Muscle Shoals, a small Alabama town with no more than 8,000 residents, would seem like an odd place for a gazillion classic hit records to be recorded, but with artists like Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Jimmy Cliff, Etta James, the Rolling Stones,Lynyrd Skynyrd,Traffic, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Tony Joe White, the Oak Ridge Boys, and countless others rolling in to do just that, all aided by a crackerjack group of white southern sessions players known officially as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (and unofficially and lovingly called “the Swampers”), Muscle Shoals became known internationally for its loose and undeniably funky R&B sound, a sound that generated some 75 gold and platinum hits in the late 1960s and through the ’70s. It’s a fascinating story, and the story starts with Rick Hall, an enterprising producer who grew up surrounded by relentless poverty and tragedy (Hall’s brother, father, and first wife all died hellish deaths, and his mother topped things off by leaving home and becoming a prostitute). Hall had a vision of better times, though, and opened a recording studio called FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, recruiting musicians from various local bands to form his session pool, a pool that includedBarry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), David Hood (bass), Jimmy Johnson (guitar), Pete Carr (guitar), and Spooner Oldham (organ), among others. These were “the Swampers,” as Lynyrd Skynyrd immortalized them in the song “Sweet Home Alabama,” and they gelled into a top-notch R&B band whose recognizable sound put them on a par with Motown’s Funk Brothers, Stax’s MG’s, and California’s Wrecking Crew. Hit after hit poured out of FAME, and after the Swampers jumped ship in 1969 to open their own Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, more hits followed with them. This set, the soundtrack to Greg Camalier’s 2013 documentary film Muscle Shoals, plays like a dream with classic sides like Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” Etta James’ “Tell Mama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo,” and Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” providing a snapshot of the genius and history of the Swampers, and it’s just the tip of the archival iceberg.
Thirteen tracks could never do justice to Muscle Shoals, the Alabama town whose studios and session musicians revolutionized R&B in the Sixties. But as a souvenir of the current documentary, in which Bono, Keith Richards and Alicia Keys pay tribute, this will do just fine. Soul treasures like Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” will be revelations to the uninitiated. And the torrid solo by then-unknown Duane Allman on Wilson Pickett’s cover of “Hey Jude” captures the Deep South musical miscegenation that helped make Muscle Shoals so boundary-breaking – and still so thrilling to encounter.