Meccas of Southern Soul: Memphis & Muscle Shoals

Two towns situated 150 miles apart were a combined ground zero for the development of Southern soul during the 1960s...

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Two towns situated 150 miles apart were a combined ground zero for the development of Southern soul during the 1960s. Memphis was urban, Muscle Shoals comparatively rural, and their respective recording studios produced dozens of searing soul hits. Two towns situated 150 miles apart were a combined ground zero for the development of Southern soul during the 1960s. Memphis was urban, Muscle Shoals comparatively rural, and their respective recording studios produced dozens of searing soul hits.

Memphis was a longtime African-American entertainment hotbed, its wide-open Beale St. dotted with swinging nightclubs. Sam Phillips opened his Memphis Recording Service in 1950, soon attracting bluesmen B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner. During the mid-‘50s, Phillips’ Sun Records defined rockabilly, introducing Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, while cementing the town’s reputation as a burgeoning recording center.

Satellite Records was properly launched there in 1960 by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton. Headquartered in a former movie theater, the label was renamed Stax the following year (a sister label, Volt, was also established). Over the next 15 years, they issued an avalanche of R&B smashes by Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla, Booker T. & the MGs, Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and more.

“We tried to take what people would refer to maybe [as] Delta blues or that sort of thing, which was at the time not very commercial and not very marketable, and we tried to take that feel of music, that, along with gospel, and make it commercial,” says MGs’ guitarist Steve Cropper, one of the firm’s top producers and songwriters. “Make it something that could be played on the radio that could be sold on records.”

William Bell was one of Stax’s first hitmakers. The young singer had already logged time with a vocal group, the Del-Rios, and toured with Phineas Newborn, Sr.’s orchestra. “Chips Moman, who was a producer and musician at Satellite at that time, was asking me about recording some, so I just put it off,” says Bell. “The group kind of fell apart, and then I decided to try my luck solo.” Bell cut the resplendent “You Don’t Miss Your Water? At his first Stax session in 196161. “I was traveling with Phineas’s band during the summer,” he says. “We were working in Long Island, and I guess I got homesick. I wrote this song during that particular time of touring with old man Phineas’s band.” Bell’s heartfelt ballad was an early Stax landmark.

The most important ingredient in the Stax sound was its skin-tight house band, Booker T. & the MGs. Cropper, keyboardist Booker T. Jones, drummer Al Jackson, Jr. and bassist Lewie Steinberg (soon supplanted by Donald “Duck” Dunn) played on a majority of the label?s ?60s hits. Cropper’s writing imprimatur graced Wilson Pickett’s R&B chart-toppers “In The Midnight Hour” and “634-5789” for Atlantic (Pickett had journeyed down to record at Stax). Cropper and Stax singer Eddie Floyd penned “634-5789.”
“We pick [Wilson] up at the airport, we bring him down to the studio, we turn on the tape, we hand him a set of lyrics, and he’s sittin’ there listening,” says Cropper. “He gets into about the second verse and he goes, ‘Oh man, this song is a piece of shit!’ And he wads up the paper and he throws it on the floor, and Eddie Floyd flies across the room and tackles him! Here are these guys, scuffling around in the control room. I went, ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna get killed here! What is goin’ on'” he laughs. “Wilson really liked the song. He just wanted to get Eddie’s attention.?

Cropper and Floyd wrote Eddie’s 1966 Stax smash, “Knock on Wood,” in a room at the Lorraine Motel. “Eddie wanted to write something about superstition,” says Cropper. The song almost didn’t get cut.
“Jim Stewart didn’t like it,” he continues. “It wasn’t that he didn’t like it; he just felt like it was too close to “In the Midnight Hour”. I said, “Hey, I wonder what “In the Midnight Hour” backwards would sound like?” So instead of starting on D and following the dots down, I started in E and followed the dots up. And that’s the intro to “Knock on Wood!?”

One of Stax’s most prolific writing partnerships was that of Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who found their performing alter egos in the dynamic duo of Sam & Dave. Hayes and Porter penned “Hold On! I’m Comin’,” “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby,” “Soul Man” and “I Thank You” for the frantic pair, striking mid-‘60s gold repeatedly. But Stax’s flagship act was unarguably Otis Redding. Cropper collaborated with the singer on “Mr. Pitiful,” “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” and the immortal “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

“He started it on this boat house in Sausalito [Calif.],” says Cropper. “And when he brought me the idea, he called me from the airport. He said, ‘Man, I’ve got a great idea! I just want to see if you’re in the studio, ‘cause I’m comin’ right there before I check into the motel!’ So he came in and he showed me what he had, the intro and the first verse and all that. I said, “Man, that’s really cool!” But right off the bat, he said, “I watch the ships roll in, and I watch ’em roll away again.” And I said, ‘Otis, think about that. If ships roll, they’re gonna sink!’ He said, ‘No, Crop, that’s what I want!'”

Stax/Volt wasn’t the only thriving soul recording concern in town. Boasting its own killer house band, Chips Moman’s American Studios was responsible for gems by James Carr, the Ovations, Spencer Wiggins, the Masqueraders and Oscar Toney, Jr., before the Box Tops, Neil Diamond, B.J. Thomas, Dusty Springfield and Elvis gradually took precedence there. At Hi Records, trumpet-blowing bandleader Willie Mitchell patiently fashioned an intimate, sexy approach for Al Green inside another converted movie house and reaped massive rewards. Mitchell’s 1970s stable also featured Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson; his slinky rhythm section, built around the three Hodges brothers and drummer Howard Grimes, updated the Memphis sound.

Muscle Shoals, one of four neighboring Alabama towns alongside Sheffield, Florence, and Tuscumbia, was an out-of-the-way enclave offering no nightspot action. The region was dry, and frat parties were the chief place to see live rock and roll. Yet, its studios proved every bit as fertile as those in Memphis. Rick Hall’s label and studio both bore the name of Fame, and he was principally responsible for Shoals? Ascension as a prime 1960s soul recording destination. Hall built his own recording facility, recruited several house bands and created a distinctive sound. Fame hosted hits by Arthur Alexander, Jimmy Hughes, Wilson Pickett, James & Bobby Purify, Arthur Conley, Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter and Etta James for an array of labels.

Weaned on the R&B they heard over the radio from Nashville, young area songwriters and pickers gravitated to Muscle Shoals. Dan Penn, still in high school when he wrote Conway Twitty’s ‘60 hit “Is a Bluebird Blue,” made the trek from his Vernon, Ala. home and found plenty of kindred spirits.


“All the people in the south were students of WLAC,” says Penn, whose Fame duties would include songwriting, engineering and cutting an occasional 45 of his own. Hall was the driving force behind the whole operation.

“You couldn’t stop him,” says Penn. “He had a great band at the beginning, Jerry Carrigan, David Briggs, Norbert Putnam, and they all left and came to Nashville. I thought that probably it was all over. Rick just got some other guys in. And they were good, Roger Hawkins, Spooner Oldham, David Hood. So here comes another gang. And then they left, and then he got another gang. He’s just a guy that makes up his mind what he wants to do, and he does it. And he would take people who were slightly green about the studio, and he’d work ‘em into shape.”

Penn struck up a writing partnership with keyboardist Oldham that continues to this day. “We had the personal chemistry thing,” says Oldham. “We knew we both wanted to write songs. We eventually landed there at Fame Studio together. We wrote for Fame Publishing Company for three years.”

Their first success as a team came on Joe Simon’s “Let’s Do It Over” in 1965. Then Pensacola producer Papa Don Schroeder rolled into with James & Bobby Purify and no material. Schroeder came across Penn and Oldham’s “I?m Your Puppet” in a Fame demo stack.

“I was the engineer on that session,” says Penn. “They were goin’ too fast, I thought. They were fooling with my material, you know what I mean? And I just thought, ‘Well, here’s a cut that’s never gonna make any money.’ Well, we finished it up, you know, and it came out and it was a smash. And then suddenly it sounded much better!”

Penn eventually hooked up with Moman, collaborating on Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and James Carr’s wrenching “The Dark End of the Street.”

“We were up at a disc jockey convention, along about ‘67,” recalls Penn. “We were in a poker game with Don Schroeder ‘n me and Chips Moman. We had played a long time, and then we just went into a room to rest. We had a guitar, just picked up the guitar, and here we go.” It was there that “Dark End of the Street,” a tune that’s been covered by the likes of Gregg Allman, Ry Cooder, Gram Parsons, Elvis Costello, Percy Sledge, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Tex and more, was born.

Penn moved to Memphis to work with Moman. “I had been writing for Rick, but was a little bit dissuaded from producing,?” says Penn. “I was kind of wanting to cut some records my own way, and he wasn’t really encouraging me.” Oldham soon followed. The two dropped by American one day to check out an Atlantic date by the Sweet Inspirations.

“I heard a couple songs that I didn’t like, didn’t move me,” says Oldham. “So I asked Dan if he was interested in going next door upstairs to write a song” Okay. And then walking up the stairs, he said, “Spoon, you got any ideas for a song?” And I really hadn’t thought about it, but suddenly it just sort of, “Well, what do you think about, “I need your sweet inspiration?” The girls had just been named the Sweet Inspirations. So we wrote it, all we had was a guitar. I came down and played it to the girls; they loved it.” “Sweet Inspiration” became a Top 5 R&B hit for the former New York studio background group in 1968.

Fame’s success spawned other studios. Deejay Quin Ivy inaugurated his Quinvy Studio in Sheffield by co-producing Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a No. 1 pop and R&B smash on Atlantic in 1966. Oldham played its stately organ intro.

“That was the first time I’d heard him sing, the day he stood over there on the mike,” says Oldham. “Two or three times, we had it.” Penn and Oldham wrote Sledge’s follow-ups, “It Tears Me Up” and “Out Of Left Field.” “Out Of Left Field” was written directly for him, the very week he cut it,” adds Penn.

All that activity brought songwriter George Jackson down to Fame from Memphis, where the Greenville, Miss. native had enjoyed some success at another notable soul imprint, Goldwax Record’s as a composer and half of a singing duo with Dan Greer.

“You can go to Muscle Shoals, man, it’s just so relaxing,” says Jackson. “During that time, there wasn’t much to do but write songs. You had complete privacy, just plenty of time to work on an idea. Everybody was down there during that time, and I was really inspired, trying to write a hit song.” That’s just what he did, working up Clarence Carter’s “Too Weak to Fight” and Wilson Pickett’s “A Man and a Half.” Jackson hoped to steer the perky “One Bad Apple” to the Jackson 5. “I was shocked when Rick Hall called me and told me The Osmonds cut ‘One Bad Apple,'” says Jackson. “I said, ‘Who are the Osmonds'” And he said, “Well, they used to be on Andy Williams” [show].” I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ And when I heard it, I said, ‘Wow, that’s great!'”

While the heyday of deep soul is long behind us, signs of a revival persist; Percy Sledge’s 2004 album for the Varese Sarabande label, recent CD projects by Solomon Burke, Ann Peebles, and Bettye Lavette, and a new Penn-produced disc for Bobby Purify (Better to Have It) on Proper American (Penn co-wrote every song but one) are all highlights.

“I really believe that old southern soul music is on its way back,” says Purify, who first recorded in Muscle Shoals in 1966 as half of Ben & Spence (Purify’s real name is Ben Moore; he replaced the original Bobby Purify in 1970). “Back in those days, the guys was real troubadours. I mean, they sung songs about the feeling that they had and the hurt that they felt in their lives.”


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