Christine Ohlman, the Beehive Queen, is not just a great singer. She’s also a record collector and an archaeologist of American song, diving deep into the roots of our songbook to find the nuggets and share them with her audiences. Among her musical obsessions is her lifelong love of the soulful sounds created in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. To help break down the sense of isolation that pervades America at this time of crisis, Christine offers this love letter in song to Muscle Shoals, her second home.
Anyone who travels the river of American popular song knows this: The river is deep, and wide, with a current that waxes both strong and tender. Down in Alabama, in Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia—the Quad Cities—the Tennessee River sings. That’s right—it sings, and those with wide-open ears listen, and learn.
I first went down to that river in 2010, after years spent swimming in the deepness of the music recorded on or close by its banks. Of all the marvelous, historic studios that rose up there, there’s only one, Cypress Moon—the former Muscle Shoals Sound Studio—that’s right on the riverbank (and, with the woes that climate change has wrought, often those waters flood right up to its front steps). Others, in an incredible richness of vintage lore and current triumph—FAME, 3614 Jackson Highway (now restored again as Muscle Shoals Sound Studios), Wishbone, and The Nutthouse—are close by, influenced by the pull of the river’s ebb and flow, and within the hypnotic sway of its song. Some, like Quinvy/Broadway and Norala, live on in history.
I am proud to call myself an adopted daughter of the Shoals. July 2020 will mark my 10th anniversary WC Handy Festival headliner appearance (I’ve been its Grand Marshall, riding in Sam Phillips’ famous baby blue Cadillac). The river and its nearby studios are dear to me. I’m privileged to be a full-fledged summertime member of The Decoys, David Hood and Kelvin Holly’s wonderful “House Band of Muscle Shoals” (as I dubbed them). WQLT at Big River Broadcasting, owned by Sam Phillips’ family (his son Jerry and granddaughter Halley are dear friends) is my radio home; I never fail to stop by Jimmy Oliver’s “Morning Show with Jimmy O” on my first day in town. They’ve played my records for years, and I’m so grateful. When I talk about Percy Sledge being born in Leighton, that’s the site of our yearly “Gospel Tribute” to him.
My love letter here is framed in 20 songs (with their first lines highlighted), most of which I sing in the Shoals on a regular basis, and with love, always. The connection is deep. They speak to me, as I hope they will to you, of hope and desire, of betrayal and sadness— but mostly of the everyday joys of love, and the beauty that can come from a great recording studio where the musicians are so, so fine—and the song and the singer are so, so right.
Clarification: 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield was the location of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio from 1969 to 1979. It then moved, under the same name, to a much larger site on the Tennessee River in Sheffield until 1985, where Cypress Moon studios is currently housed.
(3614 Jackson Highway, fabulously refurbished with help from, among others, Dr. Dre and the Beats Foundation, is now once again resurrected as Muscle Shoals Sound Studios)
THE BEEHIVE QUEEN’S SOUL-LOVE LETTER
YOU BETTER MOVE ON – Arthur Alexander (1961, FAME, in its second location in a former tobacco warehouse out on Wilson Dam Rd., before it relocated permanently to East Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals)
“You ask me to give up the hand of the boy I love…”
Rick Hall discovered Arthur Alexander, a bellhop at a hotel in nearby Sheffield who had a voice that dripped honey and sadness. This was the only hit to come out of that location, but it was there that the FAME house band began to coalesce. It’s my personal Shoals anthem, a gem that I sing there at every turn, and was famously covered by the Rolling Stones in 1964.
STEAL AWAY – Jimmy Hughes (1964, FAME)
“I’ve got to see you, somehow….”
Jimmy Hughes, who penned this gorgeous “dark end of the street” template himself, cemented FAME’s reputation, giving Rick Hall his first hit out of the new East Avalon studio. Hall himself has said, “The Muscle Shoals sound was born when I cut ‘Steal Away’.”
WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN – Percy Sledge (1966, Norala Sound Studio, Atlantic Records)
“Can’t keep his mind on nothin’ else…”
Percy Sledge, born—as was his cousin Jimmy Hughes—in neighboring Leighton, was a hospital orderly when he stamped his timeless voice and his very soul on this smash for the ages (#1 everywhere) at Quin Ivy’s Norala in Sheffield. The fire and glory were captured and crafted by Spooner Oldham (Farfisa organ), Roger Hawkins (drums), Junior Lowe (bass) Marlin Greene (guitar), and Jeanie Greene and Sandy Posey (vocals). To sing this is to feel Percy’s heart breaking.
I NEVER LOVED A MAN (THE WAY I LOVE YOU) – Aretha Franklin (1967, FAME – Atlantic Records)
“You’re no good, heartbreaker…”
The story of a session stalled until Spooner Oldham sat down at his Wurlitzer and picked out the iconic piano intro is the stuff of legend. Franklin started to sing, and the rest is history, as is the lore of how the session ultimately fell apart and decamped back to NYC. This masterpiece survives to tell the tale.
MUSTANG SALLY – Wilson Pickett (1966, FAME)
“Mustang Sally, guess you better slow your mustang down…”
The undisputed “national anthem of the Shoals”, produced by Jerry Wexler for Atlantic, gets sung at every gig, every time, with every audience member chiming in. It’s a tradition that belies Pickett’s first visit to the Shoals, wherein his plane dipped low over cotton fields, and upon landing he demanded of Rick Hall to be taken back up North.
FAITHFUL AND TRUE – ZZ Hill (1969, Quinvy)
“I have just placed my ring on your finger…”
Quin Ivy produced and David Johnson engineered this Marlin Green-Jeanie Greene-Dan Penn gem, full of tremolo guitar and ultra-romantic vocal brilliance. (Also visit ZZ’s 1977’s “This Time They Told The Truth”, a beacon of soulful light in the disco era).
HOW CAN I PUT OUT THE FLAME – Candi Staton (1970, FAME)
“You keep saying it’s all over…”
So dear to me, this cut (the B-side of Candi’s “Stand By Your Man,” discovered in my vinyl collection by accident), because I’ve sung it with The Saturday Night Live Band since joining as its vocalist. Candi is now a treasured friend, always gracious, always ultra-lovely. Co-written by the great George Jackson; there’s righteous regret and sweet bitter love in every note.
“Cover me, cover me, spread your precious love all over me….”
Eddie Hinton’s legend rightly looms large in the Shoals. As a guitarist, his close-to-the-bone licks graced so many tracks by the Staple Singers and others, and his songwriting style was equally close to the heart. My very first meeting with the great Bonnie Bramlett caught us in a duet (with the Decoys; video by Andy Keenum) on this loving staple of any Shoals gig.
Percy’s version is magic, but I urge you to listen to Eddie’s, and let the tears roll down.
BREAKFAST IN BED – Dusty Springfield (1969, Atlantic)
“You’ve been crying; your face is a mess….”
Although not recorded in the Shoals, I must claim both a bit of ownership and true devotion for this incredible story-song, penned by Donnie Fritts and Eddie Hinton, now both gone (we lost Donnie in 2019), and produced by Jerry Wexler for the Dusty In Memphis LP. Donnie first sang this in public with me in 2012 with The Decoys, in a night to remember and treasure always.
And here’s Dusty’s peerless version:
RESPECT YOURSELF – Staple Singers (1971, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio at Jackson Highway)
“If you disrespect everybody that you run into…”
Mavis and her family get Shoals-soul-dust sprinkled all over them, making history with this Swampers-backed Stax gem (David Hood’s wonderful bass line kicks it off).The hits would continue with “I’ll Take You There” in 1972. There’s a priceless moment in the Muscle Shoals film documentary when Paul Simon rings up Stax Records’ head Al Bell and demands “those same black players who played on ‘I’ll Take You There’,” only to be told by Bell, “That can happen…. but these guys are mighty pale.”
WILD HORSES –The Rolling Stones (December 1969, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio at Jackson Highway [during shooting of Albert and David Maysles’ film Gimme Shelter] -released 1971)
“Childhood living, is easy to do…”
Swamper Jimmy Johnson found himself behind the board as Jim Dickinson’s keys (he played the studio’s tack piano) frame this anthem of deep nostalgia. The Stones would only cut three Shoals sides (including “You Gotta Move” and “Brown Sugar”) but Jagger later said, “Those sessions were as vital to me as any I’ve ever done. I mean, all the other stuff –Beggars Banquet and other stuff we did: ‘Gimme Shelter,’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ you know? I’ve always wondered … that if we had cut them at Muscle Shoals, if they might not have been a little bit funkier.” I’ve sung this with John Paul White and Gary Nichols, and it never fails to move me.
I’M YOUR PUPPET – James and Bobby Purify/Dan Penn– (1966, FAME)
“Pull the string, and I’ll wink at you….”
Spooner Oldham & Dan Penn wrote it, Penn released the first version in 1965, but the Purifys took it Top 5. Papa Don Shroeder produced (with Penn behind the board!), and it sparkles from the first bright notes of the glockenspiel intro. I adore singing this in the Shoals with The Decoys and the great Travis Wammack.
TELL MAMA – Etta James (1967 FAME-Cadet Records)
“You thought you had found a good girl…”
The Chess brothers wisely sent Etta to Rick Hall, and he fashioned her first hit record since 1964, helping her slyly steal Clarence Carter’s “Tell Daddy” for her very own. I sing this with NBC’s Saturday Night Live Band, and on every trip to the Shoals.
SLIP AWAY – Clarence Carter (1968, FAME)
“What would I give, for just a few moments….”
Carter was a monster guitarist and singer-songwriter who captured a poignant slice of the human condition in this cheatin’-side-of-town anthem that I sing with Travis Wammack. Its super-snaky guitar riff grabs on and just won’t let go.
HOLD WHAT YOU’VE GOT – Joe Tex (1964, FAME)
“You had better hold on…”
Dial Records’ Buddy Killen brought Tex and his own band to the Shoals, where they scored Top 5 (in the year of the BIG Beatles invasion) with the biggest hit to come out of FAME at the time. I’ve always adored this for the down-home rap that’s central to Tex’s sermon on enduring love. A groundbreaking record in the genre later known as “Country Soul.”
MAINSTREET – Bob Seger (1977, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio at Jackson Highway)
“I remember standing on the corner at midnight, trying to get my courage up….”
Pete Carr’s iconic lead guitar frames Seger’s vocal, echoing its longing. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (MSRS) are listed as co-producers, and Hood, Beckett, Hawkins and Johnson all played on the cut. (“Old Time Rock and Roll” came out of the same mold with the same cats.) The Decoys’ drummer Mike Dillon crushes this tune, every time.
SITTING IN LIMBO – Jimmy Cliff (1971, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio at Jackson Highway)
“Sitting here in Limbo, but I know it won’t be long…”
The MSRS all contributed to this hauntingly brilliant side, a crossover smash about a man biding his time, “waiting for the dice to roll.” I had loved this forever and only got hip to its Shoals roots when it appeared on a set list David Hood put together for a Decoys gig I was on!
WHAT KIND OF FOOL (DO YOU THINK I AM) – The Tams (1964, FAME)
“What kind of fool do you think I am?…”
A 2015 Handy Festival concert at the Shoals Theatre finally gave me the chance to sing this much-adored cut. It’s now a Carolina beach-music classic, but its studio history is pure Shoals. I opened for the Tams just last summer at the Sheffield Street Festival, and it was epic.