Aretha Franklin in Muscle Shoals

Friday A/V Club: Race and music in 1960s Alabama



When Aretha Franklin arrived in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1967, she was one of the greatest singers in the world but hardly anybody knew it. She'd been showing up occasionally on the R&B charts, and she had grazed the lower rungs of the pop top 40 once, with—of all things—a version of the old Al Jolson hit "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody." But she wasn't a star yet, and she hadn't yet found the sound that would make her one. She recorded some blues songs, some jazz standards, and a lot of material in what was seen as a "sophisticated" pop mode; she acquitted herself well, but she hadn't shown what she was capable of doing. That changed at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, which spent the '60s producing some of the earthiest, grittiest soul music around.

The first song Franklin recorded there, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)," encapsulated both the new direction her career was about to take and the FAME sound that was propelling her there. There's the slinky electric keyboard that starts the song off, and the acoustic piano that chimes in later in a thundering gospel style; there's a tight rhythm section, and the horns painting a shifting series of colors behind the singer. And then there's Aretha's voice, devoting every technique she learned from singing in church to a topic that's far more worldly. (She was playing that piano too, by the way. Her voice was her greatest musical gift, but it wasn't her only one.)

In popular consciousness, this music was much more "black" than the poppy products coming out of Motown at the time. But if you did a racial breakdown of the people working behind the scenes, Motown would be a Black Power success story while Muscle Shoals, in the unlikely location of 1960s Alabama, would be integration's great hope. The cultural historian Charles Hughes once described the FAME sessions of the '60s as "white rhythm sections combined with integrated horn sections to play on songs by primarily white songwriters sung by black artists, for sale primarily to black audiences (by white-owned record companies)." Musically speaking, the results were frequently brilliant; socially speaking, it was certainly preferable to what you'd find in Montgomery at the time.

Still, it wasn't free of tensions. And the most notorious example of things going wrong at FAME came during the Franklin sessions, which fell apart after the musicians started recording a second song, the country-soul ballad "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man." The fight that erupted wasn't purely a matter of race. In particular, there was the problem that Aretha's husband thought one of the trumpet players was hitting on his wife. But given that the clash culminated with husband and studio man shouting racial slurs at each other at a local motel, it's safe to say that Muscle Shoals, inspiring as its music could be, had not unlocked the secret to perfect ethnic harmony. Franklin scrammed back north, swearing she'd never return.

But she didn't need FAME Studios anymore. Muscle Shoals had shown everyone what she could do and be, and now she was going to sit at the top of the world doing and being it. She recorded countless fantastic records in the time between those sessions in 1967 and her death this week at age 76, and I'm not really sure which performance is my favorite. But I know which one is the most essential:

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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  1. Her husband was a lowlife moron. And Franklin only recording a few songs with the Muscle Shoals people is one of the great what ifs in popular music history. No group of musicians ever understood Franklin and her talent better than the guys a Fame. In many ways, Franklin never did anything as good as the few songs she did with them. History is left to wonder what they might have produced had Franklin’s husband not been such a lowlife.

    That it happened at all is a tribute to the genius of Jerry Wexler who signed a then pretty mediocre Franklin to Atlantic Records and both understood her talent and knew exactly what was needed to bring it out. Wexler was the one who took Franklin to Alabama.

    1. No group of musicians ever understood Franklin and her talent better than the guys a Fame.

      You probably know this story, but Jerry Wexler had a bunch of them come up to New York to record some more with her up there, making up a story that they’d be playing behind someone else. Then the FAME bosses back in Muscle Shoals figured out what was happening and made up a story of their own about needing the players back in Alabama. There went that.

      1. And some of them played individually on other records. Roger Hawkins was the drummer on Chain of Fools if I am not mistaken. Foretuely Wexler went out and found other southern musicians to back her up. Some of those songs are just electric.

    2. In many ways, Franklin never did anything as good as the few songs she did with them.

      Well that’s just nonsense. She recorded one song (and one partial) with them.

      The Swampers were certainly critical in helping white bands incorporate black sounds/rhythms into their music – which previous to that (or at least post-1960) had occurred mainly in ENGLAND. But it is ludicrous to pretend that they understood either Franklin or her talent better than anyone else.

      The big what-if of music then was — what-if Stax had been treated better by Jerry Wexler and Atlantic. They weren’t – in large part because Stax HAD no other distribution options precisely they were a mixed studio. Stax is where Aretha was supposed to record – but Stax and Atlantic were in a dispute about Wilson Pickett. In all likelihood, a better working relationship between Stax and Atlantic would have pulled in James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and George Clinton – which would have pulled in a ton of instrumental talent (beyond Booker T and the MG’s – the Stax house band) )from the jazz and blues worlds who all had frustrations working with white-owned labels.

      1. Fair points. But that one song was her best. Sorry but “Think” doesn’t measure up. But you are correct, Booker T and the MGs would have done amazing work with her as well.

        1. They kinda got their chance later. The Blues Brothers band was basically the Stax rhythm section (guitar bass drum) plus SNL band plus some horns. So even way post-peak for her voice and post-peak for their rhythm skills and a less talented band and close to antique age for the audience, that funkified Aretha from the film and Who’s Zoomin Who era of the 80’s is the first recollection of a lot of people when they heard she died.

          The 1967/1968 albums were as much a musical trap for her as a breakthrough to being Queen of Soul. Her voice could have fronted a ton of styles – and it was Wexler not her who drove her into a bit of a musical rut. Mainly to avoid controversy.

          Even in that peak 1968 with a very conventional style, Aretha was blasted for her rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at the DNC Convention and not because of her flub-up

          Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix all wanted to record with her by then (and before) but the only way then to get different people from different labels to play together was thru an independent recording studio. The only place that could accommodate that – with talent to fill in – was Stax. What couldabeen with Aretha experimenting with soul, funk, Latin, blues growling, jazz scatting, and synthesizers in the late60’s and early 70’s.

    3. Her husband was a lowlife moron.

      Probably. But without him, Think doesn’t exist. And IMO, that’s not only Aretha’s best song – it may be one of the top10 songs ever.

  2. Aretha Franklin Live at the Fillmore West is one of the top five live records ever made. She was at her peak and is just unbelievable. It is one thing to cover a great song and sound good. Any good singer can do that. It is quite another thing to cover a shit song like Steven Stills “Love the One Your With” and make is sound great. And Franklin does that on this record.

    There is another record called “Gospel Masters” that came out in the early 2000s. It is her when she was like 15 recorded singing in her father’s church in Detroit. It is some unbelievable shit. People throw around the term “soul” a lot. That record is as close to the purest form of whatever “soul” is that you could find.

  3. rumor is they needed a slide guitar once and she says “get me that white cat” and nobody blinked about who it meant … her “The Weight” w/Duane Allman is spectacular.

    1. That is a good one. Allman was stoned so much the people at FAME called him Skydog. What a great nickname.

  4. The Muscle Shoals doc is amazing in what it reveals about R&B and R&R in the 60s and 70s. The first time I watched it, being a huge if not avid fan of Aretha, this bit here blew me away:

    The best part was that the musicians were black and the other colour, all working together. But that it was ‘the turning point’ in my career, as per Aretha, is … a lot.

    Music is colour blind.

    1. The sad part of the story is that after the MLK assassination, nothing was ever really the same. It was kind of one brief, shining moment.

      There was something about that place. That is where the Rolling Stones recorded Brown Sugar, which is probably the best groove they ever did. Magical things happened in North Alabama for a few years.

      1. Exile on Main St. is their best but yeh Brown Sugar is pretty damn sweet.

        1. I like some of Exile but not all. I think their best overall record was either Let it Bleed or Beggar’s Banquet. Other than maybe the Beatles, no bad has ever had a run of four records like those two, Sticky Fingers and Exile.

        2. Exile lives on – phish still plays Loving Cup (heard it 7/31 in Austin) and Shine a Light … Black Crowes used to play a killer Torn and Frayed when they got along well enough to tour

          my fave Stones is Monkey Man

          1. My favorite Stones is Gimme Shelter and then probably Street Fighting Man.

            1. Love Gimme Shelter, probably my favorite Stones song.

              Exiled on Main Street is a masterpiece.

  5. Hey, cheer up.

    At least Lou Reed is still around.

    1. Lou left the building last year or maybe the year after. He has been quiet for a while though.

  6. “In popular consciousness, this music was much more “black” than the poppy products coming out of Motown at the time.”

    It was.

    Motown was “race music” for a white audience.

    Stax was much closer to what you’d hear at a black church.

    Smoky Robinson and Diana Ross were meant to be played on “white stations”, and that’s why they sounded the way they did.

    Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin weren’t necessarily like that.

    I suppose it’s hard for people who don’t remember before the internet, when music distribution was all about radio. The markets were traditionally broken down by demographics, especially race–going well into the 1980s. White people mostly never heard the music on Soul Train unless they went to a roller skating rink. MTV initially wouldn’t play Michael Jackson videos because he was black and they were going for a white audience.

    Black stations
    White stations
    Break down the door
    Dance on the ceiling with us
    This is 1984.

    That all fell apart with Yo! MTV Raps circa 1988 and died with the emergence of the internet.

    1. It wasn’t quite that simple. Motown had a lot of black fans too. And unlike today, white artists could have big hits in the black community. Songs like Bennie and the Jets or Another One Bites the Dust got a lot of play on black stations.

  7. There was always a flip side to Vanilla Ice doing rap/Pat Boone doing “Tutti Frutti”, and it was black artists doing watered down black music for a white audience. American popular music seems to have always been about the struggle between authenticity and accessibility–going back to the days before broadcast radio when it was about sheet music. Hell, the defining characteristic of American music is probably “call and response”, and that goes further back than black churches. That goes back to work songs from the fields. If we still think of something (or someone like a rapper) as being especially authentic because it’s black, realize, it’s been like that for a very, very long time.

    And I’d say Stax really was more authentic in that sense than Motown.

    1. Call and response goes back to the English Protestant Church.

      1. Hell, it goes back to ancient times. It was a way to propagate songs/poems orally.

        1. It’s influence in American music goes back to black culture especially associated with work songs.


          Gospel, Blues, Jazz, Country music, even! American music is all about call and response, and while that call and response may have existed elsewhere as well, the influence it had in American music came from work songs.

          1. But the work songs used call and response because they heard it from Protestant churches. I do not think African Music had a tradition of call and response.

        2. In standard blues, the first line is always repeated as a response in the second line. The third line is typically a response to third.

          If it keeps on rainin’, levee gonna break.
          If it keeps on rainin’, levee gonna break.
          If the levee breaks, have no place to stay.

    2. >>>And I’d say Stax really was more authentic in that sense than Motown.

      yes. also agreeing w/much of what you wrote on entire page.

  8. One of the all-time greats. RIP the Queen of Soul.

    1. Now that she has passed on I’m the Queen of Soul.

      1. flag. planted.

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