Give this a little patience to the end…the man who cuts my hair is about my age, early 40s, raising youngish children, and doing his best to provide for his family. He got me tapped into two of the best things I have seen on Netflix in a long while. He had never cut my hair, but he was trusted by all of my children, then my wife, then I found myself in his chair. If I can’t trust those four, who can I trust? Who knew I was there for much more than a haircut.
I was in a hurry to get from the haircut to picking up children from school, but somehow, as I so often do, I was contributing to an extended visit and noticing that Jeff was taking clipping breaks as he discussed his love of music. I was not quickening the conversation with simple “uh-huh’s” or changing the subject. Instead, I was glancing all around and taking in the records that covered his studio walls. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” by Elton John has a particular look and I had seen it flash by on Pandora in the previous few days. I felt connected by more than the scissors. I was excited about Jeff’s passion and how his love of music connected to his childhood and his current parenting. We got to talking about the Allman Brothers Band and various other great bands from the 1970s. So he encouraged me to check out Netflix documentaries on The Eagle’s and Muscle Shoals. I knew, the way you just know, that he was sharing something important, something sacred. He probably guessed I would ignore the suggestions and we would never speak of music again. I did not ignore either suggestion and I imagine we will speak more on the subject the next time I am in his chair.
I learned that in the tiny town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama magic has occurred time and time again. I knew I had heard the name and he reminded me that Lynard Skynard mentions the town in the song, “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Some say the magic comes from the mud. Some say from the river. Some say that the Muscle Shoals sound is as simple as turning up the mic on the drums in the rhythm section of the musicians known as the “Swampers.” In a segregated South, it began with white studio band members who sound like black guys to ears who have not seen them. This was a big compliment when the likes of Wilson Pickett entered the studio to cut a record. The term to describe the special sound is often known as “funky.” Muscle Shoals found Duane Allman honing his slide skills between projects, Lynard Skynard mastering “Freebird”, Percy Sledge cutting “When A Man Loves a Woman,” and The Aretha Franklin.
But the last was not yet the Queen of Soul in 1967. Aretha could not find her way in the first years of her professional career. Everyone knew she would be great. There was no way that voice would not rise to the top, but magic was not being made and she and everyone around her were feeling the pressure to produce. She couldn’t find her sound and she and those around her were pushing too hard.
With a new label and a new start, Aretha finds herself on a plane out of New York and back down South in Muscle Shoals, Alabama at FAME Records. She walks into the studio and everyone is nervous. She may not have found herself thus far as a musician, but she was still Aretha Franklin, the aura and the intensity were already in place. The band members were tight and they were scared.
Aretha describes the recording process they were attempting as a “Head Session.” There was no real music for the session, but instead the musicians would listen to what the singer was doing and then the players would decide what they were going to do around that. They would just come in when they were ready and however they could hear and feel what was happening. She sits down at the piano and no one can “hear it.” There is confusion and turmoil. Where do we come in? How do we start? Is there something here to work with? We do not know the next step to take.
Then Spooner Oldham starts in on the piano. He was searching for that groove, a beat, a place to start—they couldn’t find any of it, so the studio got real quiet–silent. All the genius in the room went radio silent. It’s missing. It’s missing. All of a sudden. It’s found, out of that quietness.
A ten second soul-full intro on the keyboard before Aretha comes in with You’re a no-good heartbreaker. They all pounce, all of the musicians, “That’s it. Spooner’s got it.” In less than twenty minutes the record was done. No one said “It’s great,” patting themselves on the back. Like the silence that preceded the twenty minutes of measurable production, nothing needed to be said. This time, they all knew it. And they simply depart from the studio.
Are you letting silence and quiet into your work? Are you waiting in the face of turmoil and confusion for clarity that comes suddenly on your vocational keyboard, even as a surprise, when you were or are about to give up? We all know and live with the impatient state of humanity–we want success, results, and answers twenty minutes ago, but let it sit. It will come as a surprise. It will be done or ready when it is and not before. Be still.
The record that was cut that day at Muscle Shoals was, “I Never Loved a Man,” and was not only one of the funkiest records Aretha ever produced, but considered by many as one of the essential Rhythm and Blues tracks of the 1960s. She names her time at Muscle Shoals, producing only one song, as the turning point in her career. Thanks to Jeff for cutting my hair and for the documentary recommendation and to the PBS crew who produced this great film. Treat yourself over Thanksgiving and watch it. I didn’t even mention the Stones!
George Linney serves the Tobacco Trail Church in North Carolina and tries to wait when it gets quiet.