If you were a member of the Alabama Department of Forestation, you might have a reason to visit Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Your annual conference might be held, say, at the local Ramada Inn. But if you are an avid reader of the credits on the back of soul albums, you will know that the other reason for travelling into the hinterlands of the American South would be if you were a musician. And that’s how we qualified.
When we arrived, in the spring of 1987, Muscle Shoals’ star had waned considerably since the glory days of 1967-75, when its studios had produced awesome recordings by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, James Carr, Joe Tex, Bobby Womack and Paul Simon. And we had no idea what they would make of a bunch of city-dwelling Limeys pulling into town, hitching our horses to the rail and settling in to record a soul album.
We had been signed to RCA late in 1986 on the strength of our first single ‘Don’t Come to Stay’ (released on deConstruction, the label set up for that purpose by our managers Keith Blackhurst and Pete Hadfield). We embarked on the daunting task of recording our first album when RCA’s head of A&R, Peter Robinson, suggested that we consider recording some tracks at Muscle Shoals. Critics often mentioned us in relation to Southern Soul, but we never saw it ourselves. Ray Charles’ entire career, Prince’s Gotta Broken Heart Again and Bobby Womack’s The Poet 2 were our touchstones, and we received the notion less than rapturously.
As far as we were aware, no-one had made a decent record in Muscle Shoals in many years. To test out our theory I went to Virgin Records, spent hours combing the fine print of soul, rock and country releases and spent £70 on recent Shoals waxings. We wanted to know if the legendary rhythm section was still in shape, what the Studio sounded like, how modern the set-up was.
What we heard was a crushing disappointment. Everything sounded sludgy and leaden and, worst of all, had drum machines all over the place. Now we weren’t averse – even with our supposed holier-than-thou attitude to real musicians and instruments – to the use of new technologies, and had used drum programming and synths where they seemed to work. But there seemed a serious lack of dynamism and feel on these records.
I did have, however, a recent Al Green gospel album, Precious Lord, that featured a red-hot rhythm section of Larry Londin on drums and Bob Wray on bass. Mark noticed that this was the same rhythm team on B.B. King’s recent country album Love Me Tender, of which B.B. had said, “This is the greatest album I have recorded in my 35 years in the music business”. (Unaccountably, none of these tracks made it onto the 4-CD retrospective of his career released a few years later).
Our producer – and drummer on our recordings – Jamie Lane got on the phone to Music City USA and tried to hire them to play on our sessions. He was keen to book Larry to play drums as he would be producing in a studio he’d never worked in before. Whilst Bob was free to record, Larry was one of Nashville’s most in-demand sessioneers and couldn’t do our pencilled-in dates. Bob suggested James Stroud, another fine southern drummer (and a future kingpin of ’90s “hat act” Nashville), but he was booked too.
You might ask, given that the Muscle Shoals Sound studio was part owned by one of the greatest drummers in the history of American music, why on earth we didn’t ask Roger Hawkins. What can I say? We were misinformed? All the stuff we’d heard out of the Shoals recently had sounded tired and flat. Our only defence is that we were nervous as hell of ending up in the deep south with a non-cooking situation, wasting time and money. We didn’t discover that we were wrong about Roger until it was too late to do anything about it.
In the end we decided that Jamie would drum and that we would take our regular piano player Robbie Taylor (pedigree: the North London jazz funk scene and Chaz Jankel) with us. We worked with some fine piano players in our time as Hot House – the wonderful Patrice Rushen, the warmly eccentric Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey (of TSOP fame and co-writer of Disco Inferno), the fabulous walking encyclopedia of piano styles that is Pete Wingfield – but Robbie’s playing was the backbone of Hot House; stately, but with a burning sense of fire. He’s also one of the nicest people you could hope to meet, so he was good to have on the trip. Heather Small, Mark Pringle and I – plus John Lloyd (our RCA A&R) and manager Keith Blackhurst – made up the Hot House party.
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It was when I discovered how many of the records that I’d loved growing up had come out of the area that I realised that southern soul had been an influence on what we did. There was Patches by Clarence Carter, first heard one morning on the Tony Blackburn show and discussed in tones of wonder in the school’s chemistry lab later that day. There were the more obvious ones like Never Loved A Man by Aretha, contender for the Finest Four Minutes in the History of Soul Music… there was Dark End of The Street played by Ry Cooder and his Mexican Band as Mark and I watched BBC’s In Concert deep in the midst of punk in 1976. I hadn’t heard the original and didn’t know it was a classic deep soul ballad, but that night, when it snaked out of the TV set on the back of Ry’s slide and lifted the roof off with the power of Willie Green, Bobby King and Terry Evans’ vocals, I knew this was music that touched us as deeply as anything we’d ever heard. I taped it on an old Philips Mono recorder and it still sends chills down my spine, even now, to listen to it.
Reading Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music and Barney Hoskyns’ Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted led me to discover common threads in the music that I had been drawn to for as long as I could remember. I understood why Tom Jones, singing Curly Putnam’s Green Green Grass of Home, got to me when I was twelve – it was the stone gospel/country piano. Why Bobby Gentry’s Ode To Billie Joe seemed so right, why the Staple Singers Come Go With Me struck a chord.
It explained why, of all the reggae that people at college listened to, I was drawn to the Heptones and Toots and the Maytals, two acts whose songs and style drew most directly from the music that beamed from the South via Nashville’s powerful transmitters. It may have even explained why I liked the Box Tops and Big Star, although nothing could really explain my fascination with John Fred and his Playboy Band’s Judy In Disguise, even if they were from Memphis.
* * * *
We had the Walkman primed: Ry Cooder’s Houston in Two Seconds as we hit Atlanta airport’s runway to face up to US Immigration Work-permit free, we desperately revised our stories of visiting relatives and holidays, crossed our fingers and prayed that none of us would be on the next plane back to Gatwick. The hiccup came when Robbie appeared to the customs-men to have come to America for a month with 45 cents to see him through, but Jamie said he was with Robbie and waved travellers’ checks at them.
We stayed in Atlanta overnight prior to taking the (as we dubbed it) Otis Redding Memorial Cropduster: the pilot smoked a corncob pipe and blithely chatted to his co-pilot as the plane swung crazily from side to side on its approach to the runway. Anticipation was high as we approached our destination. We knew what to expect – Percy Sledge had told us. We had our well-thumbed copy of Gerri Hirshey’s Nowhere to Run and this is what Percy said: “What drew everybody to Muscle Shoals… well, it sits right at the bottom of the mountains. Mountains all the way around us, and we have the best bass sound in the world. When you got mountains standing that high up over you, all the way around for, like, fifty, sixty miles, then you’ve got a bass track”.
We flew over the flattest farmland, waiting for the mountains. We landed at the airport still waiting.
* * * *
You could call Muscle Shoals – which makes up, with Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia, the so-called “Quad Cities” – a hamlet, but it would lead one to expect too much. Out of the ten houses in Muscle Shoals, six are recording studios. Weeeell, a slight exaggeration, but only just. The studio had moved from its original location at 3614 Jackson Highway (as immortalised in the Sonny and Cher album named after it – weird clients, huh?) and was now housed in the old Naval Reserve building on the banks of the Tennessee River.
We rented instruments (not wanting to alert customs, we’d left them at home) from the local music shop where we were accosted by a gangly teenager. He suspected that we were somehow connected with Julian Lennon (whom Tom Dowd had brought to the Shoals to record his first album away from prying eyes). Keith’s Liverpudlian accent must have been the trigger, but he became convinced that I was the man himself, and nothing we could say dissuaded him.
We settled into the rambling studio where we planned the next weeks and met everyone. Jimmy Johnson (guitarist with the section, and studio manager) gave us an office to work in, and lent us his car and guitar. The guitar’s action was so high and the strings so heavy that Mark had to reset it to be able to play it, and Vicky, who was the tape-op, had a great Les Paul. Duncan Cameron of the Amazing Rhythm Aces had a beautiful Epiphone semi, but it came with strict instructions not to change the strings.
The main studio room had been based on the design standard established by RCA in Nashville – 18ft ceilings etc. – and the control room had a bay window that ran the studio’s length. Jamie tried out some snare drums with the studio’s engineer, Pete Green, pronounced them lacking and headed off to the Count Brothers Music Store to hire a new one. We fell in love with the place. It had a funky old Neve desk that sounded so sweet, and there were old brown Wurlitzer electric pianos all over the shop. Pete explained that because the Wurlies had their own built-in speaker, schools in the South had bought loads of them for music classes. At some point the studio had bought job-lots of them as schools got synthesisers, and here they were, in fantastic condition, as well as in tune (which was always a bonus).
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I’d always loved the players on my favourite records. I’d read credit lists on album covers, and had even been known to buy records on the strength of session pianists or drummers – I‘d been through a big Richard Tee phase, definitely a Cornell Dupree one, Amos Garrett (very big). I even went through a Vinnie Coliuta one a couple of years ago on hearing Famous Blue Raincoat by Jennifer Warnes, but had to give up when he joined Sting’s band.
While this following of session players had led me to some great music, on balance I’d ended up with more horrors than hits, especially in the bad old days of jazz funk. Bob Wray told us he’d played bass on Patches – this was monumental to me. I’d met the bass player (Walter Payton Jr) on Working In A Coalmine, when I was about 14, at Sound Techniques Studio in London, so to meet the man behind the bass line of the Clarence Carter classic was awesome. I just needed to meet Rick Danko and my holy three would be complete (I saw Rick play once at The Borderline, but was too intimidated to actually say hello). Bob’d played with Bobby Womack and lived through the blizzard of guns and coke that had accompanied him, joined the Marshall Tucker Band at one point, and played on a lot of pop stuff, too.
Bob’s stories illuminated the nature of Muscle Shoals. He told us that soon after he started work at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios, a bunch of young white guys arrived to cut some records. A bit pop, he hadn’t thought much about it at the time, but soon after the sessions he had to drive a couple of thousand miles cross-country. Every time the station changed as he crossed states the same song, that he recognised as one of the ones he’d played on, came on and he realised a monster hit was on the Osmonds’ hands in the shape of One Bad Apple. Bob’s main bread and butter was country stuff in Nashville, or as he put it, “Eat-shit, eat-shit”, mimic-ing the standard C&W bass line of root-fifth: Bob called this “The People’s Bass Line”.
We played Bob the tracks we’d recorded in London, gushed over his work on Al Green’s Precious Lord (“I hated makin’ that record, there was political stuff goin’ on, and it’s not a happy memory”; oh well, we won’t mention that again) and tried, as we always did with musicians, to make them feel at home, and that they could bring something to the party. Bob really did – he and Jamie locked in right away and Robbie smiled his inscrutable smile, and Heather, Mark and I looked at one another and knew it was going to be okay. Later on, Bob’s wife Peg told Mark that Bob had come back after the first day raving that here was something he could play on – he was, in her words, in ‘Hawg Heaven’.
* * * *
Monkee Wammack had told us that his dad’s band, with Monkee on drums and Bob on bass, were playing later in the week at a place called The Lamplighter somewhere out of town, and when the night came round we found that we’d finished up early in the studio. We pressed Monkee for directions and he scribbled them down. His parting words as he drove off to set up were “You can’t miss it, there’s only two buildings out there, and the other one’s a police station!”. Hmmm. Robbie and Heather didn’t feel like making the trek, so Mark, Jamie and I piled into the Jimmymobile and lurched into the dark, warm, and, as it turned out, narcotic American night.
The trip out of town started to get spooky when the streetlights ended soon after we crossed the railway tracks. The road led off into inky blackness and we were just becoming convinced we’d never find the bar when a sign showed a mile or so ahead. As we drew up to the neon-lit concrete box that was The Lamplighter our misgivings grew. Parked outside were wall-to-wall pickup trucks, mostly displaying bumper stickers of the “South Is Gonna Rise Again” variety. Our fevered imaginations placed full gun racks in each and every one of them. We said a silent prayer of thanks that Robbie and Heather weren’t with us.
Music throbbed out of the cinder-block walls. Inside, it was wall-to-wall bubbas – incredibly overweight farmers in bib’n’brace overalls. We tried – three thin, white, urban types – to look as inconspicuous as possible as we slunk along the bar to try and find a table. We failed mostly because Monkee shouted over the music and instructed the man on lights to put a spotlight on us. We froze, a living version of the Band On The Run cover tableau.
“Like to introduce some friends of ours over from England, here to make a record – there’s Jamie, Mark and Martin – give ’em a big hand.”. The evening was spiralling into ever-weirder territory…
When the musicians came down from the bandstand (where they were playing in front of the world’s-largest Confederate Flag) we were introduced to Travis Wammack. Travis is a man whose lips smiled (in a Jack Palance-type way) as his eyes said, as Mark put it later, “Just what do you want from me, boy?” The only other time he had experienced a similar look, he told me, was when he was introduced to my uncle, Ken Colyer, at the 100 Club.
Travis was scary – if you’ve ever heard his album Sccrratchy, you’ll have the picture. He had probably been ripped off by men with much less talent, but much more business sense, throughout his life, something he had in common with many jobbing musicians in the South. And when they got back on the bandstand we were convinced that we were watching the best bar band in the world. The gig felt complete when they eased their way into When a Man Loves a Woman, the unofficial state anthem.
As we drove back, buzzing from this extraordinary scene, Jamie spotted a 24-Hour Food World on the edge of town, so we cruised in to see what they could offer passing travellers at midnight. And what they could offer us was a wiffle ball. At least, that’s what we bought out of the 750,000 things on offer. Stowing our kids’ baseball set in the back, we set off to our favourite bar. This was Calico’s, where the bartender, on hearing Keith’s accent, had pushed some regulars off their barstools, saying “We got some Oor-O-Peens in the bar – make some room”.
On the way home, as we hit the railroad tracks, a beat-up GTO pulled alongside, and Vicky Lancaster leaned out and drawled, “Y‘all wan’ go score some pot? I’m all fucked-up on ’ludes; y’all know what ’ludes are?” We followed Vicky’s somewhat erratic driving all over town until we arrived, yes, back at Calico’s.
* * * *
Mark and I both have a deep affection for the pedal steel (“the Hammond of Country Music”) and were determined, over various objections, to feature it on one of the songs. Mark had arrived at the Shoals with a slow, deep, sonorous tune that he’d written recently on a new synth, but sans lyrics.
We asked Bob’s advice on who should play steel on ‘Hard As I Try’, and who should score the strings. Bob said, “Well, you want the hippest guys – that’s Paul Franklin and Bergen White”. Calls were made and tapes sent to Nashville. Bergen did a beautiful string arrangement and came in with the Nashville String Machine, some of whom had played on Patsy Cline sessions. Paul Franklin drove up on a Sunday morning accompanied by his tow-headed kid, clutching steel guitars made by his daddy, sat down, plugged in and dashed off Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee. Once we had picked our jaws up off the floor, Pete lined up the tape. Two takes, and we kept the first.
* * * *
At the barbecue Bob gave us a tape of two studio tracks that he’d played on. The first featured Ray Charles, who recorded a couple of albums with Bob on bass. Johnny Cash had dropped by and they just started playing a Kris Kristofferson song that they both knew, Why Me Lord. Bob described Ray getting so into it as he ripped out a solo on the ol’ beige Wurlitzer that the piano started to jerk across the studio floor, almost crashing over. It’s a fabulous version of the song, and Bob said that Ray paid him his greatest compliment when he asked his producer in the middle of the album sessions if Bob was black.
The other song was from the B.B. King Love Me Tender sessions. Throughout, Larry Londin, the late great Nashville drummer, had asked B.B. to play The Thrill is Gone, and each time B.B. had said no. On the last day of the sessions, B.B. had gone around thanking everyone, handing out keyrings and pens emblazoned with his logo. When he got to Larry, he picked up his guitar and launched into Larry’s request. Everyone scrambled to join in, the engineer rolled tape and they played the hell out of it. The best comes at the end when the song crashes to and end and Londin bangs his sticks together, shouting “B.B., B.B., B.B. King, Yeah!” over and over as B.B. dissolves laughing.
* * * *
Early on in our sojourn, I had reversed Jimmy Johnson’s car into a telegraph pole, thus earning the sobriquet Martin “Crash” Colyer (after the legendary Billy “Crash” Craddock). Unfortunately my adventures with the car didn’t stop there. The next night I was driving back to the hotel from the studio, and, realising that I had taken the wrong turning, promptly executed an elegant U-turn. It was late and there were no cars on the road but no sooner had I straightened up than a single headlight appeared in the rear-view mirror and a ghostly siren whirled out. I pulled over and a rangy cop walked up and asked in a southern drawl what I thought I was doing.
“Well, we’re working out at Muscle Shoals Sound and I took a wrong turn…”
“This is Mr Johnson’s car, isn’t it?”
“He lent it to us to use…”
“It seems to me, sir, that you’ve probably had a few beverages, you’re drivin’ on unfamiliar roads, so I suggest you head straight back to your hotel, have a good night’s sleep and watch out when you’re drivin’ next”.
With that he was back in the saddle and off into the night, flashing light spinning lazily over the trees and houses.
The next day, Trooper McCord, for that’s who it was, came by the studio to apologise for stopping me and went on to say that he used to play bass there. It was his son who’d thought I was Julian Lennon. The trooper said that if we were ever out driving and got lost to phone his dispatcher and say that we were personal friends of Officer McCord and he would come out and guide us back home.