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Books: Excerpt from Carla Jean Whitley’s ‘Muscle Shoals Sound Studio’

Carla Jean Whitley, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio

Cheryl Joy Miner

The following chapter is an excerpt from Birmingham author Carla Jean Whitley’s “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music” [aff. link]. She is managing editor of Birmingham magazine, a freelance writer and a journalism instructor at the University of Alabama and Samford University, plus a good friend.

Her newest book is “Balancing Act: Yoga Essays.”

In this excerpt, Whitley shares how the Rolling Stones snuck in a recording session in Muscle Shoals in between stops on its 1969 U.S. concert tour.

• • •

The Rolling Stones

“I know I’ve dreamed you a sin and a lie
I have my freedom, but I don’t have much time
Faith has been broken, tears must be cried
Let’s do some living after we die
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.”

— “Wild Horses,” Rolling Stones

They really weren’t supposed to be there.

The Rolling Stones pulled in to Sheffield, Ala., on Dec. 2, 1969. Two nights earlier, they had wrapped a thrilling performance in West Palm Beach, Fla.

The band had a few days of downtime before their next big show, the soon-to-be-legendary Altamont performance in Los Angeles. The free show drew 300,000 fans to Altamont Speedway, and it was the site of four births and four deaths, including a stabbing death committed by a member of Hells Angels just in front of the stage. But before they went on to make rock ’n’ roll history on Altamont Speedway, the band hoped to sneak in a little recording time.

There was a problem, though: Union complications and back taxes meant the Rolling Stones weren’t actually supposed to be on a working vacation. Not that it stopped anyone. Part of the appeal of recording in the Shoals, after all, was its out-of-the-way location, and the Stones had been assured their visit could be kept secret. A band could show up with British accents and flamboyant style and still go unrecognized.

After all, Muscle Shoals Studio was a nearly unknown entity. The owners had a little backing and plenty of talent, but there was only one hit to the fledgling business’ credit: R.B. Greaves “Take a Letter, Maria.” Cher’s “3614 Jackson Highway,” the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section’s first attempt at working with a well-known artist under the auspices of its own studio, was a commercial nonstarter.

But the Rolling Stones, newly signed to Jerry Wexler’s Atlantic, were something else. The British invasion had been dominating American airwaves, and the Stones’ most recent album, “Let It Bleed,” was an emotional release that elevated the band from its previous work (and briefly knocked the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” out of the top spot on British charts).

With the Beatles on the cusp of releasing their final album, the Rolling Stones were arguably the best band in the world. And the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was prepared. Jimmy Johnson was at the ready with the studio’s Scully eight-track machine primed to roll tape whenever the band was set. That’s exactly what occurred during the Stones’ 3-day residency at Muscle Shoals Sound. The band spent the majority of its time in the studio, playing out its kinks before launching into new material.

“The Stones came in, and they were a little rusty at first because they hadn’t been practicing on account of the tour,” Johnson recounted to BMI in 2009.

So the band would spend the first several hours of work on any particular song ironing things out, and Johnson would be poised. On Night One, they recorded “You Gotta Move,” a cover of a Mississippi Fred McDowell song. A review in Rolling Stone magazine would later cite this track as an album highlight, especially because of Mick Taylor’s electric slide guitar and [Keith] Richards’ acoustic guitar and harmonies.

The band and session musicians spent most of Day Two ironing out wrinkles in their sound before settling in for the second evening’s task. This time, as tape began rolling, the now famous strains of “Brown Sugar” filled the former casket factory. The Chuck Berry-inspired song clocked in at 490 on Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 500 Songs Ever Recorded.

In that list, the magazine wrote, “Here the Stones lay waste to a battery of taboo topics — slavery, sadomasochism, interracial sex — and still manage to be catchy as hell. The song got its start at a session at Muscle Shoals studios: [Mick] Jagger scrawled three verses on a stenographer’s pad, and Richards followed with an impossibly raunchy riff. Add some exultant punctuations (“Yeah! Yeah! Woo-o-o!”) and you have a Stones concert staple.”

Day Three was equally — if not more — successful. At one point, Keith Richards began ruminating over what would become the song “Wild Horses.” His son had been born 4 months earlier, which made being on the road difficult. After Richards jotted down the chorus in the studio’s small bathroom, Jagger polished the lyrics. He left only one line of Richards’ original work, but it sticks with listeners: “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.”

Between Richards’ inspiration and Jagger’s finesse, the Rolling Stones walked away with what would go on to become one of the band’s signature songs. Richards added a guitar riff, and “Wild Horses” was born.

Richards heard Jim Dickinson, a Memphis studio musician whose sons Cody and Luther are now two-thirds of the North Mississippi AllStars, noodling around on an old piano in the building as the band worked up the song. After Richards commented, Jagger declared Dickinson should play on the song — and so he did.

“I got on ‘Wild Horses’ because Ian Stewart, their regular piano player, wouldn’t play minor chords,” Dickinson later recalled. “In the meantime, they wouldn’t be saying anything to me, but I knew I had to get the very best performance when it happened,” Johnson said in the BMI interview.

“After a few takes of ‘Wild Horses,’ Jagger just looks up at me and says, ‘Is that it?’ — like I’m the producer or something! But I knew when they had it — and I just told ’em to come out and hear it back.”

Sure enough, the song went to No. 28 on charts, and “Brown Sugar” hit No. 1. Andrew O’Hehir wrote on Salon.com that the songs represented a new sound for the Stones — and one they never again created. Rolling Stone ranked the song No. 334 in its list of the 500 Best Songs of All Time.

“Richards wrote this acoustic ballad about leaving his wife Anita and young son Marlon as the Stones prepared for their first American tour in 3 years. Stones sidekick Ian Stewart refused to play the minor chords required, so Memphis musical maverick Jim Dickinson filled in on upright piano at the Muscle Shoals, Ala., recording session for ‘Sticky Fingers,’ ” the magazine wrote.

Despite the Stones’ sometimes colorful reputation, they were professionals in the studio. In his autobiography, Jerry Wexler noted, “As producers, they knew exactly what they wanted and how to get it. Their musicianship really came into play in the studio process. They controlled their craft and ran the whole show with dead-on direction. I was confabulated.”

Nights later, when the Rolling Stones performed at Altamont, Jagger introduced the newly recorded “Brown Sugar.” While the three songs the band taped during those 3 days all became part of “Sticky Fingers,” the Rolling Stones’ first No. 1 album in the United States, “Brown Sugar” remains one of the band’s most enduring songs.

And though the recording session would produce the band’s first stateside smash, it wasn’t as though the Stones were unheard of in Alabama. Even so, as the band lounged in the median of a Tuscumbia highway, watching and waving at passersby, locals seemed to accept them as nothing more than a passing curiosity. Bands weren’t unusual in the Shoals, after all.

But had they been recognized, having the Rolling Stones in town would have been newsworthy indeed. Imagine if the residents had realized who the odd-looking out-of-towners actually were!

• • •

Carla Jean Whitley has two book signings for “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio”: Books-A-Million’s Brook Highland location [map] from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday and its Brookwood Village location [map] from 2 to 4 p.m. Dec. 14.

“Muscle Shoals Sound Studio” (July 2014, History Press)

Carla Jean Whitley


Video: “Brown Sugar,” by the Rolling Stones

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