When people think of an amazing scene in the 1900’s one would hardly think of a small town in Alabama. However, when it pertained to the blues, there was no better place to be. perhaps the best place to be! No matter the skin tone or the artist, it appears many artists were looking for a sound unlike any other. That’s when the Shoals came into play, and many artists — like Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge — found a comfort in the unique and influential sound that came from the Shoals.
The birth of the blues sound is attributed to the work of W.C. Handy, an African-American who made it a life-long mission to fuse the powerful blues music to the popular ragtime music of the early 1900’s. His work is a part of what made the Shoals a hot spot for a different sound that most were striving to get ahold of.
But artists other than Handy brought their style to the Shoals, hoping to make a big hit courtesy of the inspiring area.
Arthur Conley, commonly referred to as Otis Redding’s protege, wrote the song “Sweet Soul Music” in 1967, based on Sam Cooke’s song “Yeah Man.” Redding insisted Conley record the jam at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, and the rest is history. It reached the No. 2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts. The song pays homage to many soul singers, including The Miracles, Lou Rawls and Wilson Pickett, another Shoals icon.
From the familiar “na-na-na,” everyone knows Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” — or would know it if they heard it. Also recorded at Fame, the song sold a million copies and is now featured in films and games like “Just Dance.” Pickett also recorded “Mustang Sally” and a cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” with a band featuring Duane Allman on guitar during his time with Fame.
The Shoals sound helped break Etta James out of her shell and release hits that not only made the charts, but are foundational blues songs covered by many aspiring artists.
And let’s not forget the ladies of R&B with their powerful voices and heartbreaking lyrics. Etta James was an iconic soul artist, but many don’t know of her musical abstinence for two years prior to recording the hits “Tell Mama” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.” The Shoals sound helped break her out of her shell and release hits that not only made the charts, but are foundational blues songs covered by many aspiring artists.
Similarly, Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” skyrocketed to the top of the R&B charts and made the top 10 for Billboard. The success pushed her forward as she recorded two more chart-toppers that year for Atlantic Records, and she dropped the Otis Redding’s famous “Respect,” launching her career into iconic territory.
The artistic work during this time was some of the most influential songs in the world, recorded at Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. But there is so much more to the period than The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
Muscle Shoals was and continues to be a place of sanctuary for musicians with every background and every skin color, united under one passion: Music.