‘You can’t believe how hard it is to get orange shagpile carpet,’ Judy Hood tells us.
I’m in Muscle Shoals with a bunch of European music journalists, and we’re going to be the first outsiders allowed in to the hallowed ground of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. The studio, where artists like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Cher, Rod Stewart, and the Rolling Stones have all recorded, has been closed for some time but thanks to a generous donation by Dr Dre’s Beats Electronics company it’s being renovated to re-open later this year both as an active recording studio and for tours, in much the same way Sun Studio in Memphis operates. Which is where the orange shagpile carpet comes in.
‘We’re recreating it as it was when the Stones recorded here, and as it was through the 1970s,’ Judy Hood explains. Judy is the wife of David Hood, bass player with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, aka The Swampers, who founded the studio in 1969.
The Swampers left the FAME Studios across town, where they had been working, and became the first rhythm section to build its own studio. It wasn’t at first too widely known as a working studio, but the arrival of the Rolling Stones in December 1969 changed all that.
The Swampers had played on Number One hit tracks like Mustang Sally by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin’s Respect, and When a Man Loves a Woman by Percy Sledge. It was widely assumed they were black. Even after the Stones recorded there in 1969 and brought the studio to the attention of more white artists, the house band was still thought to be black.
‘When Paul Simon wanted to come here to record,’ says Jimmy Johnson, another of the original Swampers who still lives nearby, ‘he phoned Al Bell at Stax Records, who had put out some of our recordings, and said he wanted the same black band that had played on those records. Al Bell said, “Well I can book you the same band but for black guys you’re going to find them awfully pale.”‘
Johnson is also involved in the renovation of the studio, and poses for pictures at the sound deck they’ve acquired from Nashville. They’re the only photos allowed inside the studio, which was still being worked on. Like all recording studios where legendary songs have been made, it’s remarkably small, the size of a large living room, overlooked by the producer’s room through a glass window. If Johnson pushed his chair too far back, he’d hit the back wall of the nondescript building.
What everyone wants to see is the smallest room in the house, though. It opens right off the studio, and is the toilet. No ordinary toilet, however. This is a rock and roll landmark. It was in this tiny room that Keith Richards shut himself off from the rest of the band and the studio so he could concentrate on finishing writing a song he was working on.
‘Keith had this tune, Wild Horses, but I don’t think that was really finished,’ Mick Jagger said in an interview. ‘He had the chorus but that was about it. So that was all written on the spot.’
The Stones did three songs in three days in Muscle Shoals, which would later appear on their Sticky Fingers album: Wild Horses, Brown Sugar, and the blues standard You Gotta Move.
‘When they played Brown Sugar,’ says Jimmy Johnson, ‘I thought the building was going to come off its foundations.’
Johnson was surprised to find himself engineering the tracks, when the Stones’ regular producer, Jimmy Miller, couldn’t make it. He went on to play on, produce or engineer an astonishing series of records, including working with artists such as Julian Lennon, Glenn Frey, Little Milton, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, Levon Helm, and Steve Cropper. His Wikipedia entry is definitely a long player.
The Swampers even got a name-check in what’s become a kind of unofficial state song, Sweet Home Alabama, by Lynyrd Skynyrd, who recorded several albums and singles at Muscle Shoals.
Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue
Now how ’bout you?
Johnson hadn’t been especially looking forward to the Rolling Stones’ visit, but working with them changed his mind.
‘To be honest, I didn’t like the Rolling Stones music,’ he tells us. ‘They said they played the blues but to me that wasn’t the blues. I grew up with the blues, and listening to Chuck Berry. So I wasn’t that excited that they were coming. But by the time they finished, I had a lot of respect for those guys.’
2017 Hours of Operation:
$12 per person
$10 per person for groups over 20
Under 6 years old free
10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 1:30, 2:30, 3:30
3614 Jackson Highway, Sheffield, AL 35660.
All photos (c) Mike Gerrard.