Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is credited with being a musical oasis in the middle of the rural South. Countless American hits were produced in this town, including many legendary albums and singles by Atlantic Records artists. Most notably, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett were some of Atlantic’s first artists to experience commercial success with recordings that were cut in Muscle Shoals.
The relationship between Atlantic Records and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, began in 1966, when the label released “When A Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge. The record was recorded at Quin Ivy’s Norala Sound Studios by legendary producer and engineer Rick Hall. The record made its way to Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler, who then agreed to distribute it.
Due to the success of the song, Wexler continued to look to Rick Hall and Muscle Shoals for quality recordings. Wilson Pickett, who had originally recorded in Memphis, Tennessee, at the Stax label recording studios, cut "Land of 1000 Dances" and "Mustang Sally" in Muscle Shoals for Atlantic. Both were major chart successes. As a result, other artists on the label like Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, and Jimmy Hughes began tracking records there with the famed Swampers rhythm section.
Eventually, Jerry Wexler recruited the Swampers (consisting of Roger Hawkins on drums, Jimmy Johnson on rhythm guitar, Spooner Oldham on keyboards, and Junior Lowe on bass) to perform on various Atlantic recordings. He would take this partnership a step further by investing in the construction of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, an Alabama-based recording and production facility where the Swampers and Wexler cut records for Atlantic and affiliated labels. The partnership turned out some of the most commercially successful recordings of the 20th century by artists such as The Rolling Stones, The Staple Singers, Cher, and Herbie Mann.
Today Muscle Shoals, Alabama, remains a musical powerhouse. In 2006, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. In 2009, the Black Keys recorded their Grammy-winning album Brothers there. The documentary Muscle Shoals (2013) tells the story of this town and its contribution to the landscape of American popular music. The film regards the sound produced in this town to be nothing short of “alchemy” or the transformation of matter. The musical mystery of this place is embedded in the records produced, the sounds it helped usher in and influence. Check out the playlist The Muscle Shoals Sound below.