Did you know that many of the greatest musical hits from the past half century can be traced back to the towns of Sheffield and Muscle Shoals in northwest Alabama? Here are just a few you may have heard about.
What is the Muscle Shoals Sound?
In the second half of the 20th century, two recording studios in northeast Alabama became known for their unique and distinctive sound—a sound that would be sought after by many of the era’s top-performing artists. Those two studios were FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield.
So what is the “Sound”? For Nashville, it’s country. For Memphis, it’s blues. For New Orleans, it’s jazz. Somewhere in the middle of all that is the Muscle Shoals Sound—a unique blend of country, R&B, gospel, country, Southern rhythm, blues and more. Behind that sound was the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section: a group of session musicians affectionally known as The Swampers. Over the next couple of decades, The Swampers backed some of the greatest artists and albums to record in Alabama, including:
1. Boz Scaggs
In 1969, Boz Scaggs made his way to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in order to record his second studio album—the self-titled Boz Scaggs. Scaggs had just finished playing with the Steve Miller Band in San Francisco, and was looking to pursue a solo career. During the recording sessions, Scaggs relied heavily on The Swampers for backing instrumentals. In addition, the album featured lead guitar from Duane Allman, a Nashville-born guitarist who went on to form, along with his brother Gregg, the Allman Brothers Band, one of the most influential pairings in Southern Rock history.
2. The Rolling Stones
During a short break from their 1969 U.S. tour, the Rolling Stones traveled to Sheffield, Alabama to record several songs at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio for an upcoming album. Over the course of three days in December, the Rolling Stones cut three songs—”Brown Sugar”, “Wild Horses” and “Sister Morphine”—that would appear on their hit 1971 album, Sticky Fingers.
“Brown Sugar” would go on to top the charts in the US and Canada. In fact, Rolling Stone magazine listed two of the songs from Muscle Shoals in their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, with “Brown Sugar” coming in at 495 and “Wild Horses” at 334.
3. Paul Simon
After the release of The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” in 1972, singer songwriter Paul Simon asked his manager to set up a session with the recording band, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. While at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Paul Simon recorded several tracks with The Swampers, including “Kodachrome”, “Love Me Like a Rock”, and the unforgettable “Still Crazy After All These Years”.
4. Bob Seger
Over the years, Bob Seger recorded a number of songs and albums at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, including:
- “Katmandu” (1975)
- Night Moves (1976)
- “Mainstreet” (1977)
- “Old Time Rock and Roll” (1979)
Old Time Rock and Roll would go on to become one of Bob Seger’s biggest hits—gaining even more popularity after Tom Cruise danced to the song during that famous scene from Risky Business.
5. Lynyrd Skynyrd
In the early 1970s, Lynyrd Skynyrd participated in several recording sessions at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Their 1977 album, Street Survivors, including one track that was recorded in Alabama: “One More Time”. In 1978, after the tragic plane crash that killed several members of the band, Lynyrd Skynyrd released a posthumous album titled Skynyrd’s First and… Last. The album featured several tracks that were recorded in Muscle Shoals—and even more were included when the album was re-released in 1998.
6. Bob Dylan
In the midst of his born-again Christian period, Bob Dylan recorded two studio albums at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. His first—1979’s Slow Train Coming—featured backing tracks from several of The Swampers. In addition, Dylan hired Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits to play lead guitar on several tracks. In 1980, Dylan returned to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio to record Saved, his twentieth studio album.
7. George Michael
Did you know that the late George Michael recorded an early version of his hit single, “Careless Whisper”, at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio? That’s right—in 1983, the artist of Wham! fame traveled to Sheffield to record an early version what would go on to become one of his greatest hits.
Although George Michael re-recorded the final version in a studio in London, his Muscle Shoal Sound version would be released as a special edition later on.