The Muscle Shoals Groove

Wilson Pickett Hey JudeThe man in front of us in line said it best.  “After several days of watching a documentary or two a day with a heavy or depressing theme, I’m ready for some music.”  I knew what he meant.

Saturday evening Andrew, Claire and I had attended an excellent documentary as part of the AFI Docs festival at the American Film Institute Theatre in Silver Spring. Titled Blackfish, it chronicled SeaWorld’s treatment of their killer whales. Here’s the synopsis:

When SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was mauled to death by a “killer whale,” the tragedy was dismissed as a freak accident. In actuality, it was one of many such violent incidents between well-meaning trainers and wild orcas, the main attractions at marine parks all over the world. Utilizing astounding rare footage and candid interviews, BLACKFISH takes an unflinching look at the disturbing practices that keep such places in business and the corporate-led efforts to protect this highly profitable industry.

It was an important film…but when Candice and I stood in line on Sunday waiting to see Muscle Shoals, we were ready for some music.

And boy, did the film deliver.

We learned of the movie from the producer’s mother.  It premiered at Sundance, and was one of the feature films at AFI Docs.  From the opening shots of the Tennessee River to the closing chorus of Sweet Home Alabama, this was a two-hour love letter to a place and its music.

Rising out of the Deep South of 1960s America, a sound emerged that began to attract artists as diverse as Otis Redding, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones. That sound, and the people who helped create it, would go on to leave its mark on music history. The place was Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and this is the story of how it gave birth to some of the most memorable music of our time.

The stories were as rich and wonderful as the music.  Rick Hall’s dream that led to the founding of FAME studios.  The silence in Aretha Franklin’s first session as the singer and musicians seek common ground…and then Spooner Oldham begins playing the groove that broke the logjam and set the arc of a career. Keith Richards being…Keith Richards, with some great historic footage of the Stones session. Alicia Keys putting a beautiful coda on the film.

One of my favorite moments came when the movie explored Duane Allman’s connection to the Muscle Shoals sound.  After camping out in the parking lot until Rick Hall hired him as a staff guitarist, Allman and Wilson Pickett were hanging out at the studio over lunch because taking a black man and a long-haired hippie out in Muscle Shoals in the late 1960s was an invitation for stares and more.  So when Hall and the rest of the band returned, they found Allman trying to convince Pickett to cover the recent Beatles tune Hey Jude.  Both Pickett and Hall protested, but Allman was persuasive – and then played a solo that led no less an authority than Eric Clapton to say, “I’ve never heard better rock guitar playing on a R&B record.  It’s the best.” A commentator in the film said, “This solo is where Duane Allman invented Southern Rock.”

To top it off, Wilson Pickett’s youngest daughter was in the audience, and she stood up at the microphone afterwards to tell the filmmaker that this movie was “pitch perfect” when it came to her father.  To me, the whole thing was pitch perfect.

And the good news…it has been picked up for commercial release this September with what promises to be one of the killer soundtracks of all times coming out on Rhino Records.

Be on the lookout…but until then, listen to Wilson and Duane (at about the 2:53 mark) groove to Hey Jude.

More to come…

DJB

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