When thinking about some of the most Iconic Musical Artists From Alabama, odds are the majority of music fans will think of the group that named itself after the Yellowhammer State. However, there is more to this state belonging to this member of the American South than commonly meets the eye. “Sweet Home Alabama” was a song that Lynyrd Skynyrd released in 1974 that made this perfectly clear. Other musical legends have also called this state home such as Nat King Cole, Emmylou Harris, Wilson Pickett, and Percy Sledge. Don’t forget Styx’s Tommy Shaw, one of the lead vocalists that shot the rock group, Styx, to stardom. Alabama’s music history is as diverse as it is impressive, especially with its legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and the legendary stories coming from a humble little studio that produced some of the biggest hits the music industry witnessed during its heyday.
Complete History Of 10 Iconic Musical Artists From Alabama
#10 – Percy Sledge
“When a Man Loved a Woman” was the number one hit single that became the signature song of Percy Sledge after it was released as a single in 1966. It topped both the US Billboard Hot 100, the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart, and the Canadian Top Singles Chart. What has since become an R&B standard earned Percy Sledge a certified gold disc from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) after it sold over a million copies in the US. This was one of many emotionally soulful songs Percy Sledge performed that earned him the right to receive the Career Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. He was also inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. Two years later, he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Before winning the world over with his powerful singing voice, Percy Sledge was born in Leighton, Alabama on November 25, 1940, and was raised in the area where he worked a series of jobs in the agricultural industry. He later took a job as an orderly in a hospital in Sheffield, Alabama. At one point, a former patient and mutual friend named Quin Ivy used his influence as a record producer to start Sledge’s path down a musical career, starting with “When a Man Loves a Woman.” The inspiration behind this song came to Percy Sledge after his girlfriend at the time left him to pursue a modeling career. Helping him put the song together was bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright.
This is seen in the songwriting credits. In 1987, this single became a hit for the second time in the United Kingdom as it peaked as high as number two on its Official Singles Chart. This was higher than the number four spot it had in 1966. “When a Man Loves a Woman’ also gave Atlantic Records its first RIAA-gold-certified hit as a label. This was more than just a song. This became an anthem for romantics and was covered many times over by several artists such as Michael Bolton and Joe Cocker.
After Sledge’s debut single were other notable soulful ballads such as “Warm and Tender Love,” “It Tears Me Up,” “Take Time to Know Her,” “Love Me Tender,” “Cover Me,” “I’ll Be Your Everything,” and “Sunshine.” From that collection, “Take Time to Know Her” became Sledge’s biggest hit after “When a Man Loves a Woman.” It peaked as high as number eleven on the US Billboard Hot 100, number six on the US Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart, and number five on the Canadian Top Singles Chart.
As for “I’ll Be Your Everything” and “Sunshine,” these became international concert favorites, especially in Africa and Europe. Throughout the span of his recording career, Percy Sledge recorded and released eleven studio albums and twenty-five singles. The legacy of Percy Sledge continues to carry on, even after his death from liver cancer on April 14, 2005.
In 1993, Percy Sledge was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, three years before he earned the Blues Music Award for Best Album with the 1994 release Blue Night. This was an album he, Saul Davis, and Barry Goldberg produced for Virgin Records. This one featured a collection of guest artists such as Steve Cropper, Mick Taylor, and Bobby Womack.
In 2021, Percy Sledge was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. As of 2022, his hometown of Leighton made the official announcement that there would be an annual event known as Sledgefest. This is a weekend festival that was given its name to honor the man whose voice graced the genres of blues, gospel, R&B, and rock music like no other.
#9 – Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris was born on April 2, 1947, in Birmingham, Alabama. The influence of country music that shaped her career came from her older brother, Walter Harris, Jr. as he was a big fan long before she took an interest in the genre. Their father was a Marine Corps officer who served in World War II first, then the Korean War. The first part of Emmylou’s childhood was in Birmingham but after finishing her first grade in school, the family moved to Cherry Point, North Carolina, then to Quantico, Virginia, and finally settling near Woodbridge, Virginia. Emmylou was an honor student who was also a cheerleader and a saxophone player for her high school’s marching band. She also won the community’s beauty pageant during this time before graduating in 1965 as class valedictorian.
Emmylou’s interest in music had her become a fan of popular folk artists such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. After she received her first guitar from her grandfather, she learned how to play it as one of many teenagers who followed the nation’s folk music revival. However, her primary interest when she attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro was to be an actress. While there, she formed a folk music duo called The Emerald City. As a duo act and a solo artist, Emmylou Harris performed various gigs before deciding to drop out of university in 1967. She did enroll at Boston University but didn’t last long there either as she realized her true calling was to become a full-time folk singer. This decision ultimately led her to New York City’s Greenwich Village where the folk music scene was so vibrant. By the end of 1969, she was married for the first time and had her first child.
Between 1969 and 1974, Emmylou Harris performed as a folk artist whose first label was Jubilee Records. After signing up in 1969, she released her first album, Gliding Bird, in 1970. However, the label filed for bankruptcy shortly after it was released, prompting Harris and her husband to head for Nashville, Tennessee. It was hoped her music career would take off there. However, the couple divorced and Emmylou was now a single mother having to support herself and her daughter. She wound up having to move to live with her parents who were now living in Clarksville, Maryland. While there, Emmylou took up a job as a hostess in Columbia, Maryland. At the same time, she performed in clubs in and around Washington, D.C. Convinced her music career wasn’t going anywhere, she considered giving it up before she was discovered by Gram Parsons.
At the time, Parsons was attempting to establish a solo career after parting ways with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. This chance meeting sent Emmylou Harris to Los Angeles, California to sing harmony vocals for Parsons as he recorded his debut album, G.P.. Unfortunately, its 1973 release failed to win over a mainstream audience but Harris continued to perform with Parsons and his band. The two established a strong connection where Emmylou was inspired by the musical fusion of country and rock that was a Parsons trademark. The two also had a fondness for authentic country music as well.
1973 also marked the year Parsons died due to a drug and alcohol overdose while he and Emmylou Harris were recording Grievous Angel. This was released posthumously in 1974, as was 1976’s Sleepless Nights. As devastated as Emmylou Harris was when Gram Parsons died, she chose to carry her friend’s legacy of country rock forward as a solo artist. This led her to a Canadian producer named Brian Ahern, the same man who achieved success with Anne Murray. Ahern and Harris would later become man and wife in 1977. In the meantime, Harris’s career took off with 1975’s Pieces of the Sky.
This was an album that featured “Boulder to Birmingham,” an emotional song for Emmylou Harris as she reflected upon the death of Parsons. This was followed by “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” a single that became a number four hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and a number one hit on Canada’s country music chart. Also released in 1975 was Elite Hotel, an album that also met with commercial success upon its release. This one featured a cover of Buck Owen’s “Together Again” and Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams.” For Emmylou, both singles topped the US Billboard Hot Country Chart, further establishing her as a dominant force in the genre of country music. It was this album that earned Harris a Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. This, as well as Pieces of the Sky, went on to become certified gold by the RIAA.
Throughout the remainder of the 1970s, Emmylou Harris continued to produce chart-hitting favorites as albums and singles. 1976 witnessed the release of her fourth studio album, Luxury Liner. After this, it was 1978’s Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. As for singles, “Making Believe,” “To Daddy,” “Two More Bottles of Wine,” “You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie),” and “Easy From Now On” were big hits that kept Harris at an all-time high as one of country music’s brightest stars. Finishing the decade off was 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl, an album that would earn Harris another Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Going into 1980, the momentum continued with Roses in the Snow. By this time, Harris brought in bluegrass sounds as part of her musical repertoire. “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Blue Kentucky Girl,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” and “Beneath Still Waters” joined the ranks of biggest hits for Harris.
1981’s Evangeline kept the momentum going as it also became yet another successful release, thanks to the cover of “Mister Sandman.” That same year, the duet she shared with Roy Orbison for “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again” earned a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. She’d also win Female Vocalist of the Year from the Country Music Association. Thanks to her influence as a performer, Harris brought together country music fans and rock music fans together as one whenever she performed live before an audience.
While the 1970s had her glorify the country rock genre, the 1990s witnessed the same thing when Harris shifted to Americana. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, Emmylou Harris teamed up with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt for the recording and release of Trio in 1987. This resulted in a platinum-selling record that spawned four top-ten singles, including “Telling Me Lies” and “Wildflowers.” The album won a Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, as well as Album of the Year with the Academy of Country Music Awards.
Overall, Harris has sold over fifteen million records worldwide and has taken home thirteen Grammy Awards. In 1999, she received the Billboard Century Award. Four years later, she was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. In 2008, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. In 2018, she was presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The impact Emmylou Harris had as a recording artist, as well as an animal rights activist has been profound. She has inspired several recording artists, especially women, to follow in her footsteps with their own musical careers.
#8 – Tommy Shaw
Tommy Shaw was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama before heading out to pursue a musical career that would lead him to join a popular rock band named Styx. While still in school before leaving, Shaw performed with a number of Montgomery’s local bands before he joined The Smoke Ring as his first band away from his home state. The Smoke Ring was based in Nebraska and would spawn into MSFunk while Shaw was in the lineup. While with them, he was noticed by Styx while performing a gig in Chicago, Illinois.
When MSFunk disbanded, Shaw returned to Montgomery to join a local band with his childhood friends. After Styx lost John Curulewski, the group made a desperate search to find a suitable replacement so it could proceed with a concert tour that was already scheduled. In came Tommy Shaw as he was called in to audition. However, instead of playing guitar, Shaw was asked to sing. So, he sang “Lady” and it was enough to join what became one of the most popular rock groups to dominate the second half of the 1970s, as well as into the early half of the 1980s.
Shaw’s run with Styx began in 1975 and the 1976 release of Crystal Ball. The album was titled after Shaw’s song. He also had two of his compositions, “Mademoiselle” and “Shooz” featured in the tracklist. After this, it was 1977’s The Grand Illusion. This served as the group’s big breakthrough as it went on to become an RIAA platinum seller. “Come Sail Away” became a Styx staple as this cult classic remains a fan favorite to this very day. However, this one belonged to Dennis DeYoung as he was the singer and songwriter.
“Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” was penned by Shaw and also became a hit and a favorite. The start of breakthrough hits performed by Shaw while with Styx came from 1978’s Pieces of Eight, and the singles “Renegade” and “Blue Collar Man.” These also became rock radio staples, as well as signature hits for both Shaw and Styx. However, Shaw’s run with Styx ran into complications as his preference for rock music contrasted with DeYoung’s preference for ballads and pop. Before leaving the lineup, Shaw’s “Too Much Time on My Hands” became his biggest hit with the group as it peaked as high as number nine on the US Billboard Hot 100.
After his first run with Styx was done, Tommy Shaw moved on to pursue a solo career, as well as form Damn Yankees in 1989. He, along with Jack Blades, Michael Cartellone, and Ted Nugent put this supergroup together that would release its biggest hit, “High Enough.” It was released in 1990, along with the band’s self-titled debut album. On the US Billboard Hot 100, the single became a number three hit and was certified gold by the RIAA. The album became double platinum in the US, as well as gold in Canada. Between his solo career, the Damn Yankees, and a reunion with Styx, Shaw maintained a busy schedule as a performer. In 2008, he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
As a solo artist, Tommy Shaw’s debut album, Girls with Guns, was a 1984 release and its title track became a number-six hit on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it peaked as high as number thirty-three. While with Styx, Shaw’s popularity was at its peak between 1977 and 1981 when four of the group’s albums released in that timeline each became certified double platinum by the RIAA. The first was 1977’s Grand Illusion and it was followed by 1978’s Pieces of Eight. The third was 1979’s Cornerstone and then there was 1981’s Paradise Theatre.
The breaking point for Shaw to leave Styx for the first time came after the 1983 release of Kilroy Was Here. By this time, Shaw no longer felt valued as a contributing member as the album’s musical direction was thoroughly dictated by Dennis DeYoung’s artistic vision. Its two singles, “Mr. Roboto” and “Don’t Let It End” played key roles in the album becoming certified platinum. After this, it was 1984’s Caught in the Act. As soon as it was released, Shaw was done and it wouldn’t be until 1995 before he came back.
Adding to Tommy Shaw’s musical portfolio is Shaw Blades. He, along with Night Ranger’s Jack Blades, who was also his bandmate with Damn Yankees, produced two albums as a duo act. The first was 1995’s Hallucination and the second was 2007’s Influence. There was also A Classic Rock Christmas, a 2002 release that featured a collection of classic rock artists. Shaw Blades recorded a cover of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as its contribution to this holiday-themed album.
#7 – Eddie Floyd
Eddie Floyd was born in 1937 in Montgomery, Alabama, but mostly grew up in Detroit, Michigan as his parents moved there six weeks after his birth. However, he often traveled between the two states as a youth. It was he who founded The Falcons in 1955 as it featured Mack Rice, Joe Stubbs, and Robert Ward as part of its original core lineup. In 1960, this R&B group recruited Wilson Pickett as its lead singer which would spike its popularity. “You’re So Fine” and “I Found a Love” were the two big hits before Pickett decided to pursue a solo career in 1963. As a result, the classic lineup of The Falcons was no more.
After this, Floyd moved on and signed a songwriting contract in 1965 with Stax Records. He wrote “Comfort Me,” a single that would become a hit for Carla Thomas that same year. He also teamed with the label’s guitarist, Steve Cropper as the two wrote songs for Wilson Pickett. He was signed to Atlantic Records. After this, Atlantic and Stax arranged for Pickett to work with Booker T. & the MGs. This was a successful pairing as a string of pop and R&B hits came from these men, including Floyd’s written material, “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)” and “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.).”
Eddie Floyd’s signature hit, “Knock on Wood,” was a song that was originally intended for Otis Redding to record and release as a single. Written by Floyd, it was suggested by Stax’s president, Jim Stewart, to proceed with Floyd’s recorded version instead. 1966 marked the year that served as Floyd’s breakthrough as a recording artist. It was a number-one hit on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and a number twenty-eight hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. It has since been covered by numerous artists, including David Bowie and Amii Stewart. In addition to “Knock on Wood,” Floyd had more hits while signed to Stax. “Raise Your Hand” became another popular favorite that would later be covered by Janis Joplin and Bruce Springsteen.
As prolific as Floyd was as a recording artist for Stax, he still made time to write songs on a regular basis for the label. Virtually every recording artist belonging to Stax Records recorded music written by Stax. Most of them were also co-written by either Steve Cropper or Booker T. Jones. Notable artists such as Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor, and Rufus Thomas each benefited from Floyd’s penmanship. Floyd’s pace as a songwriter continued going into the 1980s and beyond. In 1992, Floyd teamed up with several of his Stax label mates to record music for The Blues Brothers Band. He and Wilson Pickett appeared in the movie’s sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, performing “634-5789.”
Adding to Eddie Floyd’s legacy, he was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2016, and then the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2018. Overall, Floyd has recorded and released seventeen studio albums and thirty-seven singles. When it comes to gospel, R&B, and soul music, Eddie Floyd has been revered as among the best. As a songwriter, his legacy carries on with legendary recording artists as well as newcomers as they keep Floyd’s brand of music going for the work of genius it is.
#6 – Lionel Richie & The Commodores
Out of Tuskegee, Alabama, is Lionel Richie as he was born in this Macon County city on June 20, 1949. He grew up in a household whose father was a systems analyst for the United States Army and his mother was a school principal. His grandmother was a classic pianist and his grandfather once led a Black American fraternal organization that was nationally recognized. Richie’s school background includes earning a tennis scholarship as he was a star player for the Joliet Township High School before he went to the Tuskegee Institute. Upon graduation, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in economics. However, there was a time when Richie considered becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church before concluding he’d rather follow a career in music. Oddly enough, he didn’t know how to read or write music. All he knew was this felt like it was his true calling.
While in college, Richie formed a series of R&B groups before becoming a singer and saxophonist with The Commodores in 1968. The group signed a contract with Atlantic Records that year before moving on to Motown Records as a supporting act to The Jackson 5. The performance quality of Lionel Richie & The Commodores quickly saw them rise as a popular soul group with its collection of danceable hits such as “Machine Gun” and “Brick House.” Over time, the musical direction of The Commodores shifted to ballads and easy-listening material such as “Easy,” “Three Times a Lady,” “Still,” and “Sail On.”
During this time, Lionel Richie’s accomplishment as a songwriter first witnessed commercial success in 1974 with “Happy People.” Originally, this song was intended for the Commodores to record but it went to The Temptations instead and it became a number-one hit on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for them. This marked the beginning of Richie’s career as a commissioned songwriter for other recording artists as he wrote “Lady” with Kenny Rogers which became his number-one hit in 1980.
In 1981, Lionel Richie performed “Endless Love” as a duet for the 1981 movie with Diana Ross. This became one of the biggest hits of all time for Motown Records as it became a number-one hit on a multitude of music charts, including the US Billboard Hot 100 and the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Upon the smashing success of this powerful ballad, Lionel Richie was encouraged to pursue a solo career.
He did this with the debut of Lionel Richie as his solo album in 1982. From it came the Grammy Award-winning for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, “Truly.” Joining it was “You Are,” and “My Love” as his three biggest hits as a solo artist. The album sold over four million copies and it surged Lionel Richie’s career from stardom into superstardom. Shortly after the album was released, Lionel Richie left The Commodores and was replaced by Skyler Jett in 1983.
In 1983, Lionel Richie had a follow-up album, Can’t Slow Down. This became twice as successful as his debut and it won two Grammy Awards. Album of the Year was one and Producer of the Year, Non-Classical was the other. The biggest hit from this single was “All Night Long,” a popular dance number that came with a richly colored music video with a bit of Caribbean influence. After this, Lionel Richie continued to produce more top ten hits such as “Hello,” “Stuck on You,” “Running with the Night,” and “Penny Lover.”
There was also 1985’s “Say You, Say Me,” a song that earned him an Academy Award for Best Original Song as it was the love ballad theme for the movie, White Nights. It also joined the ranks with “Truly” as a number-one hit on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. It also topped the US Billboard Hot 100. After this, it was 1986’s charity hit single, “We Are the World” as he collaborated with Michael Jackson and many other top recording stars as USA for Africa. This number-one hit also won a Grammy Award for Song of the Year.
1986 also marked the release of Lionel Richie’s third studio album, Dancing on the Ceiling. This one produced “Say You, Say Me,” “Dancing on the Ceiling,” “Love Will Conquer All” and “Ballerina Girl” as top ten hits. After this, Lionel Richie began to ease off spending so much time in the recording studio. It wouldn’t be until after the release of his first greatest hits album, Back to Front in 1992 that he would return to the recording studio. 1996’s Louder Than Words witnessed Richie stick to contemporary R&B music, which was also the case with 1998’s Time.
Neither album was quite as successful as his first two but this hasn’t stopped Lionel Richie from doing what he loved most. Not even the threat of losing his singing voice was enough to stop him. After meeting with conventional doctors who failed to observe the real root of his throat problems came from an acid reflux condition caused by the foods he was eating before bed, it was back to the recording studio and the stage to keep on singing.
Altogether, Lionel Richie has recorded and released ten studio albums as a solo artist. While with The Commodores, it was nine. The man also has forty-two singles to his credit, as well as four live albums and seven compilation albums. 1983’s Can’t Slow Down sold over twenty million copies around the world and became one of the best-selling albums of all time. So was the charity single, “We Are the World” he wrote with Michael Jackson. Overall, Lionel Richie has sold over one hundred million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling recording artists of all time. In 2022, he earned a Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress, plus an American Music Awards Icon Award. Also in 2022, he was inducted into the Black Music & Entertainment Walk of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
#5 – Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section
It started with Rick Hall from Florence, Alabama in 1958 when he met and befriended Tom Stafford. With Billy Sherrill, the three men formed SPAR, an acronym used for Stafford Publishing And Recording. The team recruited three teenagers from a local band to record a few song demos. The musicians were David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan, and Norbert Putnam. These young men were credited for their originality whenever it came to putting together new songs. Inside a studio that sat on top of a pharmacy owned by Stafford’s father, this was a buzzing hub of activity that even brought in upcoming stars such as Donnie Fritts, Spooner Oldham, and Dan Penn. However, at one point, Hall was removed from SPAR and found himself determined to compete against his former partners, Sherrill and Stafford, wherever he could.
The first move Hall took was taking out a loan in 1961 to purchase an abandoned brick warehouse in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He used it to make FAME, which was an acronym for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises. This was a recording studio that featured Briggs, Carrigan, and Putnam as members of his rhythm section. As a taskmaster, one of Hall’s first recruits was an African-American bellhop named Arthur Alexander. He was a singer-songwriter who became one of his first proteges.
As demanding as he was as the man in charge, Hall’s focus paid off with “You Better Move On,” a single that became a number twenty-four hit on the US Billboard after it was released in 1962, turning Alexander into an R&B star. The song’s popularity won over The Hollies and The Rolling Stones to perform cover versions of their own. The success of this single gave Arthur Alexander an opportunity to perform on Dick Clark’s popular dance show, American Bandstand. This led to nationwide recognition of Hall’s little studio that sat along the banks of the Tennessee River in the state of Alabama.
Big-time producers started to visit Muscle Shoals to record with Hall’s FAME house band in an effort to capitalize on what was regarded as the “Muscle Shoals Sound.” Tommy Roe was sent there in 1963 to record his hit, “Everybody,” as were The Tams in 1964 for “What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am).” Both recording artists, as well as Jimmy Hughes with 1964’s “Steal Away,” all worked with Hall’s trio of teenagers who proved themselves to be elite session musicians.
Between the three recording artists and the hit singles they produced, this established FAME’s ability to produce diverse music between different genres with the same world-class quality as the bigger studios that had been catering to the music industry for years. Because FAME launched with great success, Hall was able to build a top-notch recording studio in Muscle Shoals City, namely at 603 Avalon Avenue. After raking in the profit from Alexander’s “You Better Move On” in 1962, Hall’s new studio was able to capitalize on FAME’s progress. Today, that same building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
As for Briggs, Carrigan, and Putnam, their fame as session musicians attracted the attention of Nashville’s music industry giants, Bob Beckham, Felton Jarvis, and Ray Stevens. These men offered more money than what Hall was paying them and it was enough for the trio to move on. Their departure prompted Hall to look for a new rhythm section that would first be nicknamed The Second FAME Gang before becoming The Swampers and then The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
The core members of this group were Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Jimmy Johnson. Together, these musicians stood out as the best among the best as a team known for its mix of funk and soul sound. One of the reasons why they earned “Swampers” as a nickname was because of the brand of music they performed for Leon Russell. Aside from this core lineup, there were also other notable musicians who either joined in or substituted while FAME was at its prime. These include guitarists Pete Carr, Tommy Cogbill, and Chip Moman, as well as pianist Spooner Oldham.
When word got out The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section were white musicians more than capable of producing high-quality R&B and soul music, it came as a surprise at the time. It didn’t stop the elite of the music industry from doing business with Hall and his team whatsoever. Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records sent notable artists Aretha Franklin and Alabama’s own Wilson Pickett to team up with the Southern-style musicians with great interest to produce hits of their own from FAME’s recording studio. Pickett’s classic, “Land of 1000 Dances” was a reworked version of Chris Kenner’s 1962 original that became a jazzed-up fan favorite, thanks to the musical approach the Swampers took by Wexler’s request.
In 1967, it was Aretha Franklin and she attempted to record “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” as her first hit with the Swampers. However, this met with conflict as Franklin’s husband at the time, Ted White, made things difficult between wild accusations and destructive behavior. It ended with an altercation that had Hall no longer wanting anything further to do with Wexler, Franklin, and White. After the song was finished and became a big hit for Franklin, Atlantic Studios wanted the Swampers to record with them but without the influence of Hall and Muscle Shoals. The group was flown to New York and recorded another hit with Franklin, “Respect.” It wasn’t long after this the Swampers severed ties with Rick Hall and FAME as they built a recording studio of their own.
In 1969, with the help of Wexler and Atlantic Records, the Swampers (as The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) established itself on 3614 Jackson Highway first had Hawkins and Johnson as the owners before Beckett and Hood were brought in as equal partners. Together, they created over fifty hits from a studio that was named Muscle Shoals Sound. The name came about as a joke as it was technically located in Sheffield and not the city the studio was named after. However, this community was also located on along the Alabama shoreline of the Tennessee River. As for The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, this became the trademark name of the four musicians who once upon a time worked for Hall.
Among the first string of big hits from this studio was 1969’s “Take a Letter Maria” by R.B. Greaves. While The Rolling Stones were there the same year, the British-based group produced “You Gotta Move,” “Brown Sugar,” and “Wild Horses” in succession one night after the other. Two years after this, Atlantic Records wanted the Swampers to relocate to Miami, Florida to its Criteria Studios. After the four men refused, the label demanded the loan given to Muscle Shoals to help build its studio be paid up in full. As fate had it, a financially struggling Stax Records was sending work to Muscle Shoals and was able to sever ties with Atlantic and move on without a problem. This little studio along the Tennessee River continued to produce more hits from well-established artists such as Leon Russell and Paul Simon.
The 1969-built Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section closed its Jackson Highway location in 1979 and moved to a brand new studio at 1000 Alabama Avenue near Sheffield. It was the same year Bob Dylan used the studio to record his nineteenth studio album, Slow Train Coming. This new location marked a new era for Beckett, Hawkins, Hood, and Johnson as they were able to work as producers and publishers instead of strictly as performers. This was an operation that continued until 1985. It was sold to Tommy Couch of Malaco Records. By this time, Beckett moved from Alabama to Nashville, Tennessee and teamed up with Warner Music Group to produce new stars, including the iconic country group, Alabama.
Altogether, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was responsible for more than five hundred recordings that witnessed seventy-five of them becoming certified hits between gold and platinum. In 1995, the Swampers lineup was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. It was later inducted into Nashville’s Musician’s Hall of Fame, this time with Peter Carr and Spooner Oldham as part of the team. In 2019, the original Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was also inducted, as was the Muscle Shoals Horn Section.
#4 – Wet Willie
The history of Wet Willie begins with its 1969 formation as a rock group in Mobile, Alabama. Founded by a drummer named Lewis Ross, it was first called Fox before moving to Macon, Georgia, to record music with Capricorn Records. The name changed to Wet Willie in 1970 and began to perform a soulful brand of Southern rock music that had five studio albums recorded and released between 1971 and 1976. The height of Wet Willie’s success came in 1974 with “Keep On Smilin’,” a number ten hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 that came from the group’s third studio album. The core members during this time who rocked with Ross were Jimmy Hall and his brother, Jack Hall. There was also John David Anthony and Ricky Hirsch. There was also “The Willettes” with Donna Hall and Ella Brown Avery as they sang as background vocalists. Donna was the sister of Jimmy and Jack.
During the course of its career as a recording artist, Wet Willie underwent a series of lineup changes by the time it signed up with Epic Records in 1977. The Halls continued but now had T.K. Lively as its new drummer after Lewis Ross decided to opt-out. Through this label, Wet Willie recorded and released two more studio albums before deciding it was time to take a break. Aside from “Keep On Smilin’,” the group produced a few more hits that hit the music charts, namely “Country Side of Life,” “Everything that ‘Cha Do (Will Come Back to You),” “and Leona.” These came from the Capricorn Records era while “Street Corner Serenade” and “Weekend” came from 1977’s Manorisms and 1979’s Which One’s Willie?
What made Wet Willie stand out was the mix of funk, rhythm, and rock that drummer Lewis Ross and bassist Jack Hall were known for. In 1976, the group was given the America’s Music Award from the Alabama Hall of Fame. In 2014, it was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. In addition to the seven studio albums, Wet Willie also produced three live albums and four compilation albums. Altogether, it released thirteen singles, eight of which became hits on the US Billboard Hot 100. The biggest was “Keep On Smilin'” and it remains a staple favorite among classic rock fans.
#3 – Nat King Cole
From 1934 until 1965, Nat King Cole performed as an actor and a musician who became a legend. His career as a pianist and singer had him become a cult favorite among fans of jazz music and pop. His rise to fame in the late 1930s graced the global audience with a singing voice that was epic, to say the least. It was his singing and songwriting genius that was responsible for over one hundred hits to grace the music charts for a span of over three decades. In 1960, he earned a star on the Hollywood Rock of Fame, five years before he died on February 15th from lung cancer.
The man’s legacy continued to live on as his daughter, Natalie Cole, produced an album in 1991 titled Unforgettable… With Love. It was a tribute she paid to her late father as she covered some of his previously recorded material, including the megahit, “Unforgettable.” She performed this as a duet that used the music industry’s technology to produce a song as if Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole were performing this together in a recording studio.
Before Nat King Cole’s rise to fame, he was born on March 17, 1919, in Montgomery, Alabama. He and his three brothers, Eddie, Ike, and Freddy, all developed an interest in music strong enough to pursue it as a profession. They, along with their half-sister, moved to Chicago, Illinois when Nat was four years old. His father became a Baptist minister while there while his mother was the organist. It was she who taught Nat King Cole how to play the instrument before he started to take formal piano lessons at twelve years old.
He learned how to play classical, gospel, and jazz music. As a high school student, Nat often snuck out of the house to listen to jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Jimmie Noone. After he turned fifteen years old, he dropped out of high school and joined his older brother, Eddie, to tour with Noble Sissle. Together, as part of a sextet, the brothers recorded for Decca in 1936 as Eddie Cole’s Swingsters.
In 1937, Nat married Nadine Robinson who was part of a musical cast he performed with, Shuffle Along. After the show’s run was done, the newlyweds settled in Los Angeles, California. It was here Nat King Cole hired bassist Wesley Prince and guitarist Oscar Moore to form a band he called King Cole Swingsters. The name was playing off the quote “Old King Cole was a merry old soul.” The band’s name changed to King Cole Trio before it started to make recordings for small labels. In 1940, Nat King Cole recorded his first radio hit, “Sweet Lorraine.” This was a 1928 jazz standard classic that somewhat served as the song that got him discovered as patrons challenged him to sing something and this was the tune that came to mind.
The King Cole Trio, became a top-selling group while signed with Capitol Records during the 1940s. It was also the label’s only act at the time featuring an all-black lineup. During a time of racial discrimination, this trio served as a source of inspiration for upcoming jazz musicians and ensembles to follow in their footsteps. Starting in 1950, Nat King Cole branched out as a solo artist and began to achieve mainstream success during an era when the civic rights movement was picking up steam. As a singer, he performed for civil rights organizations on a regular basis and was the first African American to host a nationally broadcast television show when The Nat King Cole Show ran from 1956 to 1957.
The greatest hits stemming from Cole’s discography according to release dates are “Unforgettable,” “Smile,” “L-O-V-E,” “When I Fall in Love,” “Let There Be Love,” “Mona Lisa,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Stardust,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “The Very Thought of You,” “For Sentimental Reasons,” “Embraceable You,” and “Almost Like Being in Love.” There was also the 1960 release of The Magic of Christmas, a holiday-themed album that became one of the best-selling albums of its kind of all time.
“The Christmas Song” broke a music industry record for cracking the top ten US Billboard Hot 100 in 2022, sixty-two years after it was first released as a single. The Library of Congress chose it for preservation in the United States National Recording Registry. Adding to Nat King Cole’s legacy is the 1990 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the 1992 Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2020, this happened again but with the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
#2 – Alabama
The formation of Alabama as a group started with three cousins. Jeff Cook and Randy Owen were the guitarists while Teddy Gentry was the bassist. All three were born and raised near Fort Payne, Alabama. This was a region with strong country music roots and its influence played a key role in the development of what became one of the most popular bands in country music. The trio got its professional start in 1972 after adding a drummer named Bennett Vartanian to the lineup.
At first, the group called itself Wildcountry and it was a slow-going run at first. At one point, a discouraged Cook took a job working for the government in Anniston, Alabama. Vartanian dropped out of the lineup together and it was a run of different drummers until Rick Scott joined in 1974. It was this lineup that sent out demos that would eventually win the interest of GRT Records. It was during this time that GRT was interested in the group as songwriters and wanted the cousins and Scott to change its name to The Alabama Band. Later, it was shortened to Alabama.
GRT’s financial struggles at the time forced it to declare bankruptcy. Unfortunately for Alabama, it was caught in the hidden clause of a contract that prevented the men from recording with another label until they were able to buy it out and start recording again in 1979. In the meantime, the group self-produced Wildcountry in 1976, Deuces Wild in 1977, and Alabama Band No. 3 in 1979.
The release of “I Wanna Be with You Tonight” came out in 1977 and was followed with 1978’s “I Wanna Come Over.” This song had the group pay independent radio promoters to play the single which would lead to a contract with MDJ Records. Upon signing up, Scott left the lineup and was replaced by Mark Herndon as its new drummer. It was he whose background as a rocker brought Alabama its country rock sound, starting with “I Wanna Come Over” as its first top forty hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
“My Home’s in Alabama” became the group’s next single and this served as an anthemic hit that would peak as high as number seventeen on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1980. For the group, this was a surprise hit that led to a path of success its roster wasn’t expecting. While with RCA, Alabama was allowed creative freedom that allowed “Why Lady Why” to be released as a follow-up single behind “My Home’s in Alabama.” It became the group’s first number one hit and it further increased Alabama’s popularity as a band. 1981 marked the release of Feels So Right, the group’s second major label album.
This became Alabama’s big breakthrough, thanks to the hits of “Old Flame,” “Feels So Right,” and “Love in the First Degree.” Alabama was thrown into the spotlight with awards such as New Group of the Year by Billboard, Group of the Year by Radio & Records, and Vocal Group of the Year by the Academy of Country Music. With the 1981 Country Music Association Awards, Alabama won Instrumental Group of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year.
After the success of Feels So Right was the 1982 release of Mountain Music. The title track became a huge hit for the band and was followed by two more chart-hitting favorites, “Take Me Down” and “Close Enough to Perfect.” Both of these albums proceeded to become quadruple platinum with the RIAA by the time 1982 was over. In just six years, Alabama already sold over six million albums across the nation. Also released in 1982 was “Christmas in Dixie,” a single that has since become an all-time seasonal classic.
Between 1982 and 1984, Alabama became the first group in history to win Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association two years in a row. With the Grammy Awards, Mountain Music earned Alabama Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. After this, it was 1983’s The Closer You Get… and it won Alabama another Grammy Award, this time for Best Country Performance. In just two months after it was released, the album was certified platinum by the RIAA. In addition to the album’s title track, “Dixieland Delight” and “Lady Down on Love” became number-one hits on the music charts belonging to Canada and the United States.
Still riding a popularity high, Alabama released its eighth studio album, Roll On. This one produced four more chart-topping singles, starting with “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler).” “When We Make Love,” “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band),” and “(There’s A) Fire in the Night” all joined the ranks as all-time fan favorites who couldn’t get enough of Alabama. 1985’s 40-Hour Week kept the momentum going, along with “40 Hour Week (For a Livin’)” and “Can’t Keep a Good Man Town.” These also became the multinational number-one hits. “There’s No Way” peaked as high as number one on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart but only managed to peak as high as number two in Canada. However, this was still another big hit for a group that produced a record that also became one of its most popular albums.
As the decade of the 1980s drew to a close, Alabama’s popularity declined as the trend of country music changed to favor the traditional sounds coming from stars such as Alan Jackson, George Strait, Randy Travis, and Dwight Yoakam. They were still popular enough to perform before a sold-out crowd and were named as one of the best country artists of the 1980s. Despite not being as popular as they once were, even going into the 1990s Alabama was still producing records that were at least becoming certified gold by the RIAA.
1992’s American Pride produced another number-one hit, “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why).” In 1999, it was Twentieth Century and its cover version of NSYNC’s “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You.” It became yet another big hit for Alabama as it topped the country music charts in Canada and peaked as high as number three on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. It was also one of many crossover hits the group experienced as it peaked as high as number twenty-nine on the US Billboard Hot 100.
In 2002, Alabama embarked on a farewell tour that had Alabama perform what was supposed to be its final show in 2004. After undergoing side projects of their own, the cousins reunited as Alabama and would continue performing together until Jeff Cook’s complications with Parkinson’s Disease claimed his life on November 7, 2022. This came about after Alabama sold its interest and recorded music rights to Reservoir Media. The legacy Alabama left as a group continues to influence fans and artists from the musical genres of country, pop, and rock.
With over seventy-five million album copies sold worldwide, Alabama is among the best-selling bands of all time. This is also the most awarded country music band in history with over two hundred awards under its belt. In 1989, it was named Artist of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music. The group has also been inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Oddly enough, as successful as Alabama was with the fans, there were music critics who hated this band as they didn’t know what to make of a group that seemed to blur the lines between country and pop. However, the roots of Alabama were country but the band wasn’t afraid to tap into other musical sounds with a formula that won over fans of pop and rock as well.
#1 – Wilson Pickett
Wilson Pickett was born on March 18, 1941, in Prattville, Alabama. He was one of eleven children who was raised by a mother who wasn’t shy to physically punish whoever she felt deserved it. What felt like an abusive home environment, Pickett eventually moved out to live with his father in Detroit in 1955. While growing up, his source of refuge was music. This would pave the way for the man to become one of the most influential figures of soul music.
During the span of his recording career, he produced over fifty songs that became hits on several music charts, including the US Billboard Hot 100 and the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. His biggest hits were “In the Midnight Hour,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.),” “Mustang Sally,” “Funky Broadway,” “Engine No. 9,” and “Don’t Knock My Love.”
Before achieving stardom, Pickett’s life in Detroit featured the young man singing in church and on the city streets. His source of inspiration came from popular recording stars like Little Richard. After moving to Detroit in 1955, he joined a gospel group called the Violinaires. After singing with them for four years, Pickett joined the Falcons and recorded “Let Me Be Your Boy” with them. The Falcons became famous for popularizing gospel music as a brand of music that would be referred to as soul.
This group not only featured Wilson Pickett as part of its starring lineup but also Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice. While with the Falcons, Pickett’s lead vocal performance of “I Found a Love” became a minor hit for the group. When he recorded The Sound of Wilson Pickett as a solo album in 1967, his soloist version became a bigger hit. This marked the beginning of a solo career for Pickett that would make him the king of soul ballads and rhythmic dance numbers.
The peak of Pickett’s popularity began with Stax Records and his first major hit single, “In the Midnight Hour.” This was a 1965 hit that topped the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and peaked as high as number twenty-one on the US Billboard Hot 100. It was also a hit in the United Kingdom at number twelve. It sold enough copies to earn an RIAA-certified gold disc. This rhythm track featured the musical handiwork of Steve Cropper and Al Jackson, along with Donald “Duck” Dunn and Booker T. Jones. The run Pickett had with Stax brought forth another classic hit, “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.).”
This became a number-one hit on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and a number-thirteen hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. After this, Wilson Pickett was sent to FAME Studios after Stax’s Jim Stewart decided as of December 1965 his label was no longer accepting outside productions. Pickett belonged to Atlantic Records with Jerry Wexler in charge and there was a deal in place with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section’s Rick Hall. Pickett went to the Alabama-based studio and recorded some of his biggest hits there, including “Land of 1,000 Dances.” It became his biggest crossover hit as it topped the R&B charts and the US Billboard Hot 100.
As successful as Pickett was as a recording artist, his personal life met with a series of struggles that were primarily brought on by his struggling addiction to drugs and alcohol. This often got him into trouble with the law. Starting in 2005, he met with health-related issues that ultimately led to his death on January 19, 2006. His remains were laid to rest in a mausoleum in Louisville, Kentucky, which had been his home for many years. Little Richard delivered the eulogy as he and Pickett were close friends for a number of years. Prior to his death, Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. In 1993, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation honored him with a Pioneer Award. In 2005, he was inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame. Posthumously, Pickett was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
Top 10 Bands And Artists From Alabama article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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