the times. As for Bear Bryant he was new to me, unsurprisingly, but I did know that College Football is really big in the US and Alabama have always been one of the biggest teams. If your dad went to a rival college I can see why he wasn’t a fan of Bear.

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        1. Even decades after he had been a student, he used to drive eastward a couple of hundred miles with some other former students and rent a hotel room where they could just barely pick up the game from a local-to-Auburn television station or, failing that, on the radio. (I know that that is really what they did since I went with him once.)

          College football is really big. The salaries of public state employees are public (you can find them on the web). The football coach of the biggest school in the state usually tops the list, with a big gap to the next ones down.

          Speaking of the South: Sidney Poitier has died.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’ve watched enough American rom-coms to know how big college football is – Thing that I always wonder is how long do the players get to play? Only when they are enrolled at college? If so it must be short-lived and then a massive shock to the system when they leave and have to get a ‘normal’ job.

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            1. Yes, when enrolled, typically four years. The best go on to professional football; there is a draft where, IIRC, the worst professional team gets fist pick, and so on. Those not quite as good might become professional coaches (but probably not for professional teams). Others do go into real jobs. Of course, a team is 11, and there might be, say, twice that on the roster, so those playing are the top of their class and probably even not all of those think a professional career is realistic.

              Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks Rol – It’s taken me a few days to pare down all that I’ve learnt over the last few days into one post but I do enjoy visiting these Special Places In Time – In fact I’ve set up a new category on my sidebar for them.

      Perhaps I shouldn’t have included the Lynyrd Skynyrd song as it might detract from the fact this one was really supposed to be about Muscle Shoals, but I loved how they had included that verse dedicated to the Swampers. Thanks for that video clip of the Drive-By Truckers song. I am old enough to remember George Wallace from news coverage in the 70s and hard to believe things were so different back then from a 21st century perspective, but they were. I’ve opened a can of worms maybe.

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      1. Sorry if I took the discussion off on an unnecessary tangent, Alyson… I’d just been listening to that Truckers song the night before and it seemed relevant.

        Phillip – I think Patterson Hood (DBT songwriter) would agree with you – his own opinion of Skynyrd appeared to change over the years, from when he was an angry young man and took against the band, to later in life when he came to see their position from a broader perspective. And from what I understand, Neil Young was a huge fan of Sweet Home Alabama, so he obviously understood the irony.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Not at all, but a coincidence you’d just been listening to the DBT song the night before – Happens a lot around here. Perhaps the Neil Young/Lynryrd Skynyrd songs could have waited for another day, another post but it’s all added to the discussion anyway.

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  2. I need to catch up with the Aretha film at some point, but in the meantime I’m going to watch the Muscle Shoals documentary – thanks for the link Alyson.
    A reggae cover of ‘Patches’ was released by The Rudies just a few months after Clarence Carter’s hit, featuring an uncredited lead vocal by Carl Douglas, who would go on to have a huge hit of his own four years later with ‘Kung Fu Fighting’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really enjoyed Respect, and thought Jennifer Hudson did a really good job of playing Aretha. I leant a lot. Hope you enjoy/enjoyed the Muscle Shoals doc. Again I learnt a lot and am fascinated by how sometimes the most unlikely places become the epicentre of the music business.

      Yet another version of Patches and by Mr Kung Fu Fighting himself. I now understand how Carl’s song popped up on the Small Axe episode called Lovers Rock – Quite a scene at the house party. (I realise you don’t watch telly and probably have no idea what I am talking about but a series to be recommended if you can find it online.)

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  3. Terrific stuff Alyson.
    I am a big Southern Soul fan including anything from Muscle Shoals. Kent Records have some terrific 3 CD compilations including The Fame Studios Story 1961-1973 – Home of the Muscle Shoals Sound.It includes all the names you mention plus The Osmonds.
    The documentary is great as is Peter Guralnick’s book Sweet Soul Music:Rhythm & Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom.
    Muscle Shoals sounds exotic but it is probably a bit like Dingwall!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thought this would be right up your alley. I love finding out the back story to places I’ve heard of, but had never hitherto taken the time to investigate properly. I’ve set up a new category for these Special Places in Time and hope to add to it.

      Yes, I noticed The Osmonds recorded their first big hit One Bad Apple there – I was a big fan of them back then but of course would never have known about the Muscle Shoals involvement. I would have known all their favourite colours though – Donny’s was purple.

      Ha ha, yes I’ve written about these exotic sounding places in America around here before (names in Glen Campbell/Gene Pitney songs) but as you say, probably a bit like Dingwall.

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  4. Very interesting blog. Perhaps a good example of a fundamental difference between US made music and UK made music.
    The US is a huge country and that may be the primary reason why session musicians gathered regionally rather than centrally. Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals is such an example. In LA there was the Wrecking Crew, in Detroit Berry Gordy had the Funk Bothers. New York City had group of session players (Cornel Dupree, King Curtis). Memphis had Booker T and the MGs. Philadelphia had ‘MFSB’. Nashville had the ‘A’ Team (Floyd Cramer, Chet Atkins, Bob Moore, Boots Randolph)
    Was there a regional approach for session musicians in the UK or was it all London centered?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Damian, I’m certainly no expert on any of this and wouldn’t know how the UK session musicians worked at all, but I do love finding out more about why a particular place became a hotbed of creativity. Whether in the US or the UK it is usually down to a combination of the dogged determination of one person, and the gravitational pool of artists to their ‘place’ as the sound was very much right for the times. You list many large cities in the US where great music was made but perhaps the session musicians moved there (Glen Campbell was in the Wrecking Crew) – The thing I find remarkable about Muscle Shoals is that the session musicians were locals who just played organically, and the big artists of the day came to them in this small and unremarkable town in north-west Alabama. Rick Hall definitely put it on the map. As CC said in a comment above it’s like one of the small towns beside me in the north of Scotland suddenly becoming the epicentre of the UK music business – Hasn’t happened yet but you never know!

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  5. What an interesting and excellent post, Alyson – really good to get a back story like this one explained so well. We watch a lot of music documentaries in this house so I’m adding the Muscle Shoals one to the list – thank you. ‘Twenty Feet From Stardom’ is another one on the list as mentioned by Yeah Another Blogger – funnily enough we saw a reference to this on something we were watching just recently and we can’t remember for the life of us what it was (think someone brought it up in an interview in another documentary, but which one?!) It also sounds great. The music industry is such a different business now, it’s hard to imagine the stories of the future will ever be quite as interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks – I do love having the time to delve into the back story as to why a particular place became so important for music and luckily this week I’ve had the time to do that. I loved the documentary and have watched it twice – Hadn’t ever thought to look for Muscle Shoals on the map before but the geographer in me took over. I’ve now set up a new category on my sidebar. Thanks for the recommendation too – Sounds like something I’d enjoy. Not sure what the modern day equivalent of Muscle Shoals would be today but no doubt enthusiasts like ourselves will be writing about them in the future – DJs bedrooms perhaps?

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  6. Reading the post title, I have to admit that my first thought was “Oo, I wonder if Lynyrd Skynyrd will have a mention?”, but that’s probably due to my teen listening being more rock than soul. So thank you for explaining the lyric from ‘Sweet Home Alabama’! Seems many bands referenced each other at that time. After the tragedy that befell Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977, another southern band, Molly Hatchet, released a track called ‘Gator Country’, which to my mind combined features of two Skynyrd songs: the guitar playing of ‘Freebird’ and the sentiment of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. The lyrics haven’t aged well (rightly so), but in them the band referenced Lynyrd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, Dickey Betts, Elvin Bishop, Marshall Tucker, and The Outlaws.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Seemed only right to include the Lynyrd Skynyrd (I really have to concentrate typing those words) song as the Muscle Shoals Swampers were mentioned but of course it has led to a lot of discussion about the rest of the lyrics. You are right of course, many bands around that time referenced each other and thanks for pointing out Molly Hatchet – Never heard of them before.

      When DD was young and perhaps your daughters too, Kid Rock had a big hit with a song called All Summer Long. It sampled Sweet Home Alabama and Werewolves of London. Sounds like an odd mix but it worked.

      Like

      1. I was aware of the first (pretty obvious) but not the second. Werewolves of London? Sounds like a movie.

        In contrast to rappers sampling old albums because they are untalented or lazy or don’t understand the difference between inspiration and copying (I can’t think of any other reasons), the sampling of “Sweet Home Alabama” more or less works. (Though I prefer shorter “samples” such as “my boyfriend’s back” from “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits.)

        I don’t think that rhyming “things” with “things” with a nod to Black Sabbath though. (If anyone gets that reference, please follow up my comment!)

        Liked by 1 person

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