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(Josue Evilla/Globe Staff photo illustration; Photographs courtesy of Rick Hall and Jimmy Johnson)
 IF YOU GO: Alabama

Musical Muscle

Alabama backwater has produced some of America's greatest sounds

Email|Print| Text size + By Frederick Burger
Globe Correspondent / May 14, 2006

USCLE SHOALS, Ala. -- There was a time, not so long ago, when many of the hit records playing on US radio stations were recorded in this patch of northwest Alabama.

Stop by Rick Hall's FAME Recording Studios or guitarist Jimmy Johnson's small custom studio and you see the history on the walls, the gold records, the photos of singers and musicians who came here and created an imposing legacy of popular songs, music that will never die.

They all came: Otis Redding and Jimmy Cliff, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and Clarence Carter, Etta James and the Staple Singers. And they were followed by more, all of them eager and hopeful that they, too, could tap into the Muscle Shoals ''magic" that just might yield a No. 1 record: the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bob Seger, Jimmy Buffett, Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, Simon & Garfunkel (together and separately), Delbert McClinton, and star-crossed Eddie Hinton.

Even Cher and Paul Anka, the Osmonds and Andy Williams came. And that's just the short list. Scan the radio dial today and you still run across music that originated here.

Hall was the catalyst for much of it, though he wasn't the first to publish songs here and launch a recording studio. Still, Jerry Wexler, the legendary New York record producer, in his 1993 autobiography, ''Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music" (Knopf), calls Hall ''the Berry Gordy of Muscle Shoals."

It is an apt comparison, despite big differences between the two men. Gordy was a black entrepreneur building his Motown Re-cords empire on black music in Detroit. Hall was an equally ambitious white country boy doing the same thing in Alabama, the home turf of segregationists like Governor George Wallace. That's not to say the racial tensions in Muscle Shoals ever approached anything resembling the problems in other parts of the state.

In fact, Hall and others cannot recall any direct racial confrontations in the mid-1960s when, after a late-night recording session, they would accompany black singers like fellow Alabamian Wilson Pickett to a truck stop at 2 a.m. to eat. But there was no denying the disapproving glances from some of the other white patrons and the snail's pace service the white waitresses provided.

It didn't matter, as long as the young whites and blacks were free to write and record the music they loved -- at first, mostly rhythm and blues, which was their shared birthright.

There is an old song that says time changes everything. And so it is here. The racial divisions that once cursed Alabama have grown less sharp. And Muscle Shoals is not the recording capital it once was, but there still is a great deal of music-business activity here.

It's late morning on a mild March day when Hall walks slowly into the two-story office building that houses his studios. He moved his businesses here in 1960 from an old tobacco warehouse. The shelf behind the desk in his modest but comfortable office is full of tapes, CD players, and other electronic gear. Framed gold re-cords line one wall. The paraphernalia of current projects clutter his desk.

Hall is reluctant to recount the story of his hardscrabble youth, his early career as a country fiddler, success as a country songwriter, and the ups and downs of his life as a hard-nosed music publisher and record producer. Much of it was thoroughly explored in Peter Guralnick's erudite 1986 book, ''Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom" (Back Bay).

There is a hint of Hall's legendary prickly personality. He pointedly refuses to give his age, doubtless because the music business is considered a young man's game. But published references say he was born in 1932, which would make him 74.

''After you do a record called 'When a Man Loves a Woman' on Percy Sledge and 'Mustang Sally' and 'Land of 1,000 Dances' on Wilson Pickett and you have the first hit on Aretha Franklin ('I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You'), the word gets around," Hall offered as an explanation for the rise of Muscle Shoals as a recording location.

He has been laboring on an autobiography, ''Hell Bent for Fame," for three years. Some locals say he is semiretired. Not as far as Hall is concerned. He recently drove the 136 miles north to Nashville to talk business.

''I was up there three days," Hall said. ''I've had 15 meetings with record executives, all in the last two months, pitching artists and songs. I've got two songs on hold with George Strait, one or two with Lee Ann Womack. We've got 14 songwriters signed to the [publishing] company. I have four acts I'm pitching to the record companies. I'm out of town a lot. I'm probably out of town a week every month. I'm just trying to keep the buzz going. . . . I can still get a phone call returned."

Hall declares his favorite group now is Maroon 5. He's working with a four-piece band of young white musicians from Mobile called Ugli Stick, which he says is causing some stir on the Southern club circuit. Some of the band's songs have a decided urban, rap feel to them.

When locals talk about Muscle Shoals, they are talking about a broader area known simply as The Shoals, which includes the adjacent towns of Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia, spread across Lauderdale and Colbert counties that 143,000 people call home.

The Alabama Music Hall of Fame is in Tuscumbia, as is Helen Keller's birthplace, both tourist attractions. W.C. Handy, the ''father of the blues," was born in Florence. There's fine golfing, including the northernmost stop on the state's popular Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Fishing on the Tennessee River is world class.

The Shoals became a music hub for a number of reasons. The musical influences were strong in the region. Memphis is just 150 miles west and Nashville is slightly closer to the north. But ambitious local musicians found it hard to break into the music scene in Nashville. So they created their own, initially to cut demos to pitch songs to record companies in Nashville and Memphis. By the late 1960s, hit records were being cut in Muscle Shoals, too.

Musically, the past and present mix easily across this landscape.

''I would say that 1975-80 was the real peak of Muscle Shoals as a recording center," said Jimmy Johnson, 63, a Sheffield native. He should know.

Johnson was the rhythm guitarist in the fabled four-man Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, which initially worked as Hall's second studio band. But in 1969 they broke off and opened their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, in Sheffield. The Rolling Stones recorded the initial tracks of ''Brown Sugar," ''Wild Horses," and ''You Gotta Move" there in 1969. Johnson worked those sessions as the engineer.

He remembers exactly when he became interested in guitar, a story that converges with many of his contemporaries. It was around 1955 when the 12-year-old Jimmy attended a local dance. The band's guitarist fascinated him: ''I was mesmerized. I stood there all night with my mouth wide open. He was playing 'Johnny B. Goode' exactly like Chuck Berry. I left there thinking: I've got to learn how to do that!"

He did, too. Now one of Johnson's guitars -- a Fender Telecaster -- is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Muscle Shoals began its slow fade as a recording center in the late 1980s when traditional rhythm and blues slowly gave way to hip-hop and rap. At one time there were a dozen or so important recording studios here. Today only two or three can be called active, the main one being FAME, which is cutting mostly demos.

Still, the scene is vibrant. Johnson estimates there are as many as 30 small ''project" studios here -- like his own -- many set up in the homes of songwriters and musicians, used mostly to cut songs they pitch to record companies and singers.

Respected songwriter Mac McAnally, who tours with Buffett, has a home studio here. Gary Baker, 51, is an upstate New Yorker who came south in the late 1970s to play bass and tour with LeBlanc & Carr, a short-lived group led by singer-songwriter Lenny LeBlanc and gifted guitarist Pete Carr.

Baker never left.

He has become one of the most successful tunesmiths in pop music, writing No. 1 hits for such diverse acts as country artist John Michael Montgomery (''I Swear"), and the Backstreet Boys (''Back to Your Heart" and ''Anywhere for You").

He sees a future here amid the songwriters and musicians the area still attracts.

Baker and business partners bought a city block in downtown Florence, population 36,000, and are building a $1.5 million, state-of-the-art recording studio, Noise Block Recording, which is to open in September. The complex includes a 300-seat hall that can be used for intimate songwriter showcases and local gatherings, even weddings.

''I love the area," Baker said. ''I live on the river, and it's a great place to raise kids. The pickers from Nashville love to come down here. There are a lot of young guys here with full-fledged [recording or writing] deals. . . . There's still a pretty cool scene here. I think it's making a comeback."

Contact Frederick Burger, a freelance writer in Anniston, Ala., at ratliff123@aol.com.

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