And a film to miss
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Back in the day, Paul Simon called STAX Records and talked to Al Bell. He said, “Hey, man, I want those same black players who played on I’ll Take You There.
Mr. Bell said with a patient voice, “That can happen, but these guys are mighty pale.”
Everyone thought the records (by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Cliff, Percy Sledge, etc.) that came out of Muscle Shoals must have been played by a bunch of black guys. I mean, that sound, how could it not? But no, they were all white. David Hood, bass; Jimmy Johnson, guitar; Roger Hawkins, drums; Barry Beckett, keyboards; Spooner Oldham, keyboards. One of the black musicians says they all looked like they worked at the supermarket.
The Rolling Stones came to Muscle Shoals to record, as did U2, Stevie Winwood, and everyone who wanted to capture that magic sound. Brown Sugar was recorded there. The movie opens with Wilson Pickett’s version of Land of 1,000 Dances,
and then Keith Richards, Steve Winwood, and others marvel at why that music came out of that wet little town of 8,000 people in the middle of the rural South. It just did.
the founder of FAME Studios, talks about his dirt-poor (literally, dirt floors) childhood home in the mountains nearby, and how his first record in that studio was Steal Away, by Jimmy Hughes, and it made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. That was the beginning of the Muscle Shoals sound. That’s America.
All of them were local country people who didn’t know anything about the music business. Percy Sledge
was an orderly in a hospital, and he tells how when he put a patient to bed, he’d sing a song to them, they’d go to sleep with a smile on their face, and it just made him so happy. One day he was invited to sing at the local Elks Club, and then he got a call asking if he wanted to come down to the studio and make a record, which, of course, was When a Man Loves a Woman.
Jerry Wexler, at the time one of the most important recording executives in the country, recalls calling Rick Hall and asking if he could bring Wilson Pickett down there to make some records. Pickett talks about his suspicions when this tall white guy picked him up at the airport. They drove past a cotton field and he asked, “Is that what I think it is?” Rick said, “Yeah, we still pick cotton down here.”
In the studio, though, they all got down to work. At the end of the first day, Wexler said to Pickett, “It’s working! It’s funky.” That was Land of 1,000 Dances, followed by Mustang Sally and Funky Broadway.
Aretha Franklin was signed to Columbia Records but they didn’t know what to do with her, and let her go. Jerry Wexler knew what to do: he brought her down to Muscle Shoals where she cut her first million-seller, I Never Loved a Man.
She appears in the movie and calls that “the turning point in my career.”
Duane Allman pitched his tent in the parking lot of FAME until they gave him a job playing guitar. Jimmy Johnson says that whenever a new black artist came to work with the all-white crew, there was some tension, but when the white guys included a long-haired hippie, there was really tension. Duane came up with the idea of Wilson Pickett doing Hey Jude and everyone thought he was insane.
The Swampers (that’s what they’d called themselves) made their own deal with Jerry Wexler (a deal Rick saw as betrayal) and started their own studio. They were going hitless for months and wondered “What have we done?" until The Rolling Stones came to record. You’ve Got to Move, Wild Horses, and Brown Sugar resulted.
Rick moved on and hired a new crop of musicians, and became Producer of the Year in 1971. That was a great year to produce rock ‘n’ roll. Across town, the Swampers signed Lynyrd Skynyrd, who first cut Free Bird there. Jimmy Johnson tells how no record company would go and listen to them, and he ended up losing the band. Later on, Jimmy Cliff came and recorded Sitting in Limbo, a hit before reggae really took off. Traffic recorded Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired. Bob Seger did Down on Main Street.
Many, many more. See this movie.
One to Skip: I’m Not There
IMDb, trailer, full movie is on Amazon Prime
The concept behind this movie is: Bob Dylan has had many lives, so it’s OK to have six different actors portraying him, because “they’re all Bob Dylan.” They’re embodying different aspects of him, you see: Artur Rimbaud, Billy the Kid, Woody Guthrie. They actually got A-list Hollywood actors to be Bob, like Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, and Cate Blanchett.
If I were a studio executive having this pitched to me, I’d have said, “Stop right there. That is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. Get out of my office!” Unfortunately, at least one studio did not. IMDb says the production took over six years, due to “funding difficulties.” I’ll bet.
Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars, but as much as I loved Roger, nobody’s perfect. You either suspend your disbelief and buy this concept, or you don’t. I only got about 7 minutes into it, which starts with a black child hopping a freight and pretending to be Woody Guthrie.
I’ll be serious for just a second, before moving on from this: artists with long careers, like Bob Dylan (or Paul Simon, Mick Jagger, or Paul McCartney) inevitably have contradictory aspects to their lives. It’s difficult to portray them all, but that’s the task of a biographer. Pretending that they’re separate lives and getting separate actors to play them is just copping out. Think of all the great movies that could have been made with one tenth of the money wasted on this one.