In the the new documentary, "Muscle Shoals," reggae legend Jimmy Cliff notes that at different points in time, there are certain places in the world where there is a field of special energy.
And Steve Winwood wonders, "What is it about Muscle Shoals, it's just a little village on the Alabama border? Why does that music come out of there?"
Back in the 1960s and '70s, many famous artists began flocking to studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. What would emerge from their sessions was some of the most influential music of the past 50 years. Everyone from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones to Paul Simon and Etta James traveled to the remote town to record albums that would go on to change the musical landscape.
Mick Jagger appears in “Muscle Shoals”
Photo courtesy Maui Film Festival
“20 Feet From Stardom” highlights the careers of backup singers behind the biggest names in music.
Photo courtesy Maui Film Festival
"Being there inspires you to do it slightly differently," says Mick Jagger in the film. "It was really funky. That was the whole idea of it." Adds Keith Richards: "It's immortal . . . it's in the grooves."
Under the influence of the "Singing River," as Native Americans called the local Tennessee River, the music emanating from Muscle Shoals included many classics of rock, pop, soul and country.
The Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses," Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)," Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird," Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman," Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally," the Staple Singer's "I'll Take You There," Boz Scaggs' "Loan Me a Dime," Paul Simon's "Kodachrome" and Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" are just a few of the memorable tracks created there.
The inspiration to document this pivotal piece of music history came to director Greg "Freddy" Camalier while he was helping a friend move homes.
"My friend needed help driving 1,700 miles across the country and we decided we were going to take back roads," Camalier explains. "One night, we saw Muscle Shoals on the map. We knew some of the music we loved as kids came from there, but we had no idea the incredible litany of music that hailed from Muscle Shoals. The next 24 hours was monumental, and that was the genesis to make the film. You could really sense the history there. We couldn't believe the story hadn't been told."
The documentary, which began production in 2009 and took three years to make, features an array of stars as well as the local session musicians, producers, and studio owners who contributed to the distinctive music.
"It had this unique sound, and people would hear it and want to know where it was coming from," Camalier continues. "And that led to more and more musicians wanting to go there."
At the film's heart is Rick Hall, who founded FAME Studios, and brought black and white musicians together to create the unique "Muscle Shoals sound" and the influential rhythm section known as The Swampers.
In the documentary, legendary artists including Aretha Franklin, Greg Allman (brother Duane was a session player at FAME), Bono, Jimmy Cliff, Mick Jagger, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Wilson Pickett, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, and Steve Winwood bear witness to the magic of Muscle Shoals.
So how did Camalier coax mega-stars like Jagger and Richards to contribute to the film?
"The story is not well known amongst the general public, but amongst musicians it's famous and hallowed ground," he notes. "The musicians wanted to honor those that came before them. Knowing they were part of telling this great story was the main draw."
At a time when Alabama Gov. George Wallace was fiercely fighting efforts to end racial segregation in the deep South, black and white musicians worked together in this rural oasis.
"That's another facet that makes the story very compelling because you're in the belly of the beast in Alabama and Mississippi during the civil rights movement," he says. "You had this safe haven of no racism in the studio, while outside the studio chaos abounded. That made the music special."
Premiering at Sundance Film Festival, "Muscle Shoals" has earned wide acclaim.
"With a deep musical and human-interest appeal augmented by exceptional photography, it deserves to enjoy a theatrical run before becoming a staple for soul fans (alongside peers like 'Standing in the Shadows of Motown') on video," praised the Hollywood Reporter. "The white boys who came to be called The Swampers won over tough customers like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin in early sessions, creating the best records they - and others soul stars including Percy Sledge and the Staple Singers - ever made."
And View New Zealand raved: "If you're a music fan, this is pretty much unmissable. The fabulous music is used so well in 'Muscle Shoals' that it will give you new appreciation for the tracks involved, even if you've heard them hundreds of times before. In addition, the film is packed with superb anecdotes and there's a 10-minute stretch on the Rolling Stones that is better than anything in 'Crossfire Hurricane.' "
As to what he hopes folks get from his film, Camalier concludes, "I hope they are moved in some way. As a filmmaker you want people to feel moved."
* "Muscle Shoals" will screen as part of the Maui Film Festival at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater at 6 p.m. June 15.
With a documentary career that's profiled the likes of Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, the Rolling Stones and Pearl Jam, Emmy-award winning director Morgan Neville has turned his attention to profiling some of the talented background singers who have backed stars like the Stones, Stevie Wonder and Sting, in "20 Feet From Stardom."
"You may not know their names, but the performances of these instantly recognizable backup singers are unforgettable," praised the Hollywood Reporter.
"In the span of American pop music, few performers have gone as unrecognized as the backup vocalists who harmonize and contextualize the songs of many a heralded lead musician."
Looking back to the hit careers of Ray Charles and Ike and Tina Turner, the film pinpoints the career launches of a handful of backup singers who would go on to impressive careers, including Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Mable John, Susaye Greene and Lisa Fischer.
Many of these vocalists started in church gospel choirs, perfecting the call and response techniques central to background performance, then segued into professional careers.
Love was among the first black artists to introduce a new style of singing and presentation into backup performance. Her voice was a, "sound we tried to capture for many, many years," says Bruce Springsteen in the film.
From her start in gospel singing, Merry Clayton was hired to sing with a number of rock artists including Lynyrd Skynyrd ("Sweet Home Alabama"), Joe Cocker ("Feelin' Alright") and the Rolling Stones ("Gimme Shelter").
Other vocalists highlighted include Tata Vega (Elton John), Lynn Maybry (Talking Heads), Cindy Mizelle (Bruce Springsteen) and Janice Pendarvis (Stevie Wonder).
A Variety review praised: "Pulling raw talent from the footnotes of rock 'n' roll history and splashing their names up on the marquee where they belong, '20 Feet From Stardom' wages a compelling crusade to get background singers some long-overdue recognition. It recaps the essential role African-American background singers played in shaping the sound of 20th-century pop music."
* "20 Feet from Stardom" is presented on the opening night of the Maui Film Festival at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater.
A bunch of local musicians are pooling their talents on Friday night at the Historic Iao Theater to present "Solo & Together," a benefit for Mana'o Radio and Maui Onstage.
Featuring both solo and group performances, solo artists include Klaus Simmer on piano, and singer/songwriters Elaine Ryan, Steve Grimes, Tom Conway and Randall Rospond; Chino LaForge with stand-up comedy; and Mana'o Radio founder Kathy Collins and Mana'o DJ Bill Best with spoken word performance.
The evening will close with a special jam featuring bassist Danny M, drummer Kerry Sofaly, violinist Thomas Goodlunas, saxophonist Bruce Boege and Jimmy C on bongos. Guests joining the band include Tom Conway on electric guitar, vocalist Elaine Ryan, and Klaus Simmer on keyboards.
* The show will run from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $10, available at the door or in advance at the Historic Iao Theater box office. Proceeds will be split evenly between Mana'o Radio & Maui OnStage.