The Backstory of Muscle Shoals

Written by: Sarah Sparks | Troy University Music Industry Intern | Muscle Shoals Song Rooms Intern 2020

October 12, 2020

The Shoals has been historically referred to as “The Hit Recording Capital of the World”, and rightfully so – the musical influence of this area has been integral in creating the distinctive sound recorded in iconic hit songs throughout the years, such as Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” and Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman”.

But how was this famous “sound” created? What relationships were built, rebuilt, and collaborated on to generate this renowned fusion of rhythm and style?

The Origins

In 1959, then songwriters Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill teamed up with Tom Stafford, the owner of Stafford Publishing and Recording (SPAR) in Florence, AL. Through their partnership, they created Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME). Their alliance was brief, however, and the team split in 1960. Soon after, Sherrill left to work in Nashville with producer Sam Phillips and Hall took the FAME name to Muscle Shoals. 

FAME Studios

After its first international success of Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On”, Hall moved FAME Studios from its original location on Wilson Dam Highway to its current location at 603 East Avalon Avenue. Hall brought in studio musicians Norbert Putnam, David Briggs, Peanut Montgomery, and Jerry Culligan who would come to be known as the original Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. This group was eventually sought after by Nashville music moguls, and they left FAME as a team to pursue Nashville success. 

The Swampers

Hall rebuilt his rhythm section with musicians Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Jimmy Johnson – these new members were initially named “The Second FAME Gang” but became widely known as “The Swampers”. They were featured on recorded hits such as Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” and Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away”. 

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio

In 1969, “The Swampers” left FAME and ventured to nearby Sheffield, AL to open Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The four members acted as equal partners in their business, handling all operational aspects as well as serving as the studio’s musicians. During the first nine years at their original location on Jackson Highway, “The Swampers” played on over 200 albums and 100 hit records, collaborating with acts such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, Staples Singers, Willie Nelson, Cat Stevens, and many more. In 1978, the studio had outgrown its original facility and moved to a larger venue on Alabama Avenue, where it remained until 2005. That location is now home to Cypress Moon Studios, and Muscle Shoals Sound is back at its original location at a 3614 N Jackson Highway. 

What’s Happened Since Then?

FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio were the trailblazers in building the music community in The Shoals area. Since then, The Shoals has become home to more music businesses such as Wishbone Studios, The Nutthouse Recording Studio, Muscle Shoals Mastering, Noise Block Music Group, Ivy Manor at the Shoals, and Muscle Shoals Song Rooms. 

The Shoals remains to be a driving force in the recording of hit artists over the past 20 years, including The Black Keys, Christ Stapleton, Kid Rock, Aloe Blacc, and many more. The historical music culture of the area continues to attract musical acts now and for years to come.