The Legendary Muscle Shoals Sound

Alabama Studios Rolled Out Big Hits of '60s and '70s

Wilson Pickett, Jimmy Johnson and Bobby Womack

hide captionFrom left: Wilson Pickett, Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section player Jimmy Johnson, and Clarence Carter. Pickett and Carter were among many R&B artists who recorded hits in Muscle Shoals.

Courtesy Fame Studios
Duane Allman

hide captionDuane Allman plays guitar at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals (photo undated). Before forming the Allman Brothers Band, Allman worked as a session player at Fame.

Courtesy Fame Studios
Little Richard

hide captionLittle Richard during a recording session at Fame Studios (photo undated).

Courtesy Fame Studios

In an obscure northwest corner of Alabama, a little-known piece of music history is up for sale. The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was a recording mecca for rhythm and blues, rock and pop artists in the '60s and '70s.

In 1969, four local session players known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section decided to open up their own recording studio. David Hood, the group's bass guitarist and studio co-founder, says the studio's name was a joke of sorts.

"There was a Motown sound, there was a Nashville sound, there was a Memphis sound, and I said, 'Muscle Shoals Sound,'" Hood tells NPR's Debbie Elliott. "And we all thought that was just the funniest thing. And then after a bit we thought, 'Heck, why not?'"

In fact, that sound was already developing in Muscle Shoals at a studio called Fame — the first studio in the region to cut a hit record. That was 1961's "You Better Move On," by local bellhop Arthur Alexander, and it was the first of a string of R&B hits recorded there by such artists as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Clarence Carter.

Muscle Shoals seemed an unlikely place for a celebrity crowd: the nicest hotel was a Holiday Inn, and sometimes the area's studios would put artists up in mobile homes at the local trailer park. But the music kept the stars coming, and in its heyday in the mid-70s, the area was home to eight studios.

"I think they just got funkier records here than they did anywhere else," says Fame studio president Rodney Hall. "And it's a lot more laid back than any other music center in the country."

Artists from outside the South also found their sound there. Detroit rocker Bob Seger's signature song — "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll" — began as a demo tape at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. An engineer's mistake gave the song its distinctive da-da-da intro. Seger liked the sound and kept it in the final song.

Clarence Carter, who has been recording in Muscle Shoals for nearly five decades, says there's a vibe in the town that he could never capture when he recorded in California.

"There is some soul in Alabama that you can't find in Los Angeles," Carter says.

That sound is a blend of country, gospel and R & B, says Alabama Music Hall of Fame curator George Lair.

"You can draw a triangle from Nashville to Memphis to Muscle Shoals, and while Nashville is the country center, Memphis is generally known as the blues center," Lair says. "Muscle Shoals, being between those two places, has been able to combine those two styles into a real Southern rhythm and blues that was very appealing."

Among those drawn to the area was Paul Simon, who came in search of the band behind the recording that many call the essence of the Muscle Shoals sound: "I'll Take You There" by the Staple Singers. Simon's collaboration with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section produced the hits "Kodachrome" and "Loves Me Like a Rock."

The Rhythm Section partners sold the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1985. Now it's back on the market for $650,000. So far, potential buyers include developers who would like to build condos, and others who are not interested in keeping the studio intact. That worries Hood, who still keeps an office here.

"I'm seeing this place that I worked so hard, and my partners worked so hard to build going to waste and deteriorating because it's not being used," Hood says. "My greatest fear is if they don't find a buyer, they're just going to take it, dismantle it and sell it a piece at a time... That would break my heart."

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