Posts Tagged ‘Sam Phillips’

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers,
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two
Sweet Home Alabama
Performed by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Written by Ed King, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant

Because this blog celebrates regionalism, it’s natural that I would eventually touch on a town in Alabama that would bring white and black music together in a way that would not only create many hit records—but would be known around the world for a unique sound. A sound that would attract some of the biggest names/bands of an era: Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Wilson Pickett, Bob Seger, Eric Clapton and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

There are many iconic rock-n-roll songs where people simply get some of the lyrics wrong. There are others where we can be confused by the imagery. And still others where the poetry or metaphors of the lyrics is up for interpretation. And there are others that we just miss the simple meaning.

I think the Lynyrd Skynyrd song Sweet Home Alabama fits the “all the above” category.

But the one part of the song I’d like to clear up is “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers, And they’ve been known to pick a song or two.”

1) Muscle Shoals is a city in Alabama.
2) “The Swampers” is the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section

Several Native American tribes called the area now known as northwest Alabama home, but the Cherokee called the land south of what is now known as the Tennessee River Dagunahi—meaning mussel place. After the abundance of shellfish found in the river. It’s been said that the word mussel was not fully adopted when first used explaining the spelling of Muscle. (So Muscle Shoals has nothing to do with Muscle Beach.)

I’m not sure when Muscle Shoals became known more for its music than its mussels, but back in 1873—the “Father of the Blues”— W.C. Handy was born in the sister city of Florence, Alabama. The composer, songwriter, musician is celebrated every year in Florence during the The W.C. Handy Music Festival that takes place there every year during the last week in July.

In the 1940s, a DJ and radio engineer born in Florance spent four years at the Muscle Shoals radio station WLAY (AM) which played a “open format”—meaning broadcasting both black and white musicians, as well as county, bluegrass, Southern Gospel, and Delta blues. That music would influence that DJ, Sam Phillips, when he moved to Memphis and opened his own studio—Sun Studios. A small studio known for recording Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and B.B. King among others. WLAY also became a meeting grounds of sorts as musicians came there to record.

Then in the late ’50s Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford opened the recording studio FAME Music in Florence. Hall would eventually set out on his own and move his studio to its current location in Muscle Shoals in 1963. The session musicians eventually became known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.  In 1969 some of the musicians of the Rythym Section (Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson  and David Hood) set out on there own and opened the studio Muscle Shoals Sound. (If I’m correct those are technically the Swampers as they helped Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant early in his career.)

Some classic songs you may recognize that were produced at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio include the Rolling Stone’s Brown Sugar, Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, and Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock and Roll (of course, later featured in the movie Risky Business).

A few years ago driving from Florida to Iowa I went out of my way to go through Muscle Shoals and I wondered why a documentary hadn’t been produced on all of this music history. Apparently producer/director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier wondered the same thing when he drove through Muscle Shoals a few years ago, but he did something about it—he made a documentary called Muscle Shoals. The film showed at Sundance 2013 in January and features interviews with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, Etta James, Bono and others. I hope that documentary gets released this year and a larger audience gets exposed to a great chapter in American music— and sees another example of how a small place with talented people can accomplish great things. (Learn more about the movie at MuscleShoalsMovie.com.)

P.S. On my video shoot in Alabama last week one of the fellows we interviewed said that when he was in a somewhat remote area of Russia he was wearing a University of Alabama sweatshirt when somebody yelled “Roll Tide!” He told the six-year-old boy he was adopting from Russia, “Son, if you can learn to say ‘Roll Tide!’ you’ll have friends all over the world.”

Related Posts: Screenwriting Jamaican-Olympic Style (Why reggae music and great track athletes come from this little county.)

Scott W. Smith


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“The ‘surplus society’ has a surplus of similar companies, employing similar people, with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, producing similar things, with similar prices and similar quality.”
Kjell Nordstrom and Jonas Ridderstrale, Funky Business

We live in a culture that is swimming in “a sea of sameness.” I’m not sure who coined that phrase “a sea of sameness,” but I first heard it from Tom Peters many years ago. The phrase instantly resonated with me because it was so easy to look at the world around me and see that it was true—from fast food restaurants, to automobiles, to Hollywood movies.

The big question is once you notice “the sea of sameness” around you, what do you do about it? If you like the sameness of the life you are living and are surrounded by then there is no dilemma. But if you no longer care to conform to the “sea of sameness” then the only sane thing for you to do is step off the track you’re running on. Rebel. Change.

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army

Of course, the courage to change may take years…or something you do today. (Or at least take the first step towards.)

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
Howard Beale
Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky

You can apply that where you will, but since this is a blog on screenwriting that’s where we should look. Are the stories you’re writing the stories you are dying to tell? Here’s how screenwriters Gill Dennis and James Mangold laid it out in the script Walk the Line where record producer Sam Phillips gives some advice to a young Johnny Cash who had just performed a lackluster gospel song for him in hopes of landing a recording contract:

“If you was hit by a truck and you were lying out there in the gutter dying and you had time to sing one song. One song people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth—one song that would sum you up, you telling me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune that we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, about how you’re going to shout it. Or would you sing something different? Something real. Something you felt.  Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. ”
Walk the Line

I hope that’s the kind of script you’re working on now. (Or you at least have a file started.)

Scott W. Smith

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