Hallowed Ground: Muscle Shoals

“Hallowed Ground” is a regular feature on Clore Chronicles, exploring important physical locations in music history.


Last week I had the honor of participating in a “Grammy In The Schools Career Day” at Muscle Shoals High School, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I spoke on a record label panel, helping to give students an overview of how record labels work.

Prior to making the trek I figured I’d brush up on my Muscle Shoals music history knowledge. Unfortunately, it’s an easy place to forget about, and after this latest trip I plan to do my part to help change that.

Muscle Shoals stands out as a music center, primarily because it’s a very small town (13,000 people). That small town feel is part of what has made it so appealing to musicians through the years. It has often represented a location where music could be the sole focus of an artist’s work; where the bustle of a city was nonexistent.

The legendary artists that have recorded and/or done important work in Muscle Shoals through the years is remarkable. The Rolling Stones, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Boz Scaggs, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, The Allman Brothers, Little Richard, The Oak Ridge Boys, Linda Ronstadt, Wilson Pickett, Art Garfunkel and Clarence Carter, among others.

The town’s physical location is also key. It’s 151 miles from Memphis; 125 miles from Nashville; 84 miles from Tupelo (where Elvis was born); 210 miles from Ruleville/Cleveland, MS (Dockery Plantation, where The Delta Blues originated); and 225 miles from Atlanta. Muscle Shoals exists in a “central” location in the American South, the part of the country where so much of today’s popular music truly began (see parts 1-12 of “Black History Month & Music“).

In his book Chicago Soul, author Robert Pruter hits on some of the highlights that made us talk about Muscle Shoals on a music history blog in 2010.

“Chess [Records] in the late 1960s was taking its talent to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The company’s in-house production staff was not coming up with the hits as in previous years, and the people at Chess felt the Muscle Shoals studio was an ideal environment in which to record some of its acts – notably Bobby Moore and the Rhythm Aces, Laura Lee, Maurice and Mac, Mitty Collier, and Etta James…

Muscle Shoals, as it was known in the record industry, is a shorthand term for an area in northwestern Alabama around Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River that has four close-by towns – Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals (the smallest of the four). The Fame Recording Studio, where Chess sent its acts, was actually located in Florence. Fame was founded in 1962 by Rick Hall, who developed a flourishing enterprise producing and recording black acts with white session musicians. Vee Jay and later New York-based Atlantic Records had developed fruitful alliances with Hall’s operation. Atlantic especially benefitted during the years 1966-67 when it took Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin down to the studio and got million sellers with Muscle Shoals songs and productions.”

Upon visiting this town it is tough to reconcile its musical history as you drive around, but that’s just part of what makes Muscle Shoals so intriguing.


Black History Month & Music: Part 9 of 12

“It can be argued that Leonard Chess, along with a handful of the musicians he signed and promoted and coddled and f*cked over and enriched, invented the very idea of Rock & Roll…He was a harbinger, the first of a legion of white men who would cross the racial divide in search of riches, adventure, authenticity.”

-From Rich Cohen’s Machers and Rockers: Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll

Chicago’s Chess Records gave us Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Eddie Boyd, Bo Diddley, Memphis Slim, Buddy Guy and Chuck Berry, among others. Its place in the Rock & Roll continuum is of extreme importance.

Frankly, they could have stopped with Muddy Waters and been considered very important.

Muddy Waters has a ridiculous resume in terms of influencing what came after him. Library of Congress archivist Alan Lomax recorded him (for the first time) in 1941 in Mississippi, giving him the confidence to play his music for others. He helped found the Chicago style of blues. The Rolling Stones named their band after his 1950-song “Rollin’ Stone.” The magazine Rolling Stone also borrowed the title for its name.

But then brothers Leonard and Phil Chess helped share a jewel with the world.

Chuck Berry.

No better way to elucidate his impact than through the words of other music legends. The following quotes are from Chuck Berry’s official website.

“[My mama] said, ‘You and Elvis are pretty good, but you’re no Chuck Berry.” – Jerry Lee Lewis

“You are most certainly the inspiration for all of today’s rock ‘n’ roll guitarists. Your music is timeless.” – Smokey Robinson

“There’s only one true king of rock ‘n’ roll. His name is Chuck Berry.” – Stevie Wonder

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” – John Lennon

And from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s website,

“While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together. It was his particular genius to graft country & western guitar licks onto a rhythm & blues chassis in his very first single, “Maybellene.”

For a good, big-picture history lesson (not the little details) about Chess Records, check out the movie Cadillac Records.

Below is an image of 2120 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, the former home of Chess Records. (photo credit Jim Watkins)

Black History Month & Music: Part 8 of 12


There is an amazing, four-part music documentary released in 2001 by PBS called “American Roots Music.” The coverage it contains is absolutely splendid. To further show the rich and vital music history of African-Americans, please budget in some time to watch the following clips.

Blues and Jazz


Race Records

Bukka White and Son House

Muddy Waters

Chicago Blues

Chess Records, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry

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