MUSCLE SHOALS – Standing in front of 3614 Jackson Highway, it’s easy to believe that this small brick building was once a coffin factory. It’s a little harder to imagine that it was once one of the most important and prolific recording studios in the world.
“We thought it was an urban myth,” said Judy Hood, chairman of the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation. “During the heyday, I was in junior high and high school and people would come into home room and say ‘Aw, man, Rod Stewart was down in Sheffield at that studio last night!’ and I was like, ‘No he wasn’t!’”
Except, he was. Stewart and just about everybody else – the Rolling Stones, Cher, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Kris Kristofferson, Paul Simon, the Staples Singers, Bob Seger, to name a few – thanks to David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett and Roger Hawkins, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. By now, you may have seen the 2013 documentary that tells their full story. At the very least, you’ve heard Lynyrd Skynyrd (yes, they recorded here, too) name check them as the Swampers in “Sweet Home Alabama.”
“What is it about Muscle Shoals?” asked Steve Winwood in the film. “It’s just a little village on the Alabama border. Why does that music come out of there?”
Judy Hood, who is married to David Hood, echoes that sentiment, saying that people can hardly believe such a vast array of music, yielding hundreds of hits, came out of the humble building in this tiny town. Thousands of people make the pilgrimage here every year to try to find out why. Some attribute the mojo to the Native American tale of a woman who sings in the river. Others chalk it up to the hard work, passion and dedication of the musicians and everyone who was involved in running the studio.
“There really is nothing else like it, anywhere,” said Dick Cooper, former production assistant for Beckett and a past curator for the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. “The fact that a studio this small turned out so much great music is phenomenal, and it’s all because of the people who were involved. This is the most amazingly creative workshop atmosphere I’ve seen.”
The Swampers started out as the house band for nearby FAME Studios and left there to open Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in 1969. They recorded in 3614 Jackson Highway from 1969 until 1978, when they left to open a larger facility down by the “Singing River.” After that, 3614 became a few different things, but ultimately sat neglected and fell into disrepair.
“This building is so special, it really needed to be preserved,” Cooper said.
Luckily, Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine agreed. After viewing the Muscle Shoals documentary, they decided to form a charitable arm of Beat Electronics with the mission of restoring classic recording studios across the country. They began with Muscle Shoals Sound Studios.
“There were several things that made this building unique as far as a recording studio,” Cooper said. “One of the things was that you could feel the bass drum coming through the oak floor. So when Roger is playing, you can not only hear what he’s playing through the earphones, but you can literally feel it coming up in your feet.”
Cooper was also a newspaper reporter and photographer. Many of his images were used for reference during the renovation.
“The foundation board and Beats Electronics, we were all totally committed to restoring it authentically, absolutely, the way it was when the Swampers were here,” Hood said. Hence the “ugly” burlap ceiling and orange carpet, as well as the instruments, coffee maker, even the cigarette butts in the ashtrays.
The million-dollar renovation was completed earlier this year and people can once again stand in the middle of the room that Keith Richards refers to as “Rock n’ roll heaven.”
“We will be forever indebted to Beats Electronics,” Hood said, “because they made it possible for the Swampers to come home again.”
You can visit the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation:
Monday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tour times: 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. Admission: $12 per person; $10 per person for groups of more than 20 people; free for children 6 years old and younger.
Also, ask about Judy Hood’s Swampette Tour, which goes from FAME to 3614 Jackson Highway to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.