Black Magic,
White Soul

Romare Bearden Empress of the Blues (1974) via Smithsonian

When it comes to the birth of soul, the documentary Muscle Shoals would rather credit the dirt than the singers

I wanted to love Muscle Shoals, the new documentary about Fame Studios in Alabama, as much as other critics did. The site of landmark recordings by everyone from Percy Sledge to Etta James, Muscle Shoals held a cherished place in my personal pop mythology as the site where, in 1967, a 25-year-old Aretha Franklin began to record her phenomenal first album with Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. More specifically, Muscle Shoals was the site of Franklin’s “magic chord.”

In his book on the making of the album, Matt Dobkin tells how Franklin entered the studio, regarded by the white house musicians with awe and shy fear, and sat down at the piano and played a chord that only a virtuoso could play. As composer Dan Penn recalls, Franklin “sits down at the piano stool… and kinda looks around like, Nobody’s watchin’ me…. Is this not my session? And with all the talent she had, she just hit this unknown chord… Like a bell ringing. And every musician in the room stopped what they were doing, went to their guitars and started tunin’ up. They knew someone had come who was gonna cut somethin’ heavy on that day… You were very aware that no one could hit that chord… She didn’t do it like, ‘Hey I’m here!’ It was just her magic.” That magic moved keyboardist Spooner Oldham to leave the piano playing to her: “Now, look, I’m not trying to cop out or nothing. I know I was hired to play piano, but I wish you’d let her play that thing, and I could get on organ and electric.” Decades later Oldham would still consider this move “one of the best things I ever done—and I didn’t do nothing.”

I love the story of the magic chord for the secret histories it encodes. For one, it reminds us that Aretha Franklin was (and is) an extraordinary pianist—a glamorous performer and an expert musician whose magic was a matter of craft. It reminds us that she laid the instrumental foundation for her own recordings with Atlantic, arranging the songs through “head sessions” in which, as she explains, the band would “listen to what I was doing, and then they would decide what they were going to do, around that.” The image of Franklin in the driver’s seat of her own recordings powerfully contests the dominant story that casts her as a young ingénue just drifting, waiting for white men like producer Jerry Wexler to “know what to do with her,” as Mick Jagger says in the film. Above all, the story of the magic chord tells us that far from her Detroit home, in Klan territory, located just 120 miles north of a city whose anti-black violence had earned it the nickname “Bombingham,” in a studio full of white strangers and a controlling husband-manager, at a recording session that guaranteed her nothing but another try, the young Aretha Franklin could find a home and a seat of authority in her music. The story may be romantic, but what it prompts us to imagine is not: the courage and self-possession it took for the not-yet-Queen of Soul to walk through that room, wordlessly call everyone to attention, and get to work making music history.

Muscle Shoals doesn’t tell that story. Although Dan Penn mentions Franklin’s “unknown chord,” the real star of the session becomes Spooner Oldham. In the film’s telling, the musicians reach an impasse while trying to arrange the album’s title track. Out of the quiet confusion, Oldham strikes up the perfect keyboard vamp, a “three-fingered dum-hum” that saves the day, the session, and, while we’re at it, Aretha’s career, resulting in the classic soul waltz that opens her first million-selling album. The brilliant musician who believed that the best move he made that day was to clear the way for Franklin’s own genius becomes the unwitting hero of this tale, as Franklin’s magic chord is trumped by Oldham’s magic vamp.

The white southern musician’s answer to Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the 2002 film that turned the spotlight on the black house band behind countless Motown hits, Muscle Shoals credits the Fame Studios rhythm section, the Swampers, and producer Rick Hall for the genesis of southern soul. As the latest and whitest version of the backup biopic, a genre that includes Standing in the Shadows and this year’s amazing 20 Feet from Stardom, the film makes the mistake of thinking the story of the unsung hero is race and gender neutral. A film that exalts white men as the unsung heroes of southern soul does not have the same impact as a film that highlights the black instrumentalists behind black Motown stars or that features the unknown black women vocalists who sing the hit-making hooks. On the contrary, by representing the Swampers and Rick Hall as the unlikely white fathers of soul music, Muscle Shoals participates in a long history of divesting black musicians of control of and compensation for their own music.

This is not what the film intends. Its explicit argument is that Fame Studios was a Utopic “colorblind” space that embodied Martin Luther King’s dream of white and black children joining hands in Alabama and thus raising a collective middle-finger to George Wallace’s call for eternal segregation. The Muscle Shoals experiment proved not only that white and black players could work together but also that white players could be sonically mistaken for black men. This is a source of delight for the white men in the film. Bono vividly imagines how people would come to Muscle Shoals expecting to see “these black dudes, and what they find is a bunch of white guys who looked like they worked at the supermarket around the corner.” But there’s an obverse to this story, as when Peter Guralnick recounts Wilson Pickett’s wariness upon meeting a white Rick Hall at the airport. Whether or not it is true that he made it all the way to Muscle Shoals without learning that Hall wasn’t black, Pickett’s is a notably less charming account of the “gotcha” reverse-passing joke that lets white men have a laugh together, because they’re all white after all.

In a generous reading, the white musicians’ thrill is an expression of their pride at their hard-won ability to master historically black musical styles. That seems valid, as does the notion that the studio could be a uniquely cooperative interracial space. But in the context of a backup biopic that credits white men for the innovative music of black solo artists, the discourse of white-sounding-black treads into dangerous conceptual terrain: that place where white America loves black culture at a distance, loves hip-hop but is afraid of black men, plays black music in cars that have never carried black passengers. The film’s dual themes of racial masquerade and white heroism add up to a vision of black music without black people.

In fact, the film initially wrests control away from any people, white or black, by mystically diffusing the source of the music into the natural world. According to Bono, great music “always seems to come out of the river: in Liverpool, there’s the Mersey sound… then there’s the Mississippi… and here you have the Tennessee River”: “It’s like the songs come out of the mud.” The filmmakers rigorously support the point by linking the sound of the music with the sight of the land: shots of the slow river at sunset, tractors wavering in the heat. As drummer Uriel Jones says in Standing in the Shadows, “People would always credit everything but the musicians. They would say it was the [solo artists], the producers, the way the building was structured, the wood in the floor, even the food. But I’d like to see them take some barbecue ribs or hamburgers and throw them down in the studio and count off 1-2-3-4 and get a hit out of that.” You don’t think that composer Paul Riser’s comment in that film is controversial—“people ask, ‘What was the Motown sound?’ It was the musicians”—until you hear Keith Richards attributing great soul recordings to the acoustics of the studio in Muscle Shoals.

When the film is not crediting river gods and studio insulation for the music, it is crediting the white band and Rick Hall. So it is not Wilson Pickett who warrants praise for his house-wrecking rendition of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” but Duane Allman, who suggested that Pickett cover the song and who played lead guitar on the track. As we hear Wilson Pickett’s virtuosic screams in the song’s vamp section (“Wilson would scream notes,” Wexler has said, “where other screamers just scream sound”), rhythm guitarist Jimmy Johnson explains that “Duane Allman was playing such great guitar fills that something happened in that vamp. And all of a sudden, there was southern rock.” If the studio is an ideal site of interracial collaboration in which white musicians can master black styles, then surely Pickett can share credit for the creation of southern rock.

Yet collaboration really means white paternalism in Muscle Shoals. This paternalism shows itself most incredibly when Rick Hall tells how Leonard Chess prepped him for Etta James’s visit to Muscle Shoals: “You know, Rick, I built my company on her back. When you think she’s singing as good as she can sing, if you’ll kick her ass and wind her up, then she can rattle the shingles on this studio.” No voice tempers or contests this rhetorical violence. On the contrary, Etta James’s own statement is used to confirm the notion that white men know what is best for the art of black women. She didn’t want to sing “Tell Mama,” but she did as Hall advised: “I finally realized everything that he used to badger me about, he was always right.” As Rick Hall says, “Of course ‘Tell Mama’ was to become a big, big hit.” According to the song’s composer Clarence Carter, “People said that record raised her from the grave.”

James offers a far more nuanced account of her trip to Muscle Shoals in the memoir she co-wrote with David Ritz. Six months after Aretha’s visit to Fame Studios (“Leonard [Chess] was no dummy. He figured what was right for Re was right for me”), she “flew into Muscle Shoals pregnant and cranky and ready to blow the doors off the studio.” Upon arriving she found that “the backup musicians were a bunch of bad white boys who could play sure-enough R&B.” Expressing pride in her recording of the phenomenal “I’d Rather Go Blind” (and stressing her role as composer of that song), she remains unimpressed with “Tell Mama”: “There are folks who think ‘Tell Mama’ is the Golden Moment of the Golden Age of soul; they… rave about the snappy horn chart and the deep-pocket guitar groove, about how I sang the shit out of it. I wish I could agree. Sure, the song made me money. It warmed Leonard Chess’s heart to see the thing cross over to the pop charts… But I have to confess that it was never a favorite of mine… It’s not that I don’t admire the chart and the songwriter. Clarence Carter… is great. Maybe it’s just that I didn’t like being cast in the role of the Great Earth Mother, the gal you come to for comfort and easy sex.”

Neither did Franklin, who rejected the role of the natural talent guided by white men to a magical place where “the songs come out of the mud.” In her memoir (also co-authored by David Ritz), she asserts her leading role in the dynamic collaborative process that produced songs like “Never Loved a Man.” Indeed, she regrets that she was not listed as co-producer of these early hits. She also credits many people with their creation, citing Oldham’s “beautiful electric piano lines,” Tommy Dowd’s “genius” sound engineering, and Arif Mardin’s brilliant string and horn charts. If Jerry Wexler’s greatest contribution was to assemble this team and then stay out of her way, Franklin also notes that his willingness to let her play the piano “helped Aretha-ize the new music.”

The film mutes these complex stories of black agency and collaboration. Its overall structure likewise mutes black artists by turning the focus from black R&B to white southern rock. Staging a succession that is also a secession of sorts, Muscle Shoals ends with its third shot of Lynard Skynard playing “Sweet Home Alabama” before the Confederate flag. This is a bizarre choice given the film’s stated liberal politics, but one that readily comports with its image of black music without black people. Lynard Skynard fulfills the southern rock tradition that allegedly began with Duane Allman’s work on a Wilson Pickett track, via a song that name-checks the Swampers. This is Muscle Shoals’ crowning achievement.

Absent from these Skynard performances are the backup singers on “Sweet Home Alabama”—the black women who subversively miscegenate the song and whose story 20 Feet From Stardom tells through vocalist Merry Clayton. Having “willed herself to be a Raelette,” Clayton would continue to make music history behind the scenes, for instance by singing the shocking backup line on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”: “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away.” In the tradition of artists like Pickett, Clayton shrieks the word “shot” right on key. As she tries to launch a solo career in an industry that seems to admit only one church-trained star (Aretha), she is offered a backup gig on “Sweet Home Alabama.” She tells how a friend called her up and said, “There’s this guy, his name is Lynard Skynard”: “I said, ‘Really… Alabama? Nobody wants to sing anything about Alabama…’”

But she did. In a move that prefigured Toni Morrison’s creation of a slave plantation called Sweet Home in Beloved, Clayton turned the concept of “sweet home” inside out. The song was “a slap in the face,” she says, but its reliance on her voice was a secret reminder of the black women’s labor, both during and after slavery, that made the South feel like a “sweet home” for white people. “Mm hmm,” she says, “we’ve got your sweet home Alabama… But we’re gonna sing you anyway. And we’re gonna sing the crap out of you.” Any story that exalts interracial soul collaborations has got to mean this, too.