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Mighty Muscle Shoals, Alabama flexes its legacy as birthplace of global music and miracles

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Little Muscle Shoals, Alabama boasts a giant legacy as the birthplace of blues, “Brown Sugar” and miraculous American icons.

Helen Keller, W.C. Handy and Sam Phillips were each born along this sleepy stretch of the Tennessee River in northern Alabama. 

Keller’s life story of overcoming blindness and deafness to become an author and icon was told in “The Miracle Worker.” Handy, “The King of Blues,” is one of the most influential musicians in history. 

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Both are still celebrated in birthplace museums around Muscle Shoals.

Phillips changed the course of pop culture when he founded Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee and discovered a young singer named Elvis Presley. Millions of people around the world know the name Muscle Shoals, however, and its hit-making musicians, the Swampers, from the Southern-rock anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Etta James in Muscle Shoals

R&B singer Etta James, back, recording with FAME Studios founder Rick Hall, far right, and members of the house band The Swampers, circa 1967, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. (House Of Fame LLC/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they’ve been known to pick a song or two,” Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant rhapsodized in the band’s biggest chart hit

The Swampers was the common nickname for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. They were the house band first at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, then later at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio just down the road in neighboring Sheffield. 

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They recorded some of the biggest hits by the biggest stars in music history: the Rolling Stones, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Bob Seger, Percy Sledge, Paul Simon and Aretha Franklin, to name just a few. 

“I got here in 1980 and, you know, there’s no traffic jams. It’s beautiful. It’s on the river,” longtime Muscle Shoals musician Will McFarlane told Fox News Digital.

Ronnie Van Zant

Singer and songwriter Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd. He wrote the rock hit “Sweet Home Alabama,” which includes a tribute to The Swampers of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a session band.  (Tom Hill/WireImage)

“I went back to Los Angeles and gave everybody notice and moved to Muscle Shoals.” 

McFarlane, a guitarist, toured with Bonnie Raitt and played on the “Urban Cowboy” soundtrack, among many other recordings. 

“The Swampers, they were legendary. They were world-class.”

He was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville as a “friend” of The Swampers, most of whom have since gone to the great big jam session in the sky.

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McFarlane said his pals from The Swampers helped make rural northern Alabama a global hit factory in the 1960s and 1970s. 

“Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones, “Mustang Sally” and “Land of 1000 Dances” by Pickett, “Kodachrome” by Simon, and “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Seger are just some of the global rock and R&B anthems recorded at FAME or Muscle Shoals studios.

Hellen Keller "Miracle Worker"

“The Miracle Worker” play is performed throughout the year in the backyard of Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller in Tuscumbia, Alabama.  (Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

The Swampers played on most every major hit by Queen of Soul Franklin. Among them: “Respect,” “Think” and “Chain of Fools.”

Members of the group toured with Steve Winwood and the “Dear Mr. Fantasy” British hitmakers Traffic in 1973. 

Duane Allman was a Muscle Shoals musician when his guitar work on Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude” caught the ear of Eric Clapton. 

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The British guitar star was more than impressed by Allman’s work in Muscle Shoals, according to McFarlane. Clapton invited the Nashville-born musician to play the iconic slide guitar masterpiece heard on the rock epic “Layla.” 

“The Swampers, they were legendary. They were world-class,” Gene Odom, Van Zant’s childhood pal and longtime security manager for Lynyrd Skynyrd, told Fox News Digital. 

Member of the Swampers

Keyboard player Barry Beckett and bassist David Hood of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (The Swampers) perform on stage with Traffic at the Palazzo dello Sport in Rome on March 29, 1973. (Brian Cooke/Redferns)

Odom joined the band on one of their Muscle Shoals recording sessions. 

“Sweet Home Alabama” was not recorded in Muscle Shoals, though. The Swampers were already icons of music by the time the Skynyrd hit was recorded in 1974. 

Both FAME and Muscle Shoals studios are in business today. The city is located 150 miles east of Memphis and just 130 miles south of “Music City” Nashville

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The “Muscle Shoals Sound” is one point of a triangle of southern-born American music that has spread around the world.

Keller is another local icon. She was born in neighboring Tuscumbia, Alabama. 

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Ivy Green, her birthplace, has been open since 1954 as a “permanent shrine to the ‘miracle’ that occurred in a blind and deaf seven-year-old girl’s life,” according to HelenKellerBirthplace.com. 

Blues-master Handy was born in a log cabin just across the river from Muscle Shoals in Florence, Alabama. 

W.C. Handy birthplace

W.C. Handy was born in this log cabin in Florence, Alabama on Nov. 16, 1873. (Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

His birthplace has been preserved as the W.C. Handy Home and Museum. 

The annual W.C. Handy Music Festival, with events across the region, is celebrated this year from July 19-28.

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“W.C. Handy, won’t you look down over me?” musician Marc Cohn pleads with the spirit of the bluesman in his 1991 hit, “Walking in Memphis.”

Muscle Shoals split

Mick Jagger in the studio; the entrance to FAME Recording Studios; and Aretha Franklin in the studio. (Keystone Features; Andrew Woodley/Universal Images Group, Michael Ochs Archives, all via Getty Images)

Handy, like The Swampers, was immortalized in pop music.

It’s a tribute to the influential sounds that appear to seep from the soulful soil around Muscle Shoals.

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