Muscle Shoals Sound Studio opened for business in 1969. It was owned and run by four musicians who had previously worked for Rick Hall at FAME Studios. They decided to leave following a dispute over how much they were paid. (See the article entitled “The Swampers Leave FAME” on this site). The building they bought at 3614 Jackson Highway in the Shoals town of Sheffield was built around 1946 and was previously a coffin showroom. Now it became a recording studio that would attract a lot of big names in the music business.
The four musicians were Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass). They backed everyone who came to record at their studio, of course, but they also shared all the organisation and administration that went with running the business. This made the studio unique.
The musicians had honed their skills working with Rick Hall and they were now ready to blossom, with the backing of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. The first album recorded at the new studio was Cher’s “3614 Jackson Highway”, which literally put them on the map and inspired the addition of the sign on the front of the building.
The studio’s first commercial success came in August 1969, with the release of R.B. Greaves’ “Take a Letter, Maria”, which reached number two on the Pop Chart, acquiring gold certification.
The Swampers, as the four session men became known, worked at the Jackson Highway studio for nine years, playing on over two hundred albums and helping to create over seventy-five gold and platinum records, as well as hundreds of hit songs. Some of the many artists who were attracted to Muscle Shoals were the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, George Michael, Wilson Pickett, Willie Nelson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Cocker, Levon Helm, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, the Staple Singers and Cat Stevens.
Then, in 1978, they moved to a larger building on Alabama Avenue in Sheffield.
The original studio became a shop selling professional audio equipment and then an appliance repair shop. It was abandoned in the late 1990s, before being renovated and re-opened as a museum and recording studio. It was used in 2009 by the Black Keys to record their album “Brothers”. Finally, in 2013, it was bought by the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation and restored to its former glory, opening as a tourist attraction in January 2017.
The Swampers continued to work successfully at the new studio until 1985, when they sold it to Tommy Couch’s soul and blues label Malaco Records, based in Jackson, Mississippi, which used the Sheffield studios for its own artists, including Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Bland and Little Milton, alongside its own facility in Jackson. Malaco finally sold the Alabama Avenue site in 2005 to a film company, Cypress Moon Productions.
The four members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section who had founded the Sound Studio were inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1995, “as four of the finest studio musicians in the world”, receiving the Lifework Award in 2008. They were also inducted into the Nashville-based Musicians Hall of Fame in 2008. They had appeared on more than five hundred recordings.
The Jackson Highway building had been partly restored and open for tours in 2013 when a documentary film raised public interest and helped the Foundation complete the project. The film by Greg Camalier was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. It is about the Muscle Shoals sound, featuring Rick Hall’s FAME Studios and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The film includes interviews with Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Steve Winwood, Bono of U2, Alicia Keys and others. It is a fitting tribute to the work of the two studios, tucked away in the north of Alabama.
Some of the best songs recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio include:
The Rolling Stones: “Brown Sugar”
The Staple Singers: “I’ll Take You There”
Paul Simon: “Loves Me Like a Rock”
Canned Heat: “One More River to Cross”
Rod Stewart: “I Don’t Want to Talk About It”
Bob Seger: “Night Moves” and “Main Street”
Photo 3: Carol_M._Highsmith 2009 (Wikimedia Commons)