It’s in Sheffield, Actually
There are good breakfast offerings in the hotel before I leave early-ish to make sure I get to 3614 Jackson Highway just before 10 am, when it opens. It takes about 5 minutes from the hotel to get to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Which is in the city of Sheffield, not Muscle Shoals, as it happens. The tour of the studio cannot be pre-booked, it’s first come, first served.
The first tour of the day is 10.30 am and I don’t want to miss out having come a few thousand miles to visit. There are hourly tours after this one but it would mess up my schedule today if I had to take a later one. So as I’ve no idea whether it’ll just be me on the tour or if a bus-load of people will turn up. So I’m early, and outside the door before it opens, just to be sure.
As it turns out there are three others who arrive for 10.30. Chase is our guide and he has a mate with him, who doesn’t introduce himself and both of them – but mainly Chase – do an excellent job over the next hour telling us about the studio and its history as the home of The Swampers.
There was another about Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band was recording some songs at the Studio that would eventually end up on their first album. One of the songs was Free Bird. The band went to lunch one day but left roadie Billy Powell behind for some reason. When they returned Powell was at the grand piano in the Studio playing an introduction to the song that he had invented himself. Before this, the song started off with guitars.
Unknown to the band, Powell was a classically trained pianist. Upon hearing his intro, they liked it so much they added it to the song and also asked Powell to formally join the group as their keyboardist!
Sidenote: Skynryd recorded 17 tracks at Muscle Shoals during 1971 and 1972. At the time they were unsigned to a record label. Jimmy Johnson produced the sessions and tried to sign the band but could not make a deal. So Skynryd left the Shoals with their newly written songs but not the session tapes (presumably Johnson claimed ownership of them). Once they had a record deal, they re-recorded some of the Shoals songs elsewhere, added a few others, and released their debut album (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) in 1973. The Muscle Shoals sessions finally saw the light of day in 1998 when released as Skynyrd’s First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album.
Considering the Studio was thoroughly renovated a year or so ago, it’s amazing how they’ve managed to retain many original features. This includes the ‘Skynyrd’ grand piano and other instruments, battered chairs and sofas – complete with tape patches – sound baffle boards and lots more. It’s a real throwback in time. The renovation has restored the Studio to as it was (it’s a working recording studio at night) complete with the original (and weird) colour scheme. It’s very 1970s. And a piece of musical history, and definitely worth a visit. Check it out!
Alabama Music Hall of Fame
After this I drive south for a few miles to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, which takes about 10 minutes. I spend about an hour inside. There are loads of folks represented in the exhibits that I don’t know but all the famous sons (and daughters) of Alabama are there such as The Swampers. It’s well done and worth visiting to learn more about the state’s rich musical heritage, of all types and creeds. It also helps fill out a day in Muscle Shoals…
From there I go back north, stopping on the way at a McDonald’s for a drive-in cheeseburger for lunch. Across the river again into Florence, past the hotel, turn left and then I arrive at the WC Handy House & Museum. It’s worth pointing out that all the places I’ll visit today are near each other. From the Hall of Fame to here was only 15 minutes.
WC Handy House & Museum
On arrival there’s no-one there apart from an elderly black lady on reception called Selina. Who then offers to give me a personal guided tour! I’m sure that’s not the norm. Anyway, she’s a lovely lady and provides a good commentary, pointing everything out and adding some ‘colour’ to Handy’s story. She also says “back in the day” when talking about Handy’s childhood. This reminds me of how Sylvester Hoover used the phrase a lot when I did his Delta Blues Legend Tour a few years ago.
Selina tells me that a few years ago they found the house that Handy, the “Father of the Blues”, was born and grew up in. The timbers were in good condition so they carefully took it apart and moved it. It was reassembled alongside the museum and library dedicated to him. The museum is a modern building with an entrance direct into the old house.
Inside the house are period items showing what it would have been like when Handy lived in it, as nothing survived from the interior. Selina explained it was literally just the house timbers. It does however give an idea of the living conditions Handy had when growing up. Handy was apparently a bit of a hoarder. He kept many of his personal possessions in storage from throughout his life, apparently throwing little away. When he died, his will requested these items be shipped back to Florence. Not quite sure to whom or where they went to, but someone obviously took care of them as they now form the centrepiece of the museum.
Selina then leaves me on my own and I go back around to browse in more detail for about another 30 minutes or so. It’s a well done museum about one of the perhaps lesser known, but most important, people in the history of the blues. It was an interesting place to visit and a great treat to meet Selina. Thank you.
My last visit of the day doesn’t start until 4 pm and it’s only 2.45 pm so I decide to go back to the hotel for a while to catch up on a few things. I’d planned my schedule today by guessing at times per venue but Muscle Shoals Sound Studio took more time and the other two less than expected.
Where It All Started – FAME Studios
I leave just before 4 pm to head back south over the river again for a few miles, this time into the city of Muscle Shoals proper. The Swampers styled themselves as the ‘Muscle Shoals Sound’ because they developed it at my next venue, FAME Studios, under the direction of owner Rick Hall. Rick sadly passed away in January 2018. FAME is in the city of Muscle Shoals itself.
There are just five of us on the tour of these historic studios. It’s still a working studio today so they fit tours in at the start and end of the day. The guide tells us that once tours are finished they will often work through the night. Said guide, Spencer, seems a bit laid back but maybe he’s just stoned. That seems to be quite popular around here. He’s a good and informative guide though, talking us through the history and the hits. In Studio A there is the original Wurlitzer organ that Spooner Oldham used to write the riff for Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You). The song was recorded at FAME in Studio A. History…
In its way, this place was as influential as Sun, Stax and Motown but I don’t think it has the high profile of those three. Same goes for the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. So make them better known by paying both of them a visit!
Tour completed I return to the hotel. But on the way I stop off at the Florence Harbor Marina right by the Tennessee River, to take in some pretty views…
Panorama by the Tennessee River (click to enlarge)
Then it’s back to the hotel for a couple of hours before venturing out up Court St again. From being very warm, even hot, earlier on, by 8 pm the weather has turned chilly, even cold. So much so that after leaving the hotel I end up going back to my room to get a jacket.
On The Rocks for Epic Bingo
Tonight I’m visiting On The Rocks, a bar offering entertainment from “Epic Bingo with Drumb and Drumber”, whatever that is. It’s bingo, actually. Really. This bar was empty when I passed it last night but tonight the place is packed out. Almost everyone has got bingo cards in front of them! It’s a bit bizarre. The clientele is the youth of Florence – I’m the oldest in there by some way – playing bingo to a backing track of some top tunes. The bingo caller is also acting as a DJ. I don’t know most of the songs but everyone else does and they all sing along as the numbers get called out…
Anyhow, there’s baseball on TV, which takes my attention. I’m not playing bingo because the prizes are all $20 vouchers for local stores, so of no use to me. I order some Chicken Tenders and fries for dinner and they were good. There’s a bloke to my left – I’m sitting at the bar – who speaks to no-one. All night. He’s a few years younger than me – but not much – and obviously in town on business, and says not a word. I think even his interactions with the bar staff were non-verbal. Weird.
Shots All Round
A while after I sat down a young-ish guy comes and sits on my right. It’s clear he knows loads of people in here. Over the next hour or so, Jack and I exchange a few words every now. Just minor bar chit-chat such as a comment about the baseball, “pass the ketchup” when he eats, and so forth. Then he buys a round of shots – and gets one for me!
We eventually start chatting ‘properly’, establishing I’m from the UK and on a road trip. Soon after, another one of his mates comes along and says hello, so Jack introduces me. This guy is absolutely stoned out of his mind. He can hardly speak, so up in the sky is he.
Then this bearded guy and a couple of others stop to chat to Jack as well, and then move on. I’d seen ‘the beard’ when I walked in and I thought I’d seen him somewhere else. Even more so now. I suddenly remember where, and say to Jack that he looks like the drummer who played at FloBama last night. “Oh yeah, that’s Justin Holder. Top session guy.” Wow.
A few minutes later Justin comes back and Jack stops him and says, “Hey Justin, this guy is from the UK and he saw you play at FloBama last night.” Whereupon Justin and I have a long old chat about lots of stuff, great gig last night, Will and the band, and so forth. Top guy, very friendly.
Earlier on a well-built shaven headed guy had sat down to talk to Jack briefly and now he’s also come back. Jack then introduces me to Mike, the owner of the bar… Cue another half hour or so of discourses on life and the universe plus loads of other random meanderings. All the while, miserable twat to my left is still sat there on his own. I’m off my stool now and standing talking to all them with wild abandon. Because Jack keeps buying everyone shots… I never found out what drink the shots were but it was nice!
Music from Drumb and Drumber
The bingo ends and a small band sets up. Live music from Drumb and Drumber it is to be. One of which is Justin! But not on drums, tonight, he’s playing acoustic guitar and on lead vocals. But the drummer is AWOL on the first couple of songs for some reason so Jack shouts out “I’ll help” and next thing he’s on stage. “I do a bit of drumming”, he tells me later.
Now it’s not a real stage just a corner of the bar, but they are near to where I’m sitting. Jack’s playing some electronic drums under his legs like some sort of bongos. The proper drummer then turns up – it’s the DJ – so Jack leaves the ‘stage’ to Justin’s remark of “Thanks to Jack Nicholls on trash cans”!
Other people continue to stop and chat, I get introduced, and it’s a really good atmosphere all round. Justin however is playing folk-y music and it’s not my style, plus time is moving on, so I decide to call it a night.
Are You Working?
Earlier when I was talking to Justin we got onto other music venues in Florence and I mentioned he was playing somewhere tomorrow. “No I’m not” he replies. So I pulled out my phone and use the app that lists gigs in Florence to show him where he’s playing. “Shit”, he says, “Better check my calendar!”
I then show him how I found what was on here tonight, being billed as ‘Epic Bingo’. But he had no idea that is what it was called! With tongue firmly in cheek he then starts to berate Mike about such a “weird name” for the event. “Well I suppose if it works…” concludes Justin. And a full bar is testament to Mike’s promotion of ‘Epic Bingo’.
As I walk out having said goodnight to Jack and Mike, I pass Justin playing away. I can’t resist saying something about tomorrow night’s supposed gig. “I hope you’re not working tomorrow”, I say jokingly. He replies, “No, no, no – I hope I AM working.” Touche, indeed, and of course I hope he was working. What a brilliant day and evening. Good night.