It is a tiny town in Alabama, and it changed the career of Aretha Franklin.
As the legendary singer recounts in the new documentary Muscle Shoals, her career was suffering when she arrived in the Southern community to record some music. None of her songs had become a major hit, and she was still trying to become a breakout star. That changed because of the music she recorded in Muscle Shoals and her life was never the same after. This new documentary highlights this small community and its unlikely place in the musical history books.
From the outside, Muscle Shoals looks like a typical small town which lies near the Tennessee River but the FAME studio in town–founded by Rick Hall–has delivered countless hits over the years. This story focuses on that studio and the massive hits that emanated from there. As the many musicians interviewed here–including Bono, Alicia Keys and Franklin–note, this venue has long since been a place where musicians can come together, cross racial barriers and create powerful music together.
As one singer says, “you never know when you’re making history” and that sentiment rings true throughout this powerful film.
In fact, the history of the main studio in Muscle Shoals is more than an account of great music being created. It’s about great harmony as well. Decades ago, Alabama was heavily segregated, but such racial tensions didn’t enter the music studio as they would’ve entered other arenas. Several older singers recall how even when race divided the South, it had no place in the studio. The focus, instead, was on the collaboration and hard work needed to created great music regardless of anyone’s racial background.
In fact, the documentary highlights a group of back-up singers who worked in the Fame studios (and eventually went on to found another studio) called the Swampers. Although you may not be familiar with their name, they sang on major hits including the classic When a Man Loves a Woman. To the musical community, these men were known for their vocal instruments but many singers who visited the studio assumed they were black. They were not. They were simply a couple of white men who sang great tunes together and helped create major hits.
Their race was not important. They could sing, and that was all that mattered.
In telling the story of Muscle Shoals, viewers are treated to a variety of great hits that will keep them tapping their feet. Although the documentary runs a bit long, it’s one that musicians and fans of soul music will likely enjoy.
Director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier has placed a spotlight on a small community that might seem like an ordinary one from the outset but is clearly different on the inside. Muscle Shoals is clearly a special place and this documentary–which seeks to capture the town’s spirit–shows why it deserves special recognition in inspiring musicians to do some of their best work.