Out July 19, this in-depth look at the fabled musical Alabama hotbed examines what gave the Muscle Shoals sound such cultural power.
The legendary music that rolled out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the 1960s and ’70s shaped hits by everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones and Paul Simon. Many artists trekked to FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals in search of the sound of authentic Southern black music. The mostly white studio musicians waiting to play for them surprised many an artist, as did the hitmaking production process that defined the scene. Music and Mystique in Muscle Shoals reveals the people, places and events behind one of the most famous recording scenes in American history.
Read an excerpt about Paul Simon’s sound from Music and Mystique in Muscle Shoals by author Christopher M. Reali below.
“LAND OF 1000 DANCES”
New York used to be the center of the music world and
of the recording industry; now the business has gone to
Los Angeles and London and most of all to the South,
to Nashville and Atlanta and Memphis and Macon and
Muscle Shoals, a north Alabama town of 4,000 people.
—John Egerton, 1974
Paul Simon asked Stax Records executive Al Bell in 1972 who the funky Jamaican musicians were on “I’ll Take You There,” a reggae-infused track by the Staple Singers. Bell responded that the band was the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a group of musicians who owned and operated a recording studio in northwest Alabama called Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Bell also told Simon that they were white and not Black like Simon had imagined. In an effort to capture the unique sound and feel he heard on “I’ll Take You There,” Simon recorded several tracks with the MSRS, including “Kodachrome,” “Loves Me Like a Rock,” and “American Tune” for his 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. The rock music press also picked up on Simon’s intentions and new musical direction. Reviewing the album for Rolling Stone, Stephen Holden remarked that Simon’s “chief new musical element . . .—one he has hitherto eschewed—is black music,” including “R&B and gospel motifs,” and that the singer had recorded “more than half” of the album in Muscle Shoals. Both “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock” peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100, and There Goes Rhymin’ Simon received a Grammy nomination for Best Album.
Simon’s musical and racial assumptions exemplify the Muscle Shoals mystique: regional outsiders seeking “authentic” southern (Black) musical experiences. Throughout much of the twentieth century, particularly in the early decades, Tin Pan Alley songwriters, movies produced in Hollywood, and Madison Avenue advertising executives constructed one image of the South. Jack Kirby described this narrative of southern identity developed by industries outside the region as “media-made Dixie.” In many cases, this image revealed an exotic South: a pastoral region that became in the minds of some the opposite of the industrialized North. These nightmares and fantasies, facts and fictions, have long captured the country’s imagination to create a composite portrait of southern identity. Executives within the fledgling 1920s recording industry ventured south and discovered a wealth of untapped talent in both white and Black performers, which, to their astonishment, sold millions of records. The desire by those within the recording industry to “look south” for their next big hit continued into the 1960s. With increased social and political capital beginning in the 1950s, Black R&B and soul performers now found themselves in a previously unprecedented position: songs they recorded dominated the airwaves and the pop record charts. A significant number of those hits were recorded in studios located in the South by Black musicians with southern roots. As these tracks by Black performers played from radios and turntables, other musicians and record executives began to take notice of where the songs had been recorded, and in many instances the location was Muscle Shoals. “You Better Move On,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Mustang Sally,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Sweet Soul Music,” and many other tracks recorded in the Shoals received both critical and popular praise. New York-based Atlantic Records primarily cultivated the image of FAME as an off-the-beaten-path recording studio staffed with talented musicians who lacked formal training but had the uncanny ability to consistently produce hits. These notions circulated via personal contact with the Alabama musicians through other singers and industry personnel, as well as through LPs and 45s. Each tributary helped to further the Muscle Shoals mystique. An aura formed around this North Alabama region while hit R&B tracks distributed the Muscle Shoals sound, with the result that the Shoals became a recording destination for artists not directly associated with “Black” music who sought a connection to a southern musical past and a culturally revered musical aesthetic. The fetishization of Muscle Shoals through the R&B tracks produced there helped to secure the “authenticity” of these cultural products as the recordings fluidly moved from one location to another. For many people within the popular music industry and the public, the recording industry in Muscle Shoals represented the continuation of an imagined South manifested in sound.
Chris Kenner, a New Orleans–based musician wrote, recorded and released “Land of 1000 Dances” to little acclaim in 1962. In an effort to capitalize on the dance craze started by Chubby Checker’s hit song “The Twist,” Kenner appropriated and rewrote “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” a spiritual in which the narrator details all the places he can send his followers. Kenner’s opening lyrics are nearly identical to the spiritual, but he sends his “children” to the “Land of 1000 Dances.” The introduction to Kenner’s version explains the title of the song. The introduction notwithstanding, Kenner’s lyric lists sixteen popular dances with some rhymes or near-rhymes tossed in to complete the couplets. The “Land of 1000 Dances” is a mythical place. “You gotta know how to Pony,” exclaims Kenner, while the chorus responds, “Oh, yeah!” One night in 1963 while Cannibal and the Headhunters, a group of Mexican American musicians based in Los Angeles, were performing “Land of 1000 Dances” at a gig, singer Frankie “Cannibal” Garcia forgot the words and ad-libbed the nonsense lyrics “Naa na na na na.” The band and the crowd loved it. The Headhunters recorded their version with the newly composed lyrics but not Kenner’s introduction, and the tune became a radio hit in 1963. Wilson Pickett recorded his supercharged version of the song in 1966 at FAME based on the Headhunters’ track, adding his own vocal ad-libs. Pickett’s recording became his biggest hit, as well as one of the most recognizable pop songs of the twentieth century. The overwhelming popularity of the Pickett version has all but erased the meaning behind the title and the song’s connection to the spiritual. “Land of 1000 Dances”—written by a Black musician from New Orleans, popularized by an LA-based Chicano R&B band, and then immortalized by a Black Alabama-born singer accompanied by white studio musicians—is a song that for many exemplified soul. “Land of 1000 Dances” has become myth.
From Music and Mystique in Muscle Shoals by Christopher M. Reali. Copyright 2022 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.