Christopher M Reali – Music And Mystique In Muscle Shoals
University of Illinois Press
288 pages Softcover Edition
An Assistant Professor of Music at Ramapo College in New Jersey, author Christopher Reali refers to himself as a cultural musicologist in the biography on his website. His new book certainly reflects both the attention to detail that you would expect from an educator, and his ability to place the subject under consideration in a broader context that reveals impacts that extend throughout the greater society. With 100 pages devoted to Notes, the Bibliography, and the Index sections, readers can be assured that Reali has done a yeoman’s job in gathering the research that informs this effort.
The city of Muscle Shoals has rightfully maintained a treasured slot in the pantheon of American music. Located in Al northwestabama near the Tennessee River on what was once Cherokee Indian hunting grounds, the region flourished after the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority, modernizing the area and creating jobs through new industries. The author also traces the start of the region’s musical prominence to a Native American “Singing River” legend that is still featured in advertising and literature promoting the greater Muscle Shoals region, which lies on the eastern edge of the “Mojo Triangle,” as referred to by author and musician James Luther Dickinson, comprised of the territory contained between Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans.
Starting in the 1950s decade, Muscle Shoals, along with the nearby city of Florence, AL, experienced the start of musical growth with the formation of several recording studios, which also created a need for quality musicians to be on staff, to be close by if need arose. The first studio to hit the big time was Rick Hall’s FAME Studio, starting with Arthur Alexander’s 1962 hit “You Better Move On”. Hall eventually put together a stellar session group consisting of Jimmy Johnson on guitar, Barry Beckett on keyboards, David Hood on bass, and Roger Hawkins on drums, known as the Swampers. Their ability to tailor their sound to a particular artist made them invaluable during recording sessions for artist like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett.
As the FAME studio gained traction with each hit record, more artist and record companies wanted a piece of the magic being created in the small town. As the author points out on page 87, there were 13 tracks that made it into the Top Twenty on the R&B charts in 1967 that were recorded in the city. Four of those records made it to #1 on at least one major R&B hit parade, including massive hits like Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,’ and Aretha’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”. The author fleshes out the facts and chart information with stories about various recording sessions, including several, like one with Rod Stewart for his album Atlantic Crossingwhere the artist is surprised to discover that the studio musicians on all of Shoals soul and R&B hits were white men.
Reali traces the growth of FAME’s success and the advent of other recording studios through the years of glory and into the times of inevitable conflict. Hall’s band, now called the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, splits with the studio owner in 1969, opening their own recording venture as the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The role of Atlantic Records partner and producer Jerry Wexler in bringing attention to burgeoning recording scene gets the appropriate consideration.
To complete the story, Reali ties in the financial impact that the recording industry brought to the region, and delves into some of the racial issues that invariably came into play, not unexpected for a city in the deep South, and sessions that often mixed black singers with white musicians. But none of that changed the perception of Muscle Shoals as the land of hits. Another part of the saga is the advent of country music in the Shoals studios when the lure of soul music began to fade, bringing new life to the local industry. There is also a section that looks at the various items of recording equipment utilized in some of the studios.
From the aforementioned artists through others from the Staple Singers to the Rolling Stones, Traffic, and Paul Simon, the specter of the Muscle Shoals recording industry looms large in the legacy of American music, to the point that the legacy is now used a marketing tool to bring tourism to the area. Thanks to a fine effort by the author, readers can now enjoy a well-rounded, succinct history of Muscle Shoals, and many of the musical highlights that have been created there over the last seven decades. A solid addition to the College of Musical Knowledge!
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