Front Page

The Best Tracks in 2012

CD Shop

Book Store

Search Content/Artists

New Releases

Forthcoming Releases

Back Issues

Serious Soul Chart

Quality Time Cream Cuts

Vintage Soul Top 20

Boogie Tunes Top 20

Album of the Month

CD Reviews

Editorial Columns


Readers' Favourites

Top 20 most visited pages



The new Muscle Shoals Studios by the Tennessee river

  The final stop on my Southern trip last December was the Quad Cities of Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia by the Tennessee River in the northwest of Alabama. A big thank you to Mr. George Lair, Museum Curator of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, for showing me not only the Hall of Fame, but also the Fame Studios, the present Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, as well as the old Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and making it possible to have a chat with Daniel Beard (at Fame), David Johnson (at the Hall of Fame) and Noel Webster (at the old 3614 Jackson Highway).

  Still a couple of years ago I wasn't aware of the abundance of talent coming out of Alabama, until I studied the Alabama Music Hall of Fame website (at ””) and visited the very building in Tuscumbia. To convince yourself, please have a look at the ”Achievers” on their website, where you can spot such names as Arthur Alexander, Clarence Carter, the Commodores, Tommy Couch, the Drifters, Dennis Edwards, Eddie Floyd, Eddie Hinton, Jimmy Hughes, Frederick Knight, Eddie Levert, Joe Ligon, Shorly Long, Cliff Nobles, Wilson Pickett, Martha Reeves, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton, Take 6, the Temptations, Big Mama Thornton, Dinah Washington and many, many more in other fields of music besides r&b – not to mention such re-settlers as Oscar Toney Jr.

The Alabama Hall of Fame. George Lair standing in front.


  The foundation of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame was activated in 1980 and fulfilled ten years later. George Lair: ”The museum opened its doors in July of 1990, but apart from that they began having induction banquets, which the first were held in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1985, and the first inductees were Nat King Cole and Hank Williams in the Performing Achievement category and Buddy Killen in the Non-performing Achievement category. Buddy Killen was involved with Tree Publishing company in Nashville and really grew it to be an international company and one of the largest country music publishing companies in the world. It was sold to Sony several years ago. The Pioneer Award went to Rick Hall, the 'Father of Muscle Shoals Music'.”

  The banquets are held every two years, and in the last one held in Mobile, Alabama, in March this year the inductees were: Freddie Hart (a country music singer and songwriter) and Jim Nabors (a baritone singer) as performers, Hugh Martin (a songwriter and an arranger) as a non-performer and J.R. ”Pap” Baxter (a prominent gospel figure) as a pioneer. ”In addition to the induction awards, we also have some contemporary music awards that we are awarding that night.

  ”We have a committee, different people involved in music industry from throughout the state – some are Alabamians, who are now in Nashville – and we send out ballots, and they're able to either vote for someone, who's been nominated in the past, or to make a new nomination.

  ”Lionel Richie is the only person, whose been inducted twice in our Hall of Fame – once as a member of the Commodores, then for his solo career as well. Of the Temptations members Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Dennis Edwards and Ali-Ollie Woodson come from Alabama.

  ”All the portraits in the museum have been done by the same artist, Ronald McDowell, from Tuskegee. He's a very talented artist, who began working with us in 1988. More recently he has moved to Birmingham.”

  ”Future plans for the Hall of Fame will include a twelve-to-fifteen-hundred-seat auditorium, that will be a state-of-art facility, where people can come in and perform and probably do some audio and video recordings of their performances there as well. Then the research library, which would be for southeastern studies and music studies, with an emphasis on Alabama. Only the state of Alabama is experiencing a bit of a slow-down in the economy these days (August 2001). Our budget comes through the state legislature and at the moment they don't seem too anxious to give us any extra money for Phase II. We'll just keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best in the coming years.”

  The Director of the Hall of Fame, Mr. David Johnson, certainly is qualified for the job in terms of his musical background. David: ”I started out as a disc jockey at WLAY radio station here and was working with Quin Ivy, who was a disc jockey at the time, too. Quin went on and built a recording studio and started working with Percy Sledge and people like that. He knew I had a great interest in the music business, so he called me and asked, if I'd like to work with him, which I did and for five years I worked for Quin and was his studio manager and chief engineer. In 1973 I bought the studio from Quin and ran it myself till 1989. I worked as an engineer, producer and publisher – all aspects of the business. Quin is retired now from the music business. He went to University of North Alabama as an accounting professor.

  ”The whole concept of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame came from the Muscle Shoals Music Association, and I was a founding member of the Association. When the State legislature created the Alabama Music Hall of Fame Board, the governer appointed me and the other studio heads in town to the Board of directors. I served in that capacity for about ten years. When we finally got the appropriate funds to build this facility, the director we had at the time quit to move to Montgomery. So I took over, because we were in the process of building a building and I knew what we were trying to do. I just applied for the job.

  ”We have about 35,000 visitors in a year. Summer is our biggest time. During late autumn and in early spring we have a lot of school groups. Each year we have visitors from all fifty states and last year I think it was twenty-six foreign countries – France, Germany, England. We've had visitors also from Finland before.”

Fame Recording Studios in early December 2000.


  The Fame and Muscle Shoals histories have been documented in detail many times earlier, but let's have a quick glance at them once more with some local comments (sources: Christopher S. Fuqua's '91 book Music Fell on Alabama, Terry Pace's and Robert Palmer's '99 series of articles. Also in the U.K. fanzine, ”Vintage Soul”, there's a series of articles on Muscle Shoals starting from the issue # 2, autumn '92, through # 19, spring '97).

  The name of the area derives from the mussels and shoals in the Tennessee River, dominant still during the time W.C.Handy used to listen to ”the Singing River” at the turn of the last century. Sam Phillips started out at the WLAY station but shortly moved to Memphis to record blues and launch his Sun label. The first Shoals studio was founded by Dexter Johnson in his garage in 1951. In 1956 James Joiner with three partners formed in Florence the first ever record company in Alabama, Tune Records, and almost had a national hit next year with Bobby Denton's original cut of A Fallen Star.

  Later Tom Stafford, who ran a local movie theater, and James Joiner formed Spar Music, a tiny recording studio and a publishing company, above a drugstore in Florence. Among those, who used to hang out there, were Arthur Alexander, Dan Penn (of Mark V and the Pallbearers), Spooner Oldham, Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill. In the spring of 1959 Joiner left and was replaced by two local band (the Fairlanes) members, Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill, who together formed Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, FAME. Soon Rick Hall got kicked out because of his over-ambitiousness, he bought the name Fame for one dollar, rented a tobacco warehouse in the summer of 1961 and by request of Tom Stafford recorded Arthur Alexander on his song called You Better Move On, which in early '62 reached # 24-pop on the Dot label.

  Daniel Beard: ”This present studio was built in '62. The money Mr. Hall made from You Better Move On, which he cut at the back of his warehouse, he used to build this studio. As far as I know that was his first hit over there, and then everything else was done here. Originally it was just one studio. In like '63 – '65 they built Studio B and offices. A lot of big hits were cut here – Wilson Pickett cut Mustang Sally and Funky Broadway and Aretha Franklin cut her first hit here.” The address of the new building was and is 603 East Avalon Avenue, Muscle Shoals (

  Next Bill Lowery out of Atlanta brought his acts (Joe South, Ray Stevens, Mac Davis and others) to record at Fame, which resulted in two big hits – the Tams' What Kind Of Fool and Tommy Roe's Everybody, both top-ten pop hits on ABC in '63.

  By the advice of Dan Penn Rick released Jimmy Hughes' Steal Away in the spring of '64 and scored his next hit (# 17-pop) – this time on his own Fame label (leased, though, to Vee-Jay). The track had sat on the shelf for two years. Not only went Jimmy to record other hits for Fame, but also Buddy Killen recorded Joe Tex (Hold What You've Got; # 5-pop in '65 on Dial ) and Joe Simon cut his first r&b hit, Let's Do It Over (# 13-r&b in '65 on Vee-Jay) over there – penned by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. A year later the Penn-Oldham twosome scored with I'm Your Puppet – originally released by Dan on MGM in '65 – which they recorded under the surveillance of Don Schroeder on James & Bobby Purify and which hit # 6-pop in late '66. Soon after that Dan left for Memphis to work with Chips Moman, and a year later Spooner followed him.

  After Hall's original rhythm section had left for Nashville in '64, he replaced them with Jimmy Johnson (guitar), Junior Lowe (bass/guitar), Spooner Oldham (keyboards) and Roger Hawkins (drums). Two years later David Hood (first trombone, then bass) replaced Junior and in 1967 Barry Beckett, who had come to Muscle Shoals with Don Schroeder, replaced Spooner. The famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was born.

Inside the Fame Studios.

  In '65 a local dj and a songwriter with Hall, Quin Ivy, founded his own studio (first Norala, then Quinvy), recorded Percy Sledge on When A Man Loves A Woman and with the help of Rick Hall's acquaintance to Jerry Wexler worked it to a # 1 smash and a gold record in '66 on Atlantic. Muscle Shoals was permanently put on the map of r&b and soul. Percy kept cutting at Quinvy way into the 70s.

  Impressed, Atlantic's Jerry Wexler began sending his proteges down south to Fame, where Wilson Pickett cut some of his biggest hits (Land Of 1000 Dances, Mustang Sally, Funky Broadway etc.), and Aretha Franklin finished her first gold song for Atlantic in '67, I Never Loved A Man. However, a fight between Aretha's husband, Ted White, and first a session player and then Rick Hall himself cut the ties between Rick and Jerry. To retain that special sound Jerry started inviting the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section to do sessions in New York for, among others, Aretha Franklin. Wilson, though, came back to Fame to record in the 70s, too.

  In spite of losing Jerry, Fame kept churning out hits on such artists as Etta James (Tell Mama), Arthur Conley (Sweet Soul Music), Clarence Carter (Slip Away, Too Weak To Fight, Patches), Laura Lee (Up Tight, Good Man) and Candi Staton (I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart).

  In 1969 Rick's rhythm section broke away and bought a recording studio of their own, which they named Muscle Shoals Sound. In the 70s Rick began concentrating more and more on pop, recording such hits as the Osmond Brothers' One Bad Apple, Donny Osmond's Sweet And Innocent, Mac Davis' Baby Don't Get Hooked On Me and Paul Anka's (You're) Having My Baby – all gold singles between '71 and '74. Since then Fame has set its sight on country, and one of the directors there to carry on is Rick's son, Rodney Hall.

  Daniel Beard: ”We are working with such country groups as Alabama, and we do quite a few publishing demos here.” Recently there was about to happen a cultural scandal, when they decided to place a large billboard in front of the Fame studios covering the whole building. George Lair: ”Fame fought over the billboard, and this issue was recently settled. The billboard will not be up!”

The old, legendary Muscle Shoals Studio at 3614 Jackson Highway


  By the end of the 60s the four Fame fugitives – Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, David Hood (””) and Roger Hawkins – were working not only for Rick Hall, but in all three existing studios in the Shoals area (Fame, Quinvy and Bevis). Fred Bevis had started a four-track, country music recording studio at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield in '67, but two years later was ready to give it up. The foursome decided to buy it, upgraded it (first to eight-track, then sixteen-track) and started business.

  George: ”Muscle Shoals Sound was formed in 1969, when the rhythm section at Fame recording studio decided to start their own facility. David Hood, the bass player, came up with the idea for the name Muscle Shoals Sound, after they had gone over different names. Initially it sounded a little odd, but now it has become a common phrase that refers to the music that has come out from this area. Many people have reported that the old Muscle Shoals Sound was once a casket factory, but from talking to David Hood, one of the original owners, he says that's not true. Sometimes there might have been that some caskets were stored here, but it was never a factory for casket making.”

Inside the studio in 2000. Noel Webster is renovating.

  ”When they decided to form Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, Jerry Wexler came down and actually spoke with the local banks encouraging them to loan the money to the fellows to start Muscle Shoals Sound Studios with a guarantee that he would continue to bring artists into the Shoals area to utilize the facilities. He then brought in Willie Nelson and Cher and was instrumental in a lot of other artists coming into the Shoals area to record. He kinda took the rhythm section from strictly rhythm & blues into more of a rock sound, too.”

  First pop acts to record at Muscle Shoals Sound were Cher, Lulu and Boz Scaggs, but the first hit in late '69 was R.B.Greaves' Take A Letter Maria (# 2-pop and gold). In the 70s they went big with many rock acts (the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Traffic, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan), and they even produced Jimmy Cliff those days.

  Whereas Fame went pop and country, MSS went rock and soul. On the soul side in the 70s the best results in terms of rhythm tracks were achieved with Bobby Womack (Understanding etc.), the Staple Singers (Heavy Makes You Happy, Respect Yourself, I'll Take You There etc.), Mel & Tim (Starting All Over Again), Luther Ingram (If Loving You Is Wrong...), Tommy Tate (School Of Life), Millie Jackson (almost all her classic 70s album, including Caught Up), Johnnie Taylor (his early and mid-70s albums with Don Davis), the Dells (many Don Davis produced 70s albums), Eddie Hinton (Very Extremely Dangerous), Don Covay, Tamiko Jones, Dorothy Moore, Joe Simon and Facts Of Life.

  The MSS studio activities moved to another location in 1978, and the old building was left to deteriorate. It was mostly used as a warehouse for all kind of junk, until last year a bloke by the name of Noel Webster bought it and decided to renovate it. Noel (in December 2000): ”I'm originally from Chicago, but I've lived in Huntsville, Alabama, for fifteen years, I play, sing, write and I engineer. If I'm not on the road with somebody, I'm running my machine shop in Huntsville. I've also got a publishing company in Nashville.

Inside the new M.S. Studios building, entrance hall.

  ”We're rebuilding the studio as it was back in the 70s, with the same type of equipment as well. Audio really hasn't changed since the 50s. They haven't built any new microphones, and the consoles and audio-machines that they have in present Muscle Shoals Sound are from the 70s. Cd, that the people think is so wonderful now, audioquality-wise has a frequency of 20-20 000 kH. The console and the tape-machines that we use here have a frequency response from 5 hertz to 45 kH – it's double! We're actually losing a lot, cutting in half. When DVD recorders get better, it can be very nice.

  ”This place is a mess. We're gonna sheet all this. We're gonna put new ceilings and everything. We're also gonna build a staircase to the basement. It just takes time. We have to take all the junk out. Things were rotten from the water.” George (in August 2001): ”Noel has the studio up and running. He has Bobby Whitlock there as well as several others, who are exchanging creative thoughts. Don't be surprised, if there's a resurgence in Muscle Shoals music in the future.”

  In April 1978 Jimmy, Roger, David and Barry found a bigger place for their operations by the Tennessee River at 1000 Alabama Avenue, Sheffield (””). George: ”In '78 they moved to the present facility, which was an old Naval Reserve building. Most of the guys, who grew up in this area playing in local bands, had played sock-hop in this building. When they noticed that it was available, they were able to move in, had an engineering company come down from Nashville and constructed these two recording studios within the shell of the building – also added offices and everything. Studio A is the largest of the two studios, where the basic tracks were cut and a lot of overdubs. In studio B most of the mixes were done.”

  In the early 80s Z.Z.Hill became a frequent visitor to the new MSS premises, and after 1985 also other Malaco r&b acts followed, as Malaco out of Jackson, MS (see our previous issue), purchased the Muscle Shoals Sound. In the 90s also such acts as Etta James, Arthur Alexander and Dan Penn used the facilities. Sweet soul sounds are still being created in the Muscle Shoals area.

© Heikki Suosalo

Studio 2 at the M.S. Studios

Back to Deep Soul Main Page
Back to our home page