The Sound of the Shoals - Part 2 - Beginnings
On the banks of the Tennessee River in the northwest corner of Alabama, four small, thriving cities are joined together by a history that many of its own citizens have never explored. Many of the people in the area are completely unaware of the internation significance that this area, known as the Shoals Area, has had in the music industry throughout the world. Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the second largest of the four, has a unique place in music history that earned this nearly forgotten part of the country the title of "Hit Recording Capital of the World."
Traces of the Past
The former Muscle Shoals Sound studio sits peering across the Tennessee River beside a small, forgotten park in Sheffield, Alabama. This massive studio, its legacy, and its music are all that is left of the Muscle Shoals Sound. This once famous studio was sold a few years ago to a local movie and video production company, but its days as a recording studio have made their mark on the history of music forever.
On the other side of town, located at 3614 Jackson Highway, the original Muscle Shoals Sound studio building still buzzes with music. Several years ago, this historic building was faithfully restored to look, feel, and sound exactly as it did back in the 60's and 70's. Even though it is no longer owned by the original owners, the current owners still use the name Muscle Shoals Sound and allow the public to tour the studio. Many famous songs were recorded here by many of the world's most beloved musicians. This building is currently listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In the neighboring city of Muscle Shoals, Fame Recording Studios sits in the corner of the busiest intersection of town on Avalon Avenue. Fame and its owner Rick Hall still stay busy in the recording business, but the fame of Fame Studios has since diminished from its glory days filled with the company of famous celebrities and musicians. The recording industry of the Shoals area has diminished and has been left with what many may think is a bleak future. However, a small number of musicians, singers, and songwriters occasionally come out of the area and achieve national renown. While this new generation appears promising, there still has not been the same level of success that once created a booming recording industry that rivaled regional recording centers like Nashville and Memphis.
Years before this rural area of North Alabama was known for its chart-topping hits, it was settled by the Cherokee, Shawnee, and Chickasaw tribes of the Native Americans. These early settlers found rich soil and a large supply of mussels hidden in what is now known as the Tennessee River. White settlers eventually moved into the area and found hidden beneath the shoals of the river the same mussels that the Native Americans had encountered years before them. Because of this distinguishing quality of the region, they eventually named the city Mussel Shoals. Later, a careless mapmaker misspelled the city's name, and it has been known as Muscle Shoals ever since.
The Native Americans who first lived in the Shoals Area knew the Tennessee River as the Singing River. "It started with water rushing over rocky shoals, stated Terry Pace and Robert Palmer, music historians for the Times Daily. It was a "sound the American Indians living along the banks of the Tennessee River said 'sang' to them in the beautiful voice of a woman." The Singing River was an appropriate name for a place that would one day become a dominating force in the music industry.
W.C. Handy - The Father of the Blues
The music and recording history of the Shoals Area dates back much farther than the two nearly forgotten music studios. William Christopher "W.C." Handy, known by many as the Father of the Blues," grew up in Florence and was attracted to the local music scene. He studied music in Florence for eleven years in the public school for black students, and, at age eighteen, Handy left home to pursue a career in music. In 1909, W.C Handy moved to Memphis, where he immediately won renown. His famous song, "Memphis Blues," was the first popular song written to include a jazz break, the basis for Handy's later claim that he invented jazz. He later moved to St. Louis, Missouri where he recorded another hit song, "St. Louis Blues." Handy died March 28, 1958, but his influence is still seen and heard in contemporary jazz and blues music. In the Shoals Area, we still celebrate his life with the week-long W.C. Handy Festival that takes place every year in July.
The Sound of the Shoals - Part 2 - Beginnings
Stay tuned for my next post that discusses the history behind the Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound studios!
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Joshua B. Pettus
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