The Sounds of Alabama:
Swing, Dip, Jam and Rock
This sound mixer at the Muscle Shoals Recording Studio was used in many sessions with stars.*
By Lynn Grisard Fullman
From woeful country music to the beat of jazz and the power of pop, music has been penned, hummed, strummed and sung in Alabama for decades. Still is.
American Idol winners Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks, both from Birmingham, sang in Alabama long before the reality television show audience -- and the world -- listened in. And, runner-up Bo Bice, another American Idol star, continues to shine musically.
"One of our state's greatest surprises may be its musical heritage," says Lee Sentell, director, Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel. "Our three American Idol standouts have helped to turn the nation's and the world's attention to all that we have here -- from a museum focused on jazz greats to the birthplace of the Father of the Blues."
Taylor, Ruben and Bo may have been the most recent musicians to shine light on Alabama's musical achievements. But consider all the places in Alabama where music, as well as its heritage and influence are celebrated and embraced by music fans.
The recording studio looks much the same as it did when most musical stars headed for Muscle Shoals decades ago to produce their "albums."
Jazz Hall of Fame
Jazz musicians with ties to Alabama are saluted at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and Museum (205-254-2731 or www.jazzhall.com/), 1631 Fourth Ave. North, Birmingham. This museum is housed in the Carver Theatre for the Performing Arts, a few blocks south of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (www.bcri.org).
Through information and interactive exhibits, visitors will learn about such musical legends as John T. "Fess" Whatley. An educator during the 1920s and 1930s, Whatley taught African-American musicians including Erskine Hawkins, Sammy Lowe, Herman Grimes and Joseph Britton.
Exhibits trace the history of jazz from the boogie woogie of Clarence "Pinetop" Smith to Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Space Arkestra. Jazz stand-outs including Hawkins, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Muscle Shoals gained a reputation that lured the top music makers. The Muscle Shoals Sound" (www.muscleshoalssound.org) was created by four Alabama studio musicians. Ultimately, the recording studio was involved in producing records that sold more than 300 million copies.
In those days, the area was a wellspring for both new artists and popular favorites. In this northwest corner of Alabama, the Rolling Stones recorded "Brown Sugar," Aretha Franklin recorded "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," Cher created her namesake album (with a cover photo of the studio) and Wilson Pickett produced some of his greatest hits. Bob Seger, Rod Stewart and Paul Simon also recorded in Muscle Shoals.
The original Muscle Shoals building is now open to visitors, but call for hours before you go.*
Saved from demolition, the original, one-story Muscle Shoals building at 3614 Jackson Hwy. in Sheffield has opened to visitors -- with limited hours. Originally a casket factory, it now contains furniture, recording equipment and graffiti by the artists who once recorded here. Today, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Also open in Muscle Shoals for tours is the Fame Recording Studio (256-381-0801 or www.fame2.com), 603 E. Avalon Ave. That building – still an active recording studio -- earned the area its reputation as "The Hit Recording Capital of the World."
Celebrating the Blues
In northwest Alabama, William Christopher "W.C." Handy, known as "the Father of the Blues," is remembered at his restored, log-cabin birthplace (256-760-6434 or www.florenceal.org), 620 West College St., Florence. Handy was born to freed slaves here in 1873.
Moved from its original site six blocks away, the cabin contains eclectic memorabilia. Visitors can peruse Handy’s trumpet, handwritten music and even the piano where he composed "St. Louis Blues."
Furnished as it might have been when Handy lived there, the cabin is adjacent to a library that focuses on African-American history and culture.
Handy, who died in 1958, is remembered annually with a birthday party held Nov. 16 at his birthplace. Visitors also might enjoy the area’s July 22-28 summer festival (www.wchandymusicfestival.org) focused on his music.
Across the Tennessee River from Handy's home, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (800-239-2643 or www.alamhof.org/), 617 Highway 72 West, pays tribute to Alabama's outstanding musical performers.
Among the items on display are costumes, hand-scrawled lyrics, and the tour bus once used by the band Alabama (www.thealabamaband.com). Yes, you can go inside and even sprawl on the band members’ bunks. Almost everyone’s favorite attraction, though, is a small recording studio. You can pay a small fee, belt out your own lyrics and take a copy home.
That famed country music group also has its own museum in northeast Alabama. Less than a mile off I-59's Exit 218, the Alabama Fan Club & Museum (256-845-1646) 101 Glenn Ave. South, Fort Payne, houses awards, collections from the band members' earlier years, and a souvenir and gift shop. Hours are limited so call before you visit.
Upcoming Alabama Musical Events
A professional writer based in Birmingham, AL, Lynn Grisard Fullman has written six books, and countless newspaper and magazine articles. She has won numerous awards for her writing.
*Photos used above are owned, copyrighted and displayed with the permission of the Muscle Shoals Recording Studio. All rights reserved. Please do not link to these photos nor copy.