Alabama Something in the Water

Alabama may lack the iconic tourist destinations of other states, but from the blues to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, its musical legacy is as rich as any in the USA

By Jonathan Wingate

April 26 2019

If you listen to the gospel sung in the churches of the Deep South, you can hear the roots of soul, blues, country and rock and roll music. The Native American, African and European populations who’d either been enslaved or came looking for jobs after the Civil War produced a unique cultural blend that helped create an unmistakable sound. These influences all meet at a corner of the Tennessee River, in northern Alabama, where the towns of Florence and Muscle Shoals sit on either bank, forming a backdrop for the most remarkable musical legacy.

Around here, locals really do say there’s something in the water. “The Indian tribes called the river Nun-Nuh Sae, or the Singing River, because they believed in a young woman living in the water who sings songs that guide them through life,” 82-year-old Tom Hendrix told me. “If you go to the river’s quiet places, you can still hear her sing.”

Hendrix devoted 35 years to building an extraordinary stone wall – recorded in the Library of Congress – in memory of his great great grandmother, Te-Lah Nay. A member of the Yuchi tribe which lived along the riverbanks, she was taken from her family during the infamous Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Native Americans following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. “Te-Lah-Nay listened to all the rivers and streams she found in Oklahoma, but there were no songs,” Hendrix said. “She eventually escaped and spent five years walking 800 miles to make her way back home to the Singing River.”

Each stone of Hendrix’s creation, the Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall, represents a step on Te-Lah-Nay’s journey back to the music of the river. It’s an atmospheric starting point for any tour of this area’s exceptional musical history.

The godfather of that legacy is the legendary bluesman, William Christopher ‘W.C.’ Handy, born in Florence in 1873 and brought up in a two-room log cabin that can be visited today. Although Handy never claimed to have invented the genre, he was certainly the first musician to introduce the blues to the American mainstream.

Living in the cabin built by his grandfather, a former slave, Handy spent his spare time playing the cornet and the church organ, listening to the sounds of the local songbirds and the rolling rhythms of the Tennessee River. Handy saved up enough money to buy his first guitar by picking berries Alabama may lack the iconic tourist destinations of other states, but from the blues to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, its musical legacy is as rich as any in the USA and nuts and making his own lye soap, but his Methodist preacher father said he considered the instrument to be ‘the devil’s plaything’. He made Handy take it back to the store and swap it for a dictionary.

Etta James at Fame Studios
Etta James at Fame Studios

Despite his family’s misgivings, Handy worked as a touring musician, travelling around the Deep South soaking up all the blues he could find. One hot summer afternoon in 1903, he was trying to catch forty winks as he waited for a train at a railroad station in Tutwiler, Mississippi when he noticed a dishevelled drifter whiling away the time playing his guitar.

“His clothes were rags, his feet peeped out of his shoes,” Handy recalled in 1941. “His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. He pressed a knife on the strings in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists. The effect was unforgettable. ‘Going to where the Southern cross the yellow dog,’ the singer repeated, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.”

Inspired by the mystery guitarist, W.C. Handy laid down the foundations for the blues boom that soon erupted, when he wrote a string of iconic songs including Memphis Blues, Beale Street Blues and Saint Louis Blues. When he realised that his peers were not being paid for their compositions, he became the first blues musician to copyright his own songs.

Although you rarely hear Handy’s name mentioned with the same reverence reserved for the blues singers for whom he paved the way, his beautifully preserved cabin is now one of the most popular stops on the Alabama tourist trail.

Muscle Shoals Studio today
Muscle Shoals Studio today

Sam Phillips is undoubtedly much better known than Handy, though there is nothing outside his childhood home, also in Florence, to indicate that the man who discovered Elvis Presley also grew up here. 1057 Royal Avenue is a magnolia clipboard house with a Confederate flag nailed to the porch and a tyre hanging from an old oak tree in the front garden – it’s now in private hands.

Born in 1923, Samuel Cornelius Phillips was raised by a family of sharecropper farmers who could barely afford to feed their eight children. After cutting his teeth as a DJ and radio engineer, he signed the lease on a small storefront property in downtown Memphis. Promoted by the slogan ‘We Record Anything-Anywhere-Anytime,’ Phillips opened the doors of Sun Records and his Memphis Recording Service in February 1952.

“If I could find a white man with the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars,” Phillips repeatedly told his assistant, Marion Keisker, during the early days at Sun. In the summer of 1953, 18-year-old Elvis Presley dropped in to the studio to record a two song acetate. When Keisker asked him who he sounded like, Presley simply said: “I don’t sound like nobody.”

Phillips arranged for two of his regular session men, guitarist Scotty Moore and double bassist Bill Black to come over to the studio on 5th July 1954 to play with Presley for an audition. After a few hours of fun but ultimately fruitless jamming, they were about to call it a night when Elvis started playing an uptempo version of an old Arthur Crudup blues number, That’s All Right. “Sam didn’t know what he was looking for,” Moore explained when I interviewed him a few years ago, “but he knew it when he heard it.”

Sam Phillips had found his superstar, but he never got close to the billion-dollars he dreamed of. Although it was at the time by far the biggest deal in the history of the music business, Phillips sold Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA Records in November 1955 for $35,000. Within months, Presley released Heartbreak Hotel and became an international star.

FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals
FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals

Across the water from Florence, the city of Muscle Shoals (current population 13,000) may be tiny Given the nickname ‘the Swampers ‘by producer, Denny Cordell, because of their “funky, soulful Southern swamp sound,” they confounded the conventional wisdom that only black musicians could play soul and that white Southerners played only country.

FAME is a nondescript-looking brown bunker on a busy main road junction that sits between an auto-parts store and a pharmacy. Above the doorway to the studio where Percy Sledge recorded When A Man Loves A Woman and Aretha Franklin cut I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You), a hand painted sign reads: ‘Through these doors walk the finest musicians, songwriters, artists and producers in the world.’

“I can’t really put it into words, but I know that when I hear something that was recorded here, it just rings a bell in my head,” says trombonist Charles Rose, co-founder of the Muscle Shoals Horns. “The music always had a certain purity about it. Most of the Muscle Shoals musicians were not overly sophisticated virtuosos – they were just good old boys who played with a unique style. Maybe it’s osmosis, but working here with these people, you instinctively know what feels right.”

Tribute to Sam Phillips at Alabama Musical Hall of Fame
Tribute to Sam Phillips at Alabama Musical Hall of Fame

Nearby is the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, set up as a rival operation in 1969. It was here that the Rolling Stones recorded their 1971 album Sticky Fingers – legendary sessions that produced classics including Brown Sugar, Wild Horses and You Gotta Move.

After relocating in 1979, the original studio remained closed until it was refurbished two years ago, thanks to a $1 million donation from Apple.“We were just a bunch of redneck musicians, so when I look back and think of all of the incredible success we had and all of this music that came out of a little place like Muscle Shoals, I really have to pinch myself,” says Jimmy Johnson, who engineered those Stones sessions. “At the time, I don’t even think we realised that it was so special, but it really was. I don’t know whether it’s true that there’s something in the water here, but there is definitely something magical about this part of Alabama.”

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