THE MUSIC OF MUSCLE SHOALS
By Johnnie W. Lewis
There’s a little tiny town in northern Alabama, about 25 miles from the Tennessee state line, on the Tennessee River. In the olden days, the river was shallow and ran over the smooth pebbles in the bottom, called the shoals, while that water fed the gazillions of muscles (a shellfish, like oysters and clams) that lived there. The water running over those shoals produced a lyrical, musical sound, that sounded like a woman singing, and the Indians called the area the Water Spirit. Once the river was dammed up in a couple of places, the water level rose. And the area became known as Muscle Shoals.
Today, music still lives in the town of Muscle Shoals. There are three (and have been as many as five) music recording studios there, three of which we toured today. FAME (stands for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Recording Studio was started by Rick Hall in 1961, but in 1966, when he recorded for Percy Sledge his signature song “When A Man Loves A Woman,” the song became a smash hit for Sledge and ALL of the Motown singers wanted to record there. When Paul Simon wanted to record there, he told Rick that he wanted those “same 4 black guys who backed up Percy Sledge” to play for him. Little did he know that “The Swampers” were 4 white guys who played Soul Music as if they were born to it.
When the Swampers left to form their own studio, at 3614 Jackson Highway, the rest became history. Cher came to record her solo album, “3614 Jackson Highway, Cher” followed by dozens of pop and rock and roll singers, including The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Marie Osmond, Alicia Keys, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Traffic, The Staples Singers, Rod Stewart, etc., etc., etc.
Cypress Moon Studios is located in a former Naval Reserve Training facility in the nearby town of Sheffield and when Tonya Holly bought the building, it became the largest recording studio, square footage wise, on the planet. Julian Lennon (John Lennon’s son) wrote his first #1 hit there, sitting on a rock out front as he looked out at the peaceful Tennessee River flowing by, and recorded it at the studio. Tonya has written, produced, and directed several movies from the studio, along with producing songs by the likes of Bob Seger, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Glenn Frey of The Eagles, Jimmy Buffet, and countless others.
Each studio charges a fee for tours, and these are NOT child-friendly facilities. There’s nothing to see that would interest them and since they have no knowledge of the singers/songwriters/guitar players, etc. who have performed there, you would be better served, as would the others on the tour, if you leave the little dahlin’s somewhere else!! The studios do not have “minimum age” requirements, but it’s obvious that
with nothing for them to do, you won’t enjoy your tour when you are constantly having to tell your child/ren “stop that” “don’t touch that” and feeling/hearing them tug at you while you’re trying to listen to the tour guide. FAME charges $10/person, 3614 Jackson Highway charges $12/person, and Cypress Moon charges $10/person for tours of the facilities. And each studio has its own restrictions on whether or not you can take pictures in certain areas.
There is little that impresses me these days, since I’ve been kissed by Robert Goulet and get to sleep with Jimmy Lewis every night, but this has taken my “impressions” to a higher plane. If and WHEN you get the chance to tour these music recording studios, take it! Another recommendation is that, if you get the chance to see the documentary made in 2013 of the studios in the area, entitled “Muscle Shoals,” watch it. You will feel that you are hearing the Indian maiden singing to her loved ones.