MUSCLE SHOALS ALABAMA
On the bank of the Tennessee River, about halfway between Memphis and Atlanta, lies the area known as Muscle Shoals. These four cities, Florence, Tuscumbia, Sheffield and Muscle Shoals are to the casual observer, just quiet little Alabama towns, surrounded by verdant countryside and bordered by the vast Tennessee River. Men and birds alike fish in the river, as the sun beats down on the swampland where alligators wait. The Yuchi Indians called the Tennessee “the river that sings”. Legend told of a woman who lived in the river and sang songs that protected her people.
This sleepy corner of Alabama known collectively as “Muscle Shoals”, became the unlikely destination for America’s greatest recording artists, churning out classic hits like Percy Sledge’s ‘When A Man Loves a Woman’; ‘I Never Loved A Man’ by Aretha Franklin; ‘Brown Sugar’ by The Rolling Stones; and ‘I’ll Take You There’ by The Staple Singers.
Some of the “Natives”!
Blues pioneer WC Handy and Sam Phillips, who would famously discover Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, came from close by, so Muscle Shoals was in many ways the home of the blues, the home of rock’n’roll and the home of soul music! Although, the Alabama pioneers had to journey to the nearby city of Memphis, Tennessee, in order to bring the music they loved to a wider audience.
Helen Keller was another local. As the blind singer Clarence Carter commented, “Helen Keller was from Muscle Shoals and it was always amazing to me the things she was able to accomplish being blind and deaf.” Famously, the first word that Keller learned was “water” – the well where she learned the word is a famous landmark. Everything from Muscle Shoals comes back to the water that sang.
Rick Hall and the beginning of FAME Music
Rick Hall grew up in a house with a dirt floor in the nearby Freedom Hills. “We just kind of grew up like animals,” he recalled. When he was still a boy, his three-year-old brother died in a tragic accident after falling into a tub of scalding water as their mother was doing the washing in the backyard. His parents’ marriage collapsed in the aftermath, each blaming the other. Before long, his mother left the family, taking up work in a house of ill repute. She never saw her son again. Unsurprisingly, this chain of events had a profound impact on Hall, who became determined to make something great of his life.
The death of his first wife in a car accident hit Hall hard, and he turned to the bottle. He lost himself in drink and in music, joining a local band and writing songs in the car he now called home.
Hall struck up a songwriting partnership with another local musician named Billy Sherrill when the pair played together in a band, and they began selling their songs to the likes of Brenda Lee and Roy Orbison. Together with a local hunchbacked young businessman, they formed a publishing company. The three young men set up an improvised recording facility above a drugstore in nearby Florence, Alabama, in order to demo their songs. This was the beginning of FAME Music (FAME standing for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises). After less than a year, however, Hall had fallen out with his partners, and he was let go. According to Hall, the problem sprung from him being too much of a workaholic, when his partners wanted to have fun.