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Muscle men flexed their musical chops

NORMALLY only Roman Abramovich could afford a ticket for a gig that featured the likes of Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Percy Sledge and Steve Winwood.

STUDIO MAESTRO: Rick Hall had his hands on the controls.
STUDIO MAESTRO: Rick Hall had his hands on the controls.

You can catch the lot, however, for the price of a cinema ticket to see Muscle Shoals, a new documentary exploring the sounds to come from the titular small town in Colbert County, Alabama, USA.

What Detroit was to Motown and Abbey Road was to the Beatles, so Muscle Shoals is to the history of rhythm and blues. Pick a hit from the Sixties and Seventies and chances are it first came out of speakers in Muscle Shoals. And the man in charge of those speakers was likely to be Rick Hall, the record producer who founded the FAME studios in the town.

Now 79, and a legend within the music business from the Sixties, wider fame is arriving late in life for Hall.

"Most people I've talked to are amazed that I did these things and the world never knew that they were recorded in Muscle Shoals, a small town of 5000 people," he says from his home in Alabama.

Directed by Greg Camalier, Muscle Shoals traces the story of Hall's studio and others in developing the Muscle Shoals sound: a rich, funky, sexy, bass heavy, feel-it-in the-soles-of-your-shoes style that spans everything from Mustang Sally and When a Man Loves a Woman to Chain of Fools via Wild Horses.

Muscle Shoals originally struggled to get on the wider map with record companies because all the attention went to New York and LA, says Hall.

"They think where there is a bigger population there must be more talent there than there is in the small towns. But in fact, most of your big name artists that come from America come from the south - Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana. We think that's because of hard times, and people who buy records relate to hard work. New York or LA don't understand that."

Hall came from a dirt poor background. The son of a sawmill worker, he started out in the business as a musician. It was when he built the first studio in Muscle Shoals, however, and sat behind the mixing desk, that he found his true calling.

Besides the hits, Muscle Shoals was famous for bringing together black musicians and white musicians. The racial politics of the South were toxic, but once through the doors of a Muscle Shoals studio, all men and women were equals - as long as they could cut it as performers, that is. For the most part, says Hall, no fuss was made when the studio would empty and everyone would head out to dinner together.

"The people here in Alabama didn't know that we were recording hit records and really didn't give a damn. They couldn't care less about what goes on in the music business," says Hall.

If there had been trouble, one gets the impression from the documentary that Hall would have been more than up to the task of handling it. Keith Richards lovingly dubs him "a total maniac" for the way he fought for his artists and to produce the best records possible. One of his favourites was Etta James. The two were of similar straight arrow temperament, says Hall.

"She was a pleasure to work with because you never had to guess what she was thinking, what she thought of your productions, the song or whatever."

James's first hit, Tell Momma, was recorded at FAME. At one point, though, it might not have happened at all, such were James's feelings about the song.

"She said to me, 'Rick I hate this song, I'm going to do this sonofabtich one more time then I'm not going to do it ever again.' That's the kind of woman she was and how she talked to me. But I understood that and I knew it was with love. She cared so much about her records and other people's feelings."

There was a similar tussle with Clarence Carter, who did not want to record Patches ("My papa was a great old man, I can see him with a shovel in his hands") because he felt it was demeaning to African-Americans. Hall argued right back, saying it was the story of his childhood and his father. The record, like so many of Hall's, went to No 1.

Dealing with big personalities, Hall had to have one to match. "I've always been able to bend and go with the crowd, but at the same time I usually always got my way because I was sort of a conniver, I was my own guy. I didn't believe anybody knew more about producing hit records than I did. I was not to be swayed much."

To Hall, the Muscle Shoals sound means a heavy bass and drum, a lot of great guitar pickers - and as funky as possible. "We always tried to cut records with dance grooves. Even if it was a love song we would not attempt to cut a waltz or a foxtrot or whatever. We stuck to the tried and true and we always liked to get a little sex in the mix if we could. I always thought that sold and I still think it sells. Not brazen sex, just subtle, nice things."

With three sons, five grandchildren and now his place in music history cemented at last with the documentary, Hall could retire but won't. "If you love your work, what would you do if you couldn't produce records?" he asks. That said, he reckons it's harder today to find what he is after in an artist, that unique sound that makes them unlike any other.

"I'm not looking for another Willie Nelson or another Elvis. I'm looking for an original guy that sounds like nobody you've ever heard before. That's who I determine who I'm going to work with."

He wondered at first if the audience was there for a documentary on Muscle Shoals. It was a point he put to Bono, who appears in the film. The U2 frontman reassured him that a return to old school was just what was needed in these slickly packaged times. He admired the film so much he wanted to play Hall if they ever made a feature film. Hall told him he couldn't. "I said, 'You're too short'."

Besides recognition for the Muscle Shoals sound it must be nice for Hall to be recognised more widely, I suggest.

"I've waited almost 50 years for someone to make a film about Muscle Shoals. We saw them about Motown, Nashville, Los Angeles, Chicago but nobody came around."

Well now they have.

Muscle Shoals will be released in cinemas from Friday 25 October and is showing at Birks Cinema, Aberfeldy, November 2 and 6; Vue Omni, Edinburgh, November 12; Belmont, Aberdeen and Cameo, Edinburgh, December 10. More dates being added: visit www.muscleshoals.co.uk

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