With approximately 15,000 residents, Muscle Shoals’ population is less than the capacity of many concert halls. Yet arena-level stars from Bob Dylan to Alicia Keys to Chris Stapleton have been coming to this northern Alabama town to record music for more than half a century.
At first, the draw was local studio talent and the lack of big-city distractions. Over the decades, tapping into the sound and mystique of Muscle Shoals has also become a big part of the appeal.
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Many hits have been recorded at Muscle Shoals. And many artists – ranging from local artists to famous musicians – have covered these hits.
Below is a list of 10 rock stars who have covered classic Muscle Shoals songs. Not pop stars, country stars, or R&B stars, though these have also done notable Shoals covers. We’re talking big rock & rolls.
They certainly aren’t the only 10 rock stars to cover Muscle Shoals classics. But the pieces stand out for the notoriety of the artists and the strength of the performances.
Covering the Queen of Soul is pretty intimidating for an R&B singer. Most rock leaders don’t even have to think about it. But Steven Tyler, lead singer of “Walk This Way” hitmakers Aerosmith, isn’t your typical dude. At an age when many rock singers are a shadow of their former selves, Tyler has kept his range. Aerosmith recorded a version of Aretha Franklin’s 1967 hit “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” for the band’s 2004 blues cover album “Honkin’ on Bobo”. For their track, Aerosmith changed the song to “Never Loved a Girl”. Franklin’s original was cut at FAME Studios. In 2018, Tyler took his own journey to FAME. There Tyler recorded a raunchy 70s version rolling stones hit “Brown Sugar” with Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt on guitar, for the tribute album “Muscle Shoals…Small Town, Big Sound”.
Speaking of the Rolling Stones, Little Richard is one of the biggest influences of this group. Richard’s loud ’50s hits like “Lucille” and “Rip It Up” certainly inspired the Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” Cut at Muscle Shoals Sound and released in 1971, “Brown Sugar” featured a primitive guitar riff and bold lyrics about sex and slavery. A two-way heroine is also added. It’s one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Inspiration came full circle when Little Richard cut a smoldering version from his album ‘The King of Rock and Roll’, released later in 1971. No more Shoals roots: Richard recorded his 1970 album, ‘The Rill Thing at FAME.
Etta James’ electrifying 1967 hit “Tell Mama” was a remake of a Clarence Carter single. Both were cut to FAME in 1967. Like so many essential Shoals recordings, “Tell Mama” was backed by session musicians from the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, aka The Swampers. Likewise, the track was produced by FAME founder Rick Hall, father of the Shoals’ country-funk sound. James’ bluesy vocals influenced “Piece of My Heart” rocker Janis Joplin. Joplin had the pipes and the attitude to be the pride of “Tell Mama,” as heard on Joplin’s 1971 live version.
The rolling stones
Muscle Shoals have been on the Stones’ radar since the early days of the British band. Before frontman Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards became a prominent songwriting duo, the Stones did numerous blues and R&B covers. Their version of Arthur Alexander’s gem “You Better Move On”, released three years after the 1961 FAME Studios original, is one of them. In the 70s, Muscle Shoals once again made Rolling Stones history. Muscle Shoals Sound guitarist Wayne Perkins recorded several solos on the band’s “Black and Blue” album and nearly became a member of the Stones.
Sammy Hagar might not be the first person you’d expect to cover the Staple Singers. But the former Van Halen singer nails the vocals for his beach-rock version of “I’ll Take You There.” Hagar altered the lyrics slightly and renamed her rendition “Let Me Take You There”. The original was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound, The Swampers studio founded in 1969 in nearby Sheffield, Alabama.
The J.Geils group
J. Geils Band is known for its 80s blues-pop hits like “Centerfold” and for being a powerful live band. In 1982, JGB released a cover of Wilson Picket’s 1966 R&B raver “Land of 1000 Dances” as the single from their live album “Showtime”. (The number in the song title was spelled out in the J. Geils Band version.)
For his 1988 solo album, “Just Before The Bullets Fly,” Gregg Allman wrapped his raspy howl around “Slip Away.” The Southern rock god sings the hell out of the track, previously a FAME hit for Clarence Carter in 1968. Allman’s Muscle Shoals connections run deep. His brother, guitar great Duane Allman, was a FAME session musician before forming the Allman Brothers Band. And Gregg Allman recorded his final studio album in the Shoals, also at FAME, before he died in 2017 at age 69.
“Addicted to Love” singer Robert Palmer cut a faithful cover of the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” for his 1995 greatest hits record. The original was tracked at Muscle Shoals Sound. “Respect Yourself” was co-written by Mack Rice, who also wrote “Mustang Sally,” and Luther Ingram, best known for the 1972 hit “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right.”
The flip side of Etta James’ single “Tell Mama” was another great track. The ballad “I’d Rather Go Blind”, produced by Rick Hall at FAME Studios, might be Muscle Shoals’ most moving track. Rod Stewart covered this song for “Never a Dull Moment,” his 1972 album. Stewart’s sanding voice is more seductive than ever. And that’s future Rolling Stones musician Ron Wood, Stewart’s bandmate in pub-rock band The Faces, on guitar. A few years later, Stewart will record part of his album “Atlantic Crossing” at Muscle Shoals Sound.
Some people dismiss rap-rocker Kid Rock’s music because of his cartoonish image. But he’s actually quite good at country-soul singing, as heard in his hard-hitting 2002 duet with Sheryl Crow, “Picture.” For the 2018 tribute album “Muscle Shoals…Small Town, Big Sound”, Kid Rock covered Clarence Carter’s “Snatching It Back”. The “Bawitdaba” star fits the catchy tune like a new pair of Adidas. The backing track is taken from the original sessions from the late ’60s. It features the original four Swampers: bassist David Hood, drummer Roger Hawkins, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and keyboardist Barry Beckett.