© Memphis CVB
The artists that emerged out of the Southeast and the music that still makes us move
You can tell a lot about a town by the music that spools from its borders. This is the story of a journey through three Southern centres, meccas for the some of the 20th-century’s musical giants. Two of these musical hubs are small — barely dots on a map — and one is a sprawling city, but all loom large on the stage of soul, R&B and rock, set in a time of America’s unfolding civil rights movement. Macon, Memphis and Muscle Shoals were like a melodious constellation. In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, artists were constantly circling these three, dipping into the well of inspiration and coming away with hit after hit after hit.
Consider the adage “there’s something in the water,” as they claim in Macon, Georgia. It seems as good an account as any other. What else could explain a town of 90,000 producing musical giants like Otis Redding, Little Richard and The Allman Brothers Band?
There’s talk of Macon as “the cradle of American music.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Karla Redding, daughter of soul singer Otis Redding, who was just five years old when her father passed away, just as his career was rocketing to greatness. His first million seller, “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” was recorded three days before the singer died in a plane crash at age 26.
“‘(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay’ was something he never got to experience,” said Karla. “He knew that it was a great song; he knew he was going to be different after he came back and finished Dock of the Bay, but he never got to finish it. I often wonder if that song would have been as big as it is now if he had lived ‘cause it’s so different from everything he did.”
“His songs are so passionate,” Karla said about the way her father’s music transcends generations. “All the feelings you and I have, people around the world have, I think you put on any Otis Redding song and it touches some part of your heart, or some similarity to something that’s going on in your life. All these things just kind of calm your soul.”
The Redding family continues to protect Otis’ legacy, just as they have for the past four decades. “The Otis Redding Foundation provides scholarships for young dreamers who, just like Otis Redding, have a dream but don’t know how to get there. You’ve got to be able to succeed in education and then go ahead and tie all of those successes to your music passion. We can’t touch them all, but the ones we touch will be successful.”
It was the music of Redding that transfixed another Macon-area great, Gregg Allman of The Allman Brothers Band, the foundational group of what became known as Southern rock. Macon was the home of Capricorn Records, the springboard for the band that relocated from northern Florida to this small city.
One of the South’s first racially-integrated bands, these five white guys — with their black drummer — would gather together all the music of the Deep South, including the power of black gospel, Delta and Chicago blues, and fuse it into a juggernaut of jamming and grooving that would, and still does, inspire imitators to this day. When they played their farewell concert in 2014 at New York’s Beacon Theatre, no one in that audience, or on that stage, could have believed that for all the turbulence and celebration the band would survive for 45 years.
Die-hard fans of ABB songs like “Midnight Rider” and “Ramblin’ Man” get more than their fill by dipping into the well at The Big House (2321 Vineville Avenue; tel: 478-741-5551; thebighousemuseum.com; US$7; closed Mondays), which has room after room of lovingly-curated instruments, clothing, hand-written lyrics, concert posters and ticket stubs. The Big House is the spiritual and actual home of the original Allman Brothers Band; the members lived and worked there communally in the early 1970s.
Grooving in Tennessee
Choose one city that embodies all styles of Southern music and it would be Memphis, the home of the legendary Stax Records studio, Graceland and Sun Studio, where, according to legend, Bob Dylan fell to his knees and kissed the mark on the floor where Elvis charted musical history with “That’s Alright Mama.”
The magic that burst from Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio (706 Union Avenue; tel: 800-441-6249; sunstudio.com; adults US$12) was the perfect intersection of talent and entrepreneurship. In the 1950s — at the height of segregation — Phillips recorded greats like Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and, of course, Elvis Presley. The young Presley was discovered when he sidled up to the microphone to record a song for his mother’s birthday. After that, the face of modern music changed forever.
Across town, in the heart of the neighbourhood once known as Soulsville USA, is Stax (926 East McLemore Avenue; tel: 901-942-SOUL; staxmuseum.com; adults US$12, kids 9 to 12 US$9; closed Mondays), now the only full-fledged soul music museum in the world. They say soul music was born in the church and in the cotton fields; in the 1950s it described a style of jazz blending elements of hard bop, gospel and the blues. Musical giants like James Brown, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles were instrumental in bridging the worlds of gospel and R&B, setting the stage for the transition to soul. By the 1960s, soul was named for a niche of gospel music with a heavy dose of secular lyrics and the torch was picked up by singers like Otis Redding who famously said: “If you listen to the song and your shoulders don’t move, there’s no groove to it.” Groove was big. It stirred your insides and shook your outsides.
At the heart of the hard-hitting, percussive Stax sound was house band Booker T. & the MGs, whose tight-but-loose, Hammond organ-infused groove was behind almost every of the label’s recordings through the 1960s. It was an era dominated by A-list soul artists including Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers and numerous others, but without a doubt the biggest star to emerge from Stax was Otis Redding. Although Macon was home base, Redding did most of his enduring work at Stax.
It was lightening in a bottle. Memphis was still a segregated city, rife with racial and class tensions but none of that mattered inside the Stax studios — or in the bars on Beale Street (bealestreet.com) — where white and black musicians socialized and co-wrote music that would sell in the millions and make them stars as far away as Europe. The songs poured forth from Stax and artists travelled from all parts of the lower 48 to be part of that sound.
When it was too hot to work inside the Stax studio, musicians and singers would unwind at the nearby Lorraine Motel, one of the only places in Memphis where different races could share the swimming pool, drink beer, hang out in the rooms and write songs. Black and white collaborated in an integrated organization existing within a city where segregation was the rule of law. No one could have foreseen how all that would change with the assassination — at that same Lorraine Motel — of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. Sadly, his death heightened a racial sensitivity between the musicians, part of the story told at both the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and at the National Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry Street; tel: 901-521-9699; civilrightsmuseum.org; adults US$15, kids 4 to 17 US$12; closed Tuesdays), on the grounds of the former motel.
In the early 1970s, many artists moved from Stax to the small town of Muscle Shoals 200 kilometres away, home of the equally renowned FAME recording studios and the “Muscle Shoals sound.” They say this is not only where music was made, it was also where musical history was made.
Here, in the northwest corner of Alabama, another rhythm section, known as The Swampers, was drawing the stars and cranking out the hits. Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Elton John, Cat Stevens, Boz Scaggs, The Rolling Stones and countless other musical giants vied to be backed by The Swampers, a collection of white players who managed to channel black rhythms and sensibilities, a soulful sound that captured a particular quality audiences craved.
Ben Tanner, keyboardist with the Grammy-nominated Alabama Shakes and studio tech at FAME, knows about the magic transcending generations. “It’s about the way the parts are interlocked. There’s a feel to the way these guys played together that translated into hits. They were musicians who really put the song first, so people wanted to be a part of that experience.”
FAME was built from the ground up by accomplished producer Rick Hall, who still runs the studio. His story is chronicled in the recent documentary, Muscle Shoals. “He had an ear for a song, for a feel,” explained Tanner. “Rick would handpick his musicians and create a particular sound. After that he could bring in any soloist and match the music.”
It was Percy Sledge’s 1966 hit “When a Man Loves a Woman” that went No. 1 that planted Shoals on the musical map. In 1967, a recording session backed by the FAME rhythm section launched the mainstream career of a young Aretha Franklin with the blues ballad “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).” What followed was a bumper crop of hits.
After a business split in 1969, several of the FAME musicians left to set up their own recording studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, nicknamed 3614 Jackson Highway and made famous by a Cher album of the same name. The songs rolled out from 3614 and from FAME: everything from the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” to Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” was laid down in these recording studios.
Muscle Shoals is home to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (617 Highway 72, Tuscumbia; tel: 800-239-2643; alamhof.org; adults US$10, kids under 12 US$7; closed Mondays), a collection of the wide ranging music styles of Alabama, from the blues of W.C. Handy to the country twang of Hank Williams to the soul of Lionel Ritchie. Some have noted that the talent pool is wide and deep in this part of the country, even declaring Muscle Shoals as “a holy place in the evolution of rock ’n’ roll.” It’s the rich cross-pollination that is most striking about this musical triumvirate. From Macon to Memphis to Muscle Shoals, criss-crossing and hop scotching from one to the other to the next. What a time it was. What a wealth of music. As Karla Redding reminds us, “There is such a rich music history and the up-and-coming musicians are following in the footsteps of all of these legends.”
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