By geography alone, the city of Muscle Shoals, Alabama is small (population 13,000) compared to New York, Los Angeles, Detroit or Nashville. Musically, however, it has a rich history that rivals those cities. Especially during the Sixties and Seventies, Muscle Shoals was a popular recording destination for world-class artists, among them Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Etta James, Paul Simon, Wilson Pickett and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Now a new documentarysheds light on the people and environment behind that distinct sound, a combination of rock, pop, R&B and funk, with a Southern flavor. Directed by Greg Camalier, Muscle Shoals (which will premiere in New York on Friday) includes interviews with Aretha, Bono, Gregg Allman, Alicia Keys, Jimmy Cliff, Steve Winwood and Candi Staton. Prominently featured in the film are Rick Hall, whose FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals birthed the sound, and the session musicians known as the Swampers, who played on so many of those hit records.
"You cannot ignore the fact that you had music coming out of this very rural place," Camalier tells Rolling Stone. "Most everywhere else – New Orleans, St. Louis or Detroit – these are all urban places, heavily populated places. So when you have something competing on that level but is coming from a place of 10,000 people, that's pretty fascinating in itself. I thought the place was part of the story."
The idea of the film, according to Camalier, came when he was helping a friend move from the East Coast to New Mexico by car. They decided to take the Southern route and the backroads. When it came time to find a place to sleep, they had a choice of Tupelo, Mississippi (the birthplace of Elvis Presley) or Muscle Shoals.
"We both said Muscle Shoals because we knew just a little bit of the music there, but it was music we loved," Camalier says. "We had no idea of the totality of the story. And we spent the next 24 hours there, which was a profound experience. In the next days, we had the idea that we should make a movie about this story because it's incredible, and I can't believe it's never been told."
Hall recalls being delighted when Camalier approached him about the documentary – it was a story he had waited 40 years to be told. "Detroit's had it [with Motown]," Hall says. "Chicago had it with Chess Records, Memphis had it with Stax. And we never had anybody be concerned enough to come out here and say, 'Look, we want to do a story.' So I had hoped and prayed that someone would come along eventually. This was a dream come true for me."
The movie also documents the story of Hall, who experienced personal tragedy and career obstacles, including the deaths of his brother and first wife and the disintegration of his business relationship with FAME's original founders. A question he frequently gets is why he began in Muscle Shoals.
"I started in Muscle Shoals because I had no choice," Hall says. "I was rejected in Memphis, I was rejected in Nashville, I was rejected in New York City. I was bound and determined. I really wanted to prove the world was wrong and I was right. I just wanted the opportunity to show my true colors. I felt that once I got it, I've got to do everything to make it come true."
A huge part of the creation of the Muscle Shoals sound had to do with the session players Hall hired for his studio, most notably the Swampers: keyboardist Barry Beckett, bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Roger Hawkins and organist Spooner Oldham. (They would later leave FAME to start their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound.) "The way I found musicians . . . was to go out and find a band that had a good guitar player and take that guitar player away from that band, and then find another band that had a great drummer and take the drummer away from them," says Hall. "So I'm thinking if you put the best of both worlds together and then you start putting them in the studio . . . then in time, they'll become a team. I always believed that you need the full band in the studio at one time to record great records because they play off of each other, like a basketball team."
FAME was crucial to the career fortunes of Aretha. Having left Columbia Records without much commercial success, Franklin recorded music at FAME that would later end up on the hit Atlantic album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, in 1967.
"She never had a smell [of success] before that from CBS and all the guys in New York were writing arrangements on light jazz and that stuff, and it wasn't her. So we took her down South and started approaching it like we would a job. We worked hard, day and night. All this buildup – Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Percy Sledge, Jimmy Hughes, Clarence Carter and so forth – gave us the knowledge and expertise to go in and cut hit records."
"I loved Duane Allman," says Hall. "He came in and signed with me as a guitar player and set up his pup tent out on the parking lot and said 'I'm gonna stay until I get a gig. I can convince you that I can do it.' And so he did. That was the start of Southern rock."
Following the New York City premiere on Friday, Muscle Shoals will be shown in select theaters around the country. Hall praised Camalier for his work on the project. "Greg is the heart of the film," he says. "He convinced everybody around me that he knew what he was doing. But not me, until I saw it in its full completion at Sundance, and then I was wiped out.
"I couldn't believe this – 'That is really great.' And I found myself shedding a tear once in a while."