But the reason the Swampers, and the little Alabama hole in the wall recording studio where they shook the world, were in Muscle Shoals was because Rick Hall, trying to make his mark outside of Memphis, without resorting to Nashville, fetched up there and set up the third point of American music’s great Southern triangle. Rick Hall was Fame Studios and Fame Studios was Rick Hall.
They both ended up being a lot of other things. A whole lot of people contributed. Mostly black artists and mostly white session men with a mix of songwriters, all trying to prove each other to each other in the classic Southern style while George Wallace’s Alabama (where Hall made a point of frequenting local diners in the company of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett) tried to turn back the clock all around them.
But it was Hall’s vision and once he took hold of it Southern Soul and the world it was born to save were never quite the same.
It was from Hall’s place that the careers of Arthur Alexander and Percy Sledge and Clarence Carter and Joe Tex and Candi Staton were launched and those of Etta James and Aretha Franklin (specifically chasing Sledge’s success) were reborn. And that was just the tip of a mighty iceberg. Shamefully, he died without entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (can’t blame the voters for that one–nods to visionary producers and label owners are in the hands of the Hall’s own committee).
Doesn’t matter. I just got the playlist from the Entrance Commission at the Pearly Gates.
I’m hearing it’s the greatest night ever. Smoked Jerry Wexler’s entry party and they’re swearing even Berry Gordy’s gonna have to run to keep up…(The Wilson Pickett cut is live and not to be missed).
Hope your vision comes all the way true where you are now brother….Because it sure is lying in tatters down here.
Fame was both a studio (in Muscle Shoals, Alabama) and a record label. It had the usual southern-soul dynamic–blues-drenched whites (led by owner Rick Hall) running the business end, an inter-racial mix of writers and session players, mostly black vocalists (a dynamic well demonstrated by the cover of Ace’s three-disc box pictured above).
The box is–no surprise–epochal. There are a few pedestrian sides on the first disc (early on, when the sound was still developing). After a few hits and misses, it kicks in and, from there, the set never flags.
There’s no shortage of stunning individual moments among the awe-inspring embarrassment of riches, not a few of them deriving from vocalists like Joe Tex (whose importance in the development of Southern Soul is fully demonstrated here by the quantum leap his first Fame-recorded hit “Hold What You’ve Got” represents over what came before) and Otis Redding (impossibly warm and winning on his version of “You Left the Water Running”) who were generally associated with other labels and/or studios (Dial, Stax, etc.)
On the third disc, there’s even a segue that would have been the peak of practically any other day: Clarence Carter’s “Patches” (about a poor black sharecropper’s son hanging on and pulling the family through because of a promise made at his daddy’s dying bed) sliding straight into Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” (about a poor “white trash” girl taking her mama’s death bed advice and getting out the only way she can–by becoming a prostitute). All that, plus a nice soul version of “Double Lovin’,” courtesy of originator George Jackson, which actually proves how great the Osmond boys really were and how foolish they (or their management) were to leave a studio that would have allowed them to compete with the J5 right down the line.
Right in the middle of all that–about a third of the way through the second disc, with the flood-tide of the era’s soul talent flowing freely–another quantum leap occurs.
It shouldn’t really have been a surprise. Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man,” was her first big hit, and everybody familiar with the period knows it represented lift-off–for her and for soul generally–after years of being a perpetually underachieving pop-oriented second-stringer at Columbia.
It was also the only master she completed on her contentious visit to Muscle Shoals (a visit specifically inspired by the success of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which as I’ve written elsewhere, makes Sledge one of the most important artists of the era all by itself). When it became the title track of her first monumental album on Atlantic, it was the third side. Thus, the permanent context was a slot following “Respect” and “Drown In My Own Tears.”
Not that it ever sounded less than great–there, on the radio, on the various greatest hits packages it so often led off–but nothing on earth would sound truly startling following those cuts.
So this was the moment when I was able to finally gauge its impact in its own time. Coming straight out of two of the greatest soul/funk go-rillas ever made (Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” and Clarence and Calvin’s “Thread the Needle,” this version featuring studio chatter to die for, not to mention copious amounts of Clarence Carter’s inimitable laugh of freedom), “I Never Loved a Man” raises the vocal stakes from the very first breath.
Stepping into a scene that was already producing some of the greatest music of the century–and represented the most exciting development in one of the most far-reaching artistic movements in the history of man, the very height of what I call “the revolution”–the voice alone sweeps everything before it.
“Here, now,” it says, “get ready to stand on the next mountain.”
Just like that. One minute, the mountain was somewhere around here:
Next minute it was just about here (sans chatter, unfortunately not available on-line)…
Then, in an instant, it was, definitively….here…where it stayed:
I generally write an obit when–and only when–the passing of some prominent person affects me on a deep level and I also think I might have something worth saying that hasn’t been said in the usual outlets.
It’s been a hectic year (and it took me a while to get used to remembering to look up recent deaths on-line, as I’m not exactly a ravenous consumer of any “regular” news). That’s the best explanation I have for missing RIP’s of figures as deserving on all levels as Donald “Duck” Dunn and Robin Gibb.
Dunn was, of course, the bass player for Booker T. and the MGs, who happened to be the “house” band at Stax records, in addition to being a hugely successful instrumental act on their own (one of only two such bands, along with the Ventures, to be inducted as performers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).
Writing about the possibilities for racial harmony that were endemic to what I like to call the rock and roll revolution–and how we’ve largely short-changed those possibilities–is one of the main reasons for this blog’s existence. No one embodied that ethos more perfectly or profoundly than Dunn, a southern white man who, along with a southern black man named Al Jackson, Jr., made up what was likely rock and roll’s very greatest rhythm section (granted there is competition, but not much).
That rhythm section was planted in the very heart of what I believe is the greatest inter-racial experiment in the history of America’s cultural life…or perhaps just the history of any country’s life, period–the Memphis/Muscle Shoals soul scene of the sixties and early seventies.
That scene was where white label and studio owners and a mix of white and black songwriters and session men backing an extraordinary group of African-American vocalists, merged to provide the truest and deepest soundtrack for the nation’s moment of hope for a better day coming–and, eventually, the lament for its limitations.
It was a small scene, frankly, and perhaps a couple of dozen people at most were truly indispensable to its contemporary success and its enduring legend. Not one of those people–not Otis Redding or Percy Sledge or Sam Moore or Mavis Staples, not Booker T. Jones or Isaac Hayes or David Porter or Steve Cropper or Andrew Love, not Jim Stewart or Rick Hall or Quin Ivy….no, not even Al Jackson, Jr.–was more important than the man who tied the rhythms to the melodies at “Soulsville U.S.A.”
At least musically, the best chance for reviving “The Death of the Dream” (as Peter Guralnick’s final, epic chapter of his finest book, Sweet Soul Music, termed it), came in the dread “disco” era of the mid and late seventies.
That’s the era I grew up in and the era the Bee Gees dominated to an extent that had only been managed by Elvis and the Beatles before and has only been matched by Thriller-era Michael Jackson since.
I can’t say I was all that taken by the Bee Gees at their apex (though I love most of that music now). But they had already got through to me in their earlier incarnations, which I happened to be discovering at the same time “Staying Alive” and “Night Fever” were playing something like forty or fifty times a day…apiece.
Gibb’s brother Barry was the lead voice on most the group’s signature hits, but Robin’s distinctive quaver–always on the verge of breaking, always holding on somehow–was put to great use on more than a few, with “Massachusetts” and “Run to Me” (a co-lead) being two of the three songs (Barry’s “To Love Somebody” was the other), that convinced me there might be something to these folks even as my high school buddies were assuring me that the disco stuff wasn’t half bad if you were good and drunk by the time your girl-friend got control of the radio or dragged you onto a dance floor.
Like I say, eventually I loved the disco stuff, too. And I’m glad I got to live through one of the last moments when the dream still sparked a few embers in the ashes. Robin Gibb was as important to that moment as Duck Dunn was when the flame burned brightest.
I don’t know how they’ll fare in the next world. But they were among the precious few who earned a state of grace in this one.
(On a related note: While I was searching for the above, I found this very beautiful duet from Lulu and Maurice Gibb–Robin’s twin brother who passed away in 2003 just months after this was recorded. It’s appropriate to this moment, I think, and it’s one of her very finest vocals…which is saying something. Their marriage, incidentally, was from 1969 to 1973. Better then.)