Muscle Shoals, which lends its name to Greg Camalier’s doc, is an Alabama city based on the southern banks of the Tennessee River (population 12,000). Back in the fifties it was even smaller, a rural smudge on the map, but it was in the neighbouring town of Sheffield that record producer Rick Hall opened the FAME recording studios. Hall – with a team of session musicians – started pumping out tracks for the likes of Jimmy Hughes (who provided the studio with their first hit), Wilson Picket and Percy Sledge. Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler would send Hall his artistes until a bust-up with Aretha Franklin led to a life-long feud.
Trouble also came when the local musicians Hall had groomed – now dubbed The Swampers – also began to flex their muscles, breaking away from Hall,first to record in New York as Aretha Franklin’s backing group, and later to open their own rival studio, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Camalier’s 2013 film is a worthy tribute to this most unlikely of creative explosions. It’s a rags to riches tale with a fair few whiplashes into self-destructive failure along the way. Hall and his musicians were on the whole poor white folk who were dedicated to their jobs. Yet the shock of hearing authentic RnB and soul music being played by guys who could easily pass as extras in an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard is just one of many revelations.
With Muscle Shoals, Camalier has gathered a host of celebrities to wax lyrical about Hall and his merry band of musical adepts. Franklin, Pickett, Sledge, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Stevie Winwood all sing the praises of the sound of the ‘room’ and the talented artists they played with time and time again. As you’d expect, there are a fair few stories of flaring tempers, but this is the workshop of music and the players themselves confessed they preferred going home to their families and only toured late in their careers. U2 frontman Bono is also on board to offer his usual eminently quotable guff: “Maybe the music came from the mud.”
Hall himself emerges as fascinating character. Someone whose early life was marked by tragedy, he now surveys his history – an eighty-year-old working producer with a lion tamer’s moustache – with deserving satisfaction. The second half of Camalier’s well-meaning doc pulls away from him as a figure, however, as his success is eclipsed by that of his former protégés. If, as a piece of cinema, Muscle Shoals can at times be a little on the limited side, the music is so good and so varied, the stories so rich and so interesting, you can just close your eyes and listen.
Muscle Shoals is released on DVD from 10 February, courtesy of Dogwoof. For more info, visit dogwoof.com.