Think you know something about love? Hang it up. Forget it, baby. This is something else.
This album by soul vocalist Laura Lee is packed with instant classics, songs you feel you know the words to as soon as you hear them. In high school, working at Logos, my grownup coworker Dave would feed me soul albums. He’d hand an album to me and say under his breath, “this one,” and I’d take it home and learn it. Sam and Dave. Solomon Burke. And something from the stack of freshly sold used CDs behind the counter called Muscle Shoals Soul.
It was a compilation of sorts, although there were in fact only two artist on it: some ladies called Laura Lee and Irma Thomas. The first track on the CD was Laura Lee singing something called “Dirty Man.” It wasn’t a love song. It was a get-the-hell-out-of-my-home-you-cheating-bastard song. I adored it. I would clean my room to it on weekend mornings, sweeping the bad out by the harsh light of somebody else’s pain and talent.
I wanted more. But I could never find any. Later, I saw a lot of Irma Thomas records. She became the “Soul Queen of New Orleans” after those early recordings. But Laura Lee was always hiding from me. She had a couple songs on other compilations I came across, but none that were new to me. No full albums or dedicated compilations. None of my soul-loving friends had heard of her. None of the record store geeks I knew were collecting her 45s. Until one random record shopping rummage sale day in Portland. There was That’s How It Is, a decades-spanning retrospective with my favorite “dirty” song and others, more and more bad men and wronged women and amazing sing-along soul melodies. Here was the non-Aretha, non-Motown lady soul singer I was looking for. Somebody with a lot of backbone.
So let’s talk about the Muscle Shoals sound for a minute. Muscle Shoals is a town in Alabama, where a lot of amazing rhythm & blues (or soul, if you prefer) music was recorded, first at a studio called FAME and later at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. People like Wilson Pickett and the aforementioned Aretha got their start there. Laura Lee recorded at FAME courtesy of Chess Records, although she–like many other Northern artists–went down to Alabama to record, soak up some the “Muscle Shoals sound,” and hopefully translate it into record sales.
The “Muscle Shoals sound” was known for having a distinctly Southern R&B flavor that was somewhere between what was then coming out of Nashville and what was coming out of Memphis. There’s a lot of info about this era and studio out there on the interwebs. Look it up. I first learned something about it in the liner notes of that compilation Dave gave me, and then soon after that in the book Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick. But let’s just think about the music for a second. What makes this sound so good? It’s the studio. It’s the production. Simple. No frills. Clean sounds.
And it’s the band. Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, and David Hood, to be precise — the best house band ever, first in parts at FAME and later as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
This band is so minimal, it’s like the essence of a band. Just one horn or two, perfectly placed at the hook. Clean chukka-chukka guitar. Selective bass. An occassional stunningly modern electric guitar solo — more like just a note or two — swinging in for a sick groove and then out again. And always, behind it, those drums – sweet, simple, easy on the high hat (this was pre-Al Green-style soul drumming, more of a jazz sound). This shit is so good. You just have to check it out: