One of Rock and Roll America’s receding ironies, once well-known, these days increasingly reduced to a secret, is the multi-racial nature of its blackest music: The southern soul and funk of the 1960s. The number of white people who signify their righteousness by preferring the “real” black music of Memphis and Muscle Shoals to Detroit’s Motown is…amusing. (For the record, actual black people have always preferred Motown.)
Amusing because the key Memphis band, Booker T and the MGs was split down the middle and the key Muscle Shoals band, the Swampers, was almost entirely white.
Except on record, it hardly made for Utopia. Aretha Franklin found her sound at Muscle Shoals, but left after a few days because her then-husband was accusing every white boy in the place of chasing her (with what credibility no one ever seems to have figured out).
She brought the musicians to New York to finish her first Atlantic album anyway.
They were the sound, not the place.
Two of the most prominent Swampers, keyboardist Donnie Fritts and ace guitarist Jimmy Johnson, passed away within a few days of each other in the past two weeks. They eventually wore many hats, including writing and producing. Listing their major accomplishments would take days.
Maybe all you really need to know is that Donnie Fritts wrote this (Elvis took a shot at it in 1973 and, by consensus of those present, was too overcome with emotion to finish it):
And Jimmy Johnson, doubling with Chips Moman (who also did a few other things), played guitar on this, ensuring it would be a massive hit and the era’s most enduring shout of freedom before the singer sang a note:
Their music is the closest we ever came to finding the real American Dream…and the only way back.