“Seriously, those guys were white?” should’ve been the subtitle to this movie. If that sounds racist, it isn’t. I was surprised to learn that but even the singers in the movie expressed their initial shock at learning the Swampers were a bunch of young white guys. Who were the Swampers? More on that in a second.
I was so excited to watch this movie tonight! Thank you, Independent Lens and PBS! I started to rent this a couple of months ago off I-tunes but something happened and I never got to it. So I set time aside this evening to watch this documentary which has received rave reviews. If you like rock, blues, soul, then you probably have heard of Muscle Shoals. More on that in a second but I will post my *Spoiler Alert* here.
There was a guy who came from a tough background. Poor farmers living in a shack, his brother died as a young boy, his mother became a prostitute, his first wife died in a car accident. The guy went from living in his car to founding a studio that maybe next to Sun Studio in Memphis would become the most famous recording studio in America. And truth is, it probably produced more hits than Sun did. Of course the irony is that Sam Phillips who founded Sun was also from Muscle Shoals.
The guy, in his late 20’s, gathered a bunch of local musicians in their late teens into a group called the Swampers and for nearly the next half-century those guys – all white – played on some of the biggest and most famous soul, blues, and rock records in history. In the documentary which was captivating from start to finish – the singers all expressed their shock at showing up in this little speck of a town called Muscle Shoals and finding out everyone at the studio was white.
In the early days, it was a time when a black person could literally die in Alabama for looking at a white person the wrong way and yet these people were out eating with one another and working together and changing history. They got stares and later as the movie recounts they’d get stares of a worse kind when the guys with long-hair showed up.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say these guys played with the best and left their mark. A really short sample: Wilson Pickett “Mustang Sally”, Aretha Franklin “Respect”, Clarence Carter “Slip Away”, and they helped revive the careers of the likes of Etta James. They were there when Bob Seger made it big. They toured with Traffic one year. Duane Allman played the first Southern Rock song there and the Allman Brothers found themselves there. Later the studio would produce the likes of the Rolling Stones and songs like “Brown Sugar”. For a bunch of poor white guys from Alabama, that is a pretty good career. I think my favorite story though is their dealings with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
They came to Muscle Shoals as nobody, so poor they slept at the truck stop and hate peanut butter sandwiches the whole time they were recording. They laid down initial tracks to classics like ‘Free Bird’ and ‘Simple Man’ while there. But even with their track record, the guys in Muscle Shoals couldn’t get a major label to back the group who hit it big after they toured with The Who and so those tracks lay on a shelf until after the accident that killed members of the group. The surviving members came back and used the tracks on the last album they put out. There are a couple other great stories about this group in the movie but I won’t spoil it all for you. Of course the Swampers got one of the best signs of respect when Lynyrd Skynyrd mentioned them in a line in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’.
If you love music then this is a fabulous movie to watch. Muscle Shoals became the place where stars were made and some of the most iconic songs of the last half-century were recorded. If you want to know the story behind those songs and see the guys who did it then this movie should be on your list of movies to watch.