by Leigh Chandler, Marketing Director
I know a place. Or at least I thought I knew a place. Like me, many people are aware of the incredible music that’s come out of the recording studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I also know that it was a tricky place for African-American artists to record in the ‘60s, at a time when racial tensions ran high in the country. But I didn’t know the depth of importance of those studios in helping race relations, or in popularizing “black music,” until I saw Muscle Shoals: I’ll Take You There.
Myk Watford and Charlton James, both from that region of Alabama, take on the stories of session musicians, first at FAME studio and then at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. They explain how they just fell into playing for artists that would come to record at both, but they also talk about what it was like to work with the artists recording there. Interspersed with this history lesson is an incredible band, featuring vocalists Felicia Fields, Kenita Miller, and Lannie Counts, playing the hit songs that pair with the stories.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that many artists who headed to Muscle Shoals to record “black music” weren’t aware that the session musicians were white. Given the difficult race relations in the country at the time, many artists were nervous about heading to Muscle Shoals to record, and many felt out of their element. Interestingly, session musicians got to experience that same feeling. Aretha Franklin famously left Muscle Shoals after recording just one song – “I Never Loved A Man” – but she loved the musicians so much that they went to New York to finish recording her album, which included “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” along with other famous hits. They were like fish out of water.
Throughout the show other tidbits come out as well, such as Percy Sledge, an orderly from a local hospital, making his first recording ever and being nervous as all get-out. That song he recorded turned out to be the hit “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Not only did artists sometimes feel out of their element, but people in the small community sometimes were also out of their element in dealing with visiting artists. When Lynyrd Skynyrd came to record “What’s Your Name,” the town wanted to the long-haired hippies to leave. And when The Rolling Stones came to town, Mick Jagger had a fantastic response to a waitress questioning who they were, which I won’t give away.
So much of the music recorded at Muscle Shoals is timeless. You’ll hardly be able to stay in your seat during Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances.” You’ll smile during Paul Simon’s “Love Me Like A Rock.” And you’ll hear more current music coming from the area, like Jason Isbell’s “Alabama Pines.” You’ll marvel at all of the 25+ songs during the performance. The thing to take away, though, is when Kenita Miller, speaking Candi Staton’s words, says that she wasn’t sure about recording with white musicians, but after spending time with them, they were her friends. They were people that she cared about, that she talked about her life with and that talked about their lives with her. It’s an important lesson that rings as true now as it did back then.
Here’s a preview: