Shout Bamalama! The Swampers' Den is Back
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio Is Reborn
By Randy McNutt
Recently I received a message from writer Anne Kristoff, who was writing a story about the restoration of the venerable Muscle Shoals Sound Studio on Jackson Highway. To anyone who knows about music of the 1960s through the 1980s, the Alabama studio is a national treasure. She wanted to use a photo that I had taken of the place back in the 1990s. I asked her to send me a copy of her story, and here it is. (See the link she provided.) Our readers might find it interesting. I was taken aback by the attractive color photos of the place, which will be forever etched in black and white in my mind. Kudos to those who paid to renovate the building.
It looks different than it did when I saw it in the mid-'90s. On the afternoon when I arrived the temperature was 100+ degrees with high humidity. Our car's air conditioner had died way back in Mississippi, so my wife wasn't talking a lot. She had nearly passed out next to me, cranked back in her seat with a once-wet towel draped over her face. The only way I could tell that she was still alive was by hearing her occasional soft groaning. "I can't believe you do this!"
I pulled up to the place and noticed that the front door of the former studio stood open. About a half a dozen used washing machines lined the area outside the door. Inside, the building was crammed with them. I dropped my jaw. A guy in a wheelchair came rolling up to me and asked if I would be interested in buying one of these beauties. He wore a sweaty undershirt, yellowed with age. I asked if I could look around, and he said OK. I kept muttering, "Oh man, what a shame!"
The guy followed me as I stopped at the glass partition where the control room had been. I tried to imagine the musicians huddled around the old board while R.B. Greaves sang “Take A Letter, Maria” and Lulu belted out "Oh Me Oh My (I'm A Fool For You Baby)." He shocked me back to reality when I heard him say deeply, “Well, I guess next you'll be wantin’ to see the rest room." I cocked my head toward him with a quizzical look. I thought that sounded a bit odd, so I replied, "Well, no, not yet. But thank you." He grinned maniacally, rolled himself over to the door, and nudged it open to reveal a rest room that was smaller than most modern-day houses' bedroom closets. As I watched the door slowly open, I realized what he had meant. "This is what folks like the most," he said. Signatures took up every inch of the door's back side. It looked like a Rock Music Autographs Hall of Fame.
Fast forward a few years later. I was thinking about the old studio and my visit there when I met Swamper bassist David Hood at the band's new studio in an old Naval Reserve Center not far away. He recalled how the studio owners, the Swampers themselves, couldn't afford to repair the leaking roof at the old Jackson Highway studio. So before a session with Paul Simon, one of them bought tampons and stuff them into the ceiling to soak up the water before it trickled down on Simon. I never forgot that image. David is an amazing musician and storyteller.
I will always remember the original Jackson Highway Muscle Shoals Sound and compare it to what I had seen at A&R Recording in New York back in the 1970s. A producer partner's uncle co-owned the place, and we were given the royal treatment and a lengthy tour. The two studios were on opposite ends of the aesthetics and equipment spectrums for sure, yet both were great in their own ways and they turned out many hit records.
Despite having no frills, Muscle Shoals Sound was--is--one of America's seminal studios, not only for the hits and good sounds that came out of it, but for the way it looked fifteen years even before I arrived. It always did look and sound funky.
The musicians made it that way. They knew how to play.
Link to Anne's story