Musically, my favorite haunt is the intersection of Williams Avenue and Charles Boulevard – as in Hank Williams and Ray Charles.
And if you really want to see me reduced to a mass of quivering protoplasm (to steal a line from my pal Rico Cavatinni) then just play Dark End of the Street done by anybody who did it. For purposes of this post, I’ll link the version by a rich kid from Waycross, Georgia named Gram Parsons who spent most of his short, tortured life at the corner of Williams and Charles.
See, I grew with the mistaken belief that Nashville was the Mecca of all good music. These days, to direct my prayers of gratitude and appreciation to whatever higher being is responsible for the glory of music, I face further west.
Memphis is the center of my musical universe because Memphis, unlike Nashville, got soul.
Gram Parsons knew this. So did Dan Penn and Chip Moman, the two white cats that wrote Dark End of the Street.
Penn, who also wrote the Aretha Franklin classic Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, was knocking around Florence, Ala., when he fell in with a couple of other budding musicians named Billy Sherrill and Rick Hall to form a band called the Fairlanes. Sherrill eventually headed to Nashville where he had a huge hand in writing and producing such standards as Stand By Your Man by Tammy Wynette and He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones.
One of his last projects before heading to Nashville was to open a recording studio with Hall and another investor. They dubbed it FAME studios for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, but the place became legendary for the small town just outside Florence where it relocated after Sherrill split for Nashvile fame.
A town called Muscle Shoals.
In previous research excursions back through musical time and space, I came across Arthur Alexander, whose song You Better Move On I knew from childhood having worn out the Rolling Stones’ album December’s Children (And Everybody’s).
I wasn’t hip enough as a kid to know Arthur Alexander, but there was a guy a half-generation ahead than me living in Liverpool, England who was.
“We were trying to get that bass sound Arthur Alexander was getting in Muscle Shoals,’’ John Lennon said. “We love his records.’’
Muscle Shoals, as the story goes, may not have ever got going without the $10,000 Hall earned off the bat from selling You Better Move On to Dot Records in Nashville. The payoff allowed him to move from Florence to Muscle Shoals and build the low cinderblock building in which so much musical magic was made over the years.
The most famous Muscle Shoals’ story is probably about the time Aretha Franklin came to North Alabama to record. The visit ended with the drunken cantankerous Hall brawling with an equally drunken and cantankerous Ted White, Aretha’s husband and manager.
But thankfully, before it came to blows the visit produced I Never Loved a Man and the first takes of Do Right Woman.
It always blew me away checking out the back of the album to see that the musicians making this deep soul music were for the most part white men wearing crew cuts who looked more like Alabama State patrolmen than the hippest of musicians. Only years later would I learn that one was Spooner Oldham, whose funky stylings on the electric piano opened Aretha’s ears and set I Never Loved a Man in motion. Another was a bassist named David Hood, whose son, Patterson Hood, plays in one of my most favorite of contemporary bands, The Drive-By Truckers.
The story of Muscle Shoals is well-documented, so much so that a basketball coach at Wake Forest named Jeff Bzdelik was all excited one day telling me about the documentary he and his wife Nina had watched the night before called Muscle Shoals. Bzdelik, I have to think, might have known music better than coaching basketball.
Rick Hall was born Roe Erister Hall on Jan. 31, 1932. His mother abandoned the family before Hall was five to work in a bordello. His father was a sharecropper who occasionally found work in a sawmill. The family home had a dirt floor with no running water.
Hall’s wife died when a car he was driving crashed in 1956. Two weeks later his father died after a tractor Hall had bought him overturned.
Hall, grief-stricken, spent the next four years drowning in a bottle, not worth shooting, until emerging from the doldrums to set up shop at the corner of Williams and Charles and churn out hits by Arthur Alexander, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Clarence Carter, The Osmonds, Mac Davis, Jerry Reed and countless others.
Grief couldn’t kill Rick Hall. Neither could fisticuffs from Aretha Franklin’s husband or the heartbreak of losing his legendary rhythm section, The Swampers, to their own studio venture in 1969, at the height of all he had going on.
But cancer finally caught up with him and Hall died yesterday. He was 85. The intersection of Williams and Charles is adorn with crepe, but the music, as always, sounds heavenly.