After a tough day contending with high winds and big waves yesterday, Andreas has passed Wheeler Dam and today has been swimming toward Wilson Dam… and the famed music center known as Muscle Shoals.

Muscle Shoals is thought to have originally been named for its shoals and shallow areas filled with freshwater mussels along the Tennessee River that flows past the town. Over time, the name came to be spelled “muscle” rather than “mussel.”

Muscle Shoals is part of a four-city area in northern Alabama known as the Quad Cities: Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia. Together these small cities have given birth to some of the biggest hits in rhythm & blues, and later rock & roll. A beautiful part of the story of Muscle Shoals is that black and white musicians worked together to make this exceptional music in the midst of America’s Civil Rights struggle.

Muscle Shoals sign.

A sign from years ago welcoming visitors to Muscle Shoals.

Beginning in the late 1950s and picking up steam in the ’60s and ’70s, a group of musicians organized by producer Rick Hall began working together, backing topnotch r&b singers like Arthur Alexander, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, and more. The hits they made at Rick Hall’s FAME Studio (for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, at 603 Avalon Ave.) and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (at 3614 Jackson Highway) are some of the best-loved soul songs of the 60s. “You Better Move On,” “I’m Your Puppet,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Sweet Soul Music,” and “I’ll Take You There” are just a few of the immortal hit songs that were recorded there.

FAME Recording Studios

FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, founded and owned by Rick Hall.

The backing musicians on those sessions became well-known in their own right, at least in the music business: Spooner Oldham and Barry Beckett (keyboards), David Hood and Tommy Cogbill (bass), Roger Hawkins (drums), Eddie Hinton and Jimmy Johnson (guitar), and others.

You may recall the line in the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Sweet Home Alabama” that refers to the “Swampers.” The Swampers were the session musicians Barry Beckett, David Hood, Roger Hawkins, and Jimmy Johnson who played on so many famous recordings in Muscle Shoals.

Drawn by all of these world-class musicians, all sorts of rock stars came to Muscle Shoals to record, including the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Elton John, Cher, and Bob Dylan.

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio

The famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where the Swampers played on many hit recordings. Photo by DailyNetworks, Creative Commons.

The intense activity of the Muscle Shoals music scene of the ’60s and ’70s subsided in subsequent decades, but Rick Hall’s FAME Studios have continued to be used from time to time in recent years, and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio is now run by the nonprofit Music Shoals Music Foundation, which reopened it in January 2017 as a tourist attraction and for future use as a recording studio once again.

Muscle Shoals may be just be a brief stop on the way for Andreas Fath and the TenneSwim team in pursuit of their scientific mission and the finish line in Paducah, but it’s well worth checking out the amazing recordings from the Muscle Shoals heyday, or visiting the area if you have a chance.


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