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|Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, the Alabama venue where Aretha Franklin,|
Bob Dylan, Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones and Paul Simon all made
classic records, has closed its doors forever.
"It's a sad day in America," says producer, session musician and
arranger Al Kooper. "So many great records were made there. The
musicians, engineers and the magic of the room made it special."
Muscle Shoals Sound Studios was founded in 1969 in an old Sheffield,
Alabama, casket warehouse by musicians Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins,
David Hood and Jimmy Johnson, who doubled as its famous house band,
the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (a.k.a. "the Swampers," as
immortalized in Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama"). Their first client
was Cher, who recorded her 3614 Jackson Highway album there, and named
it after the studio's address.
Atlantic Records producer/executive Jerry Wexler was an early
supporter, booking many of the label's artists into the studio. "It
seemed we could do nothing but make good records: Wilson Pickett,
Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson -- Lulu came from England," says
Wexler. "We had this little hideaway, this little retreat with these
really terrific musicians, these incredible white boys who played the
blues so authentically that it caused a lot of head-scratching. The
best part of my career was not the gold records or the Hall of Fame or
awards -- it was hearing the music being recorded live at that time."
After more than three decades of operation, the studio -- which moved
to a 31,000 square-foot building on the banks of the Tennessee River
in 1978 -- recorded its last sessions in December and shuttered on
January 14th because of declining business. The two Neve consoles have
been sold to studios in Los Angeles and Detroit, the studio owners are
exploring donating memorabilia to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and a
local film production company has purchased the property.
"It almost brought me to tears when I had to do this," says co-owner
Wolf Stephenson, who, along with his two fellow executives of
blues/gospel label Malaco Records, purchased the studio from the
Rhythm Section members in 1985. "It's heartbreaking."
"It's a strange thing," adds Hood. "All of a sudden, the gold records
are down off the walls . . . I'm not sure I know what to think yet."
However, for artists like Bob Seger -- who, after hearing the Rhythm
Section's work on Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music," recorded five
albums at Muscle Shoals -- it was not the building but the band that
made the studio special. "Muscle Shoals did the ballads like 'Main
Street' much better than my band," Seger says. "The wonderful thing
about them is the second you started playing the song, it sounded like
Another attraction was that the studio's small-town location was far
away from big-city distractions and prying eyes. "The town never
impinged upon anyone," says Wexler, recalling a day when the Rolling
Stones ordered breakfast at the local Howard Johnson's. "One little
waitress said, 'Are you a group?' One of the members said, 'Yeah,
we're a group. We're Martha and the Vandellas.'"
Scottish-born rocker Mark Knopfler, who first recorded with Bob Dylan
at the studio, found the cuisine somewhat lacking. "Jerry introduced
me to salted ham and grits," he says of Wexler. "I don't understand
grits. To me, they always tasted like wet newspaper." But, for
Knopfler, recording at Muscle Shoals made it all worth it. "Laptops
and home stations are fine, but it's another thing to be in a proper
recording studio full of creative people all sharing in the same piece
of music at the same time."
Hood, whose son Patterson fronts the Drive-By Truckers, maintains that
all that magic still resides in Alabama. "I don't want the closing of
Muscle Shoals Sound to make anybody think that music is no longer
happening here," he says. "It's been happening since before I started,
and it's still going on today. It was always the people."