The narrow concrete building stands quiet now along Jackson Highway, its big black door locked securely. The only sign of life is a barbecue grill leaning by a side door, but the brass numbers read “3614,” so you know you’ve got the right place.
Back in the ’70s some of the best pop music in the world came out of this building in Sheffield, Ala. (pop. 9,652). The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio helped the Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, and dozens more make magic on Jackson Highway.
Headquarters of the local recording industry was a few miles away in Muscle Shoals, near Florence. It’s still there on Avalon Avenue, where a sign outside reads, “FAME Recording Studios, Where it all started.” (FAME stands for Florence, Ala., Music Enterprises.)
Inside, the entrance to the main studio bears the words, “Through these doors walk the finest musicians, songwriters, artists, and producers in the world.”
Daniel Beard, current studio manager, hits some of FAME’s high points. “Wilson Pickett cut Mustang Sally and Land Of A Thousand Dances here,” he says. “Mac Davis cut Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me. And in the next room,” Beard says, referring to FAME’s smaller studio, “Duane Allman held auditions for the Allman Brothers Band.”
Back in the ’60s, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, Florence, and Tuscumbia were small southern towns connected by country roads. Over the years they sprawled together, adjoined by four-lane highways.
The Muscle Shoals music industry began to roll in 1959 when studio owner Tom Stafford took in two partners. One, a musician named Billy Sherrill, eventually moved to Nashville, Tenn., and produced dozens of country hits with Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Charlie Rich, and others. The other partner, Rick Hall, cut his first pop hit with Arthur Alexander, a song called You Better Move On. Other hits followed, and Muscle Shoals gained a reputation as the place where artists could cut hit records.
“We had a great time,” says Barry Beckett, a Birmingham native who moved up to Muscle Shoals and became one of the top keyboard players in town. “That’s what made it feel like a family—or a bunch of friends who just happened to be playing on a record. But we also knew we were doing it for a living, so we had to have a professional attitude.”
In 1966 the Muscle Shoals area had its first international smash, Percy Sledge’s recording of When A Man Loves A Woman recorded at Quin Ivy’s Norala Sound Studios in Sheffield. By 1968, Rick Hall’s studio ensemble, which besides Beckett included guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bass player David Hood, and drummer Roger Hawkins, was in demand by artists from all over America to record their music.
The ensemble eventually opened its own studio in the building at 3614 Jackson Highway. A year later the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio had its first hit, R. B. Greaves’ smash recording of Take a Letter, Maria. The old block building rocked for nine years before the owners, now world-famous as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, moved into bigger quarters, where the hits kept coming—most notably the Bob Seger classic, Old Time Rock ’n’ Roll.
“I started feeling the slowdown when disco started coming in,” Beckett recalls. The music in Muscle Shoals was built around its core of musicians, and when the business began to fall off, the players moved elsewhere. Beckett went to Nashville and became a successful producer, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section dispersed—mostly to Memphis, Tenn., and Nashville.
Today, Muscle Shoals (pop. 11,924) is still a destination for recording stars. In 1998 the Backstreet Boys did some work at FAME, and last year the country group Alabama cut some sides there. “We have lots going on here that people don’t know about, especially in music publishing and songwriting,” Beard says.
Still, it’s hard to forget the decades when stars came from all over the pop music world to make music on Jackson Highway with a team of musical geniuses known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.