Pressing On: Muscle Shoals Theme Song

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By mixing country blues and soul, Clarence Carter became a go-to-go guy for Muscle Shoals producer Rick Hall.

Carter cut his crossover hits like “Slip Away,” “Patches” and “Too Weak To Fight” under Hall’s empathetic production. Carter wrote the Etta James smash “Tell Mama,” for Chess Records, a spin off his 1966 Fame hit “Tell Daddy.”

Carter is featured in the four-star documentary “Muscle Shoals,” which opens Oct. 4 in Chicago.

Here’s my Sun-Times review.

Duane Allman launched his career as a Muscle Shoals session player in 1968 by laying down the grooves to Carter’s “Weekend Love” and “Road of Love.:”

Carter became the African-American counterpoint to Dan Penn at Muscle Shoals—although color never mattered.

Carter first heard country music as a youngster at the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega.

He saw the musical light after he met Hall.

The great Rick Hall

“Rick Hall once had a studio in Memphis,” Carter told me before he appeared at the 1987 Chicago Blues Festival. “I used to go there and try to produce other acts. My main experience with Memphis musicians was them coming down to Muscle Shoals. Rufus Thomas’s son (Marvell), did some playing on (Carter) tunes like ‘Lookin’ for a Fox’ and ‘I Can’t See Myself Crying About You’.”

Muscle Shoals was open to all kinds of influences; Memphis, Macon, Ga. and even Nashville. Billy Sherrill was one of Hall’s co-founders of Fame publishing in 1959. Sherrill would later land in the Country Music Hall of Fame, largely because of his keen productions for Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Charlie Rich/

Chicago’s Otis Clay traveled to Muscle Shoals in 1968 to record the Hall co-write “I’m Qualified,” which remains a staple of his live sets around Chicago. Hall leased the bouncy soul declaration to Atlantic’s Cotillion label, and yes, I have the ’45.

Otis Clay

There was little of the Chicago soul, v.s. Motown, v.s. Philly soul stuff posturing at Muscle Shoals.

Carter explained, “Whenever these guys would come down (to Muscle Shoals) they would always show me something I never knew before. It was like, ‘Clarence, if we blow the horn right there, that will be right on top of the lick you’re playing and that won’t sound right. So why don’t we listen to those guys. They were masters at the game.”

As the new “Muscle Shoals” documentary points out, these folks made everlasting art with a chip on their shoulder. The vibe has been passed on to a new generation, including Alicia Keys who covered Bob Dylan’s “Pressing On” in the film and on the soundtrack.

In 1980 Dylan recorded “Pressing On” in Muscle Shoals for his “Saved” record.

I’ll go out on a limb and say Keys’ version is prettier.

She recorded the track fast and live last November in Fame’s Studio A. Keys played piano and the great Muscle Shoals session player Spooner Oldham chimed in on Wurlitzer grand piano. Keys  was backed by Swampers David Hood (bass) and Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and even Steppenwolf guitarist Larry Byron.

Here’s a trailer from the film with additional commentary from John Paul White of the Civil Wars.

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