Staple Singers: I’ll Take You There
Be Altitude: Respect Yourself (Stax, 1971)

Wilson Pickett: Land of a Thousand Dances
The Exciting Wilson Pickett (Atlantic, 1966)

Jimmy Cliff: Sitting In Limbo
From The Harder They Come
(Mango, 1972)

(Ed.: Charles Hughes is a graduate student at the University of Wisonsin-Madison, where he studies with Craig Werner (author of ““A Change Is Gonna Come”). Hughes studies interracialism in Southern soul music which makes him the ideal person to break down the history and legacy of Muscle Shoals. This is the first in a three part series by him. –O.W.)

The Muscle Shoals Sound, Pt. 1, by Charles Hughes

Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is perhaps the last great center of soul music to not be extensively chronicled in books, films and museums.  Not only did “The Shoals,” with its various studios and runs of success, produce as many hits and classics as better-known soul capitals like Motown and Memphis, but the music produced in this tiny area of rural Alabama crossed racial, genre and cultural lines in a fashion that has rarely, if ever, been duplicated in American music. 

Apart from all the pop, rock and country hits produced at Fame Studios, Muscle Shoals Sound and the others, the scene’s contribution to soul music, specifically, is fascinating in the way that it demonstrates interracial exchange in the creation of music that was soulful, funky, and very conscious, even celebratory, of its blackness. White rhythm sections combined with integrated horn sections to play on songs by primarly white songwriters sung by black artists, for sale primarily to black audiences (by white-owned record companies.) 

While it’s tempting to call this the same old appropriation/exploitation tragedy that has long plagued white appreciation of black culture, a deeper examination of soul from the Shoals reveals that to be far too simplistic a view.  Over the course of this week, I’ll offer three pieces of evidence, framed around 8 of (in my view) the best recordings made by this weird and wonderful group of musicians, who damn near created new ways to talk about race and music, and did it at the height of the Civil Rights/Black Power Movements, in the heart of Dixie.

The artists who recorded in Muscle Shoals read like a Southern-soul honor roll: Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Staple Singers, Percy Sledge and many, many more made some of their best and most popular records there.  While I don’t mean to diminish the significance of any of these legends, and their accompanying genius, I hold that any discussion of the interracial paradox in Muscle Shoals soul should start with arguably the greatest of the several studio bands that provided the literal foundations for most of the music the scene produced.  The Muscle Shoals Sound (Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Eddie Hinton, David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Spooner Oldham) helped launch Fame Studios into the stratosphere of success, then split for financial reasons to form their own studio, also called Muscle Shoals Sound. 

These three cuts capture the all-white MSS at the height of their powers, and each song demonstrates the ease at which these Alabama white boys sank into the deepest, funkiest grooves of late-1960s black music.  The Pickett track is full-roar R&B, and both the Staples and Jimmy Cliff are reggae-gospel blends that are thoroughly convincing, the Staples so much so that Paul Simon asked label head Jerry Wexler who the Jamaicans were playing on the record.  Slipping out of what race was supposed to mean for musical expression, the Muscle Shoals Sound shows just how deep and complicated this story is.\