Nestled in the northwest corner of Alabama, the small town of Muscle Shoals was sweet home to a pair of legendary recording studios – FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios – and the Swampers, the backing band for some of the greatest music ever recorded. Now Muscle Shoals, a feature-length documentary directed by Greg (Freddy) Camalier showing at TIFF Bell Lightbox starting this weekend, is set to tell the story of FAME Studios’s boss Rick Hall and the region’s deep-soul sound that produced hits for Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and other musical icons of the 1960s and ’70s.The film premiered at the Hot Docs documentary festival in Toronto earlier this year. Brad Wheeler highlights some of the magic moments in Muscle Shoals music. (Muscle Shoals runs at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox from Oct. 4 to 10)
Arthur Alexander’s You Better Move On: The glum, melodic number was enough of a hit for the talented Alabama singer Alexander in 1962 that producer Hall was able to afford to build the current version of FAME Studios with the proceeds. The song was covered by the Hollies and the Rolling Stones in 1964.
Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman: Recorded in 1966 at Norala Sound Studios in nearby Sheffield, Ala., the dramatically pleading minor-key ode was the prototype deep-soul, big-chilling ballad.
Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man: In 1967, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler brought Franklin to Muscle Shoals to cast her in a grittier, greasier setting. I Never Loved a Man was a breakthrough hit, but turned out to be the only song Franklin recorded at Fame. Her jealous husband pulled her out of the sessions and they never came back, though Muscle Shoals musicians were flown to New York for the monumental recordings that followed.
Wilson Pickett’s Hey Jude: Pickett recorded hits at Stax in Memphis and classics at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, including sweaty soul frolics Mustang Sally, Land of 1000 Dances and Funky Broadway. In 1968, however, the midnight-hour howler teamed up with guitarist Duane Allman to take a sad Beatles song and make it better.
The Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses and Brown Sugar: The first recordings for the Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers were done at Muscle Shoals Sound, at the end of their 1969 U.S. tour. After laying down the tracks – a sweeping, country ballad and a bass-driven romp – the group headed for Altamont, Calif., for a free concert that went horribly wrong. In the film, Keith Richards says the band would have gone back to Alabama to record Exile on Main St., “but I wasn’t allowed in the country at the time.”