Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Muscle Shoals: A Rock Documentary With "Muscle"!

By: Anne M. Raso

I am a real aficionado of rock docs, and director Greg "Freddy" Camalier's Muscle Shoals covers the story of FAME Studios in--you guessed it--Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The studio is right along the banks of the Tennessee River, which is also known as the "Singing River." Native American folklore claims that musical spirits live in the river and that their talents spread to all who believe!
Muscle Shoals Movie Poster

The movie was the result of a spur of the moment road trip by Camalier. He tells me, “I was driving with my friend and I said, ‘Either we go one direction and go to Graceland or we go the other and go to FAME Studios in Muscles Shoals’!” Camalier spent four years tracking down studio owner Rick Hall, now 81, and many of the great musicians who recorded there including Gregg Allman, Steve Winwood, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bono and more (their commentary, and in some cases, footage of them recording at FAME, are included in the film).
FAME Studios
Rick Hall is the larger-than-life presence in the movie; in the footage of the famous and not-so-famous musicians who recorded in Muscle Shoals, he can be seen in the forefront directing the sessions in "flower power" shirts with big collars, looking like an even-more-handsome Brian Wilson. (These days, he still looks dapper especially since he sports a Salvador Dali mustache.)
Rick Hall, Owner of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Taken on Press Day NYC
I was lucky enough to meet Rick Hall when he was in town to promote the movie last week and he was interesting to talk to not because of all the great tales about the bands and their hit-making at his studio, but because Hall’s life is the ultimate example of the human spirit overcoming intense adversity and shining on.
Muscle Shoals City Limits Sign
Hall tells his own life story onscreen and it is almost unbelievable--but sometimes the twists and turns in his life actually helped artists decide whether they should actually record songs producers suggested for them. A great case in point is Clarence Carter's 1970 #1 hit, "Patches." Hall explains, "Clarence told me that he wouldn't record the song and that it was degrading (for a black man) to sing. I told him that the lyrics of the song are all things that happened to ME and he took a different standpoint from then on." Hall was raised by his father after his mother disappeared when he was six; he lost his first wife shortly after marrying her in a car accident (he was driving)--and he later his lost his father in a tractor accident. Hall also had bouts with alcoholism and depression.

These days, Hall's three sons are actually running FAME. New talent is still discovered by the Hall brothers all the time, just like Duane Allman was discovered in the late 60s and went on to play on sessions by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and others. "Duane camped outside for weeks," Hall says. "And I finally said, 'Show me what you got.' And you know that he was an incredible player. Later, the Allman Brothers recorded some of their best material at the studio and I will tell you that to this day they are my favorite group I have worked with."
Aretha Franklin
So it comes as no surprise Gregg Allman performed at the movie's NYC premiere after party for an intimate crowd of about 125 people; Percy Sledge performed his most famous hit "When A Man Loves A Woman" among others with three of the members of the core musician's group used at the studio in the late 60s (Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson and David Hood). The enthusiastic premiere crowd included such Hollywood luminaries as Goldie Hawn, Kyra Sedgwick, Dana Delaney and Michael Shannon.

Muscle Shoals is a film you will want to see a second and third time not only to take in the stories behind the bands, but to hear Hall’s tales of building the studio and putting together mighty session players. This is footage you will never see anywhere else (unless someday Hall makes it into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and it’s used during the induction ceremony). Particularly fascinating and amusing are Keith Richards' tales of recording such Stones classics as "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses" in the studio. He claims in the film that it was the only time he has been in a studio "with perfect sound." Hall does not discuss what mischief and mayhem the band got into while in Muscle Shoals but admits that he stayed out of their hair and let them do things their way. "The studio was indeed still in one piece when they left," he chuckles.
FAME Studios Musicians and Staff
The Muscle Shoals story is kind of a 'who's who" of R&B and Rock from 1960 to 1980. It's not only great to know the story behind the songs--and to see interviews with legendary stars both dead and alive--but the story of the legendary Hall, whose life story was previously only known to music biz insiders. FAME Studios is a part of the "Sweet Alabama" that Lynyrd Skynyrd sings about (that megahit was recorded there and the band was scheduled to come back to record at FAME when their fateful plane crash happened). Muscle Shoals will be shown in a limited run over the next three months, so go to to see screening dates.

Photo of Rick Hall with Muscle Shoals movie poster by Anne Raso; stills courtesy Magnolia Pictures

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