How Jill Shires wound up on a hit R&B record 50 years ago

CorrespondentApril 19, 2014 

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Musicology student Chris Reali, right, met librarian Jill Shires, left, while working on a dissertation about music from Muscle Shoals, Ala. At 17, Shires played the flute for one of The Tams’ greatest hits.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Chris Reali spends a lot of time in UNC’s libraries. The Ph.D. candidate in musicology is writing his dissertation on 20th century American popular music – specifically, the funky, distinctly Southern R&B music produced in Muscle Shoals, Ala.

The small, northwest Alabama city is the subject of a well-received documentary recently released on DVD featuring songs and interviews with Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and The Rolling Stones, among others.

It’s also the subject of several deeply researched articles and presentations by Reali, who mixes trips to Alabama with countless hours combing UNC’s exhaustive resources. Yet, one of his most remarkable discoveries came not in Alabama or from a UNC database, but from a chance conversation.

“I was in the library constantly and a friend who works there said, ‘You know, Jill Shires, our music catalog librarian, played on a song recorded in Muscle Shoals.’ 

“I said, ‘What did you just say? What?’ 

That conversation led to a meeting between Reali and Chapel Hill resident Shires, who, as a teenage flute player on The Tams’ “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am?” was not only part of a top-10 hit 50 years ago, but also played a brief but emblematic role as a white musician backing up black performers in a fully integrated recording studio in 1963 Alabama.

Eight months before the song would go to No. 1 on the Cashbox R&B chart, Shires’ high school band director got a call from FAME Studios asking if he could recommend a flute player for an upcoming recording session in Muscle Shoals. The director immediately thought of Shires, who had graduated that spring.

“I was the hotshot flutist” she said, recalling her days as an all-state performer.

Although she primarily performed concert and marching band music, she was a fan of R&B, which she heard on the radio and at dances (which were forbidden by the church she attended).

“It was earthy,” she said. “It was down and dirty. It was gutsy. It was the kind of music I liked. I loved rhythm and blues.”

Fame Recording Studios were housed at the time in a converted tobacco warehouse, where Shires found herself face to face with The Tams, a black vocal group from Atlanta. They milled around with the FAME session musicians, who, like Shires, were white. She had never played with black musicians before.

“This was a time of total segregation,” Shires recalled. “I finished high school in total segregation. But there I was, in the sound or recording room with The Tams and, you know, that was cool, actually. Everybody was real nice to me.”

Making music

When it came to segregation, Muscle Shoals and the northern part of Alabama were an anomaly, Reali’s research shows.

“That’s the story of FAME in general,” Reali said. “There is this scene in this studio where an integrated group of musicians is making music. … In Muscle Shoals the white musicians were in the house band and worked with black singers.”

Shires quickly got to work. Up until then she had only played written music and she doesn’t remember much being written out for The Tams session.

“I guess maybe there were written sketches,” she said, “and there was singing, and I just picked up on it. The first thing I did was the opening. I improvised – which I do now – but back then I just didn’t. I guess I was just in the spirit of it and just having a good time. I don’t remember a lot of takes.”

Her memory of how it all transpired is a little fuzzy after a half-century, but somehow, she said, it just came together.

She thinks she got paid about $58 for the session, which included a B side that she also played on called “Laugh it Off.” Both songs, which feature her prominently from beginning to end, are posted on YouTube.

“It speaks to how limited musically the Shoals was,” Reali said, adding, “If someone doesn’t play the flute and doesn’t double on the flute and some other instrument, who do they know? If you don’t know anyone in the classical music world, who are you going to call up? There was no symphony. … So they have to call the local high school.”

Early but forgotten

The song helped propel FAME’s later success with Aretha Franklin and others, as well as spawning the opening of dozens of other studios in the area. The most noteworthy of those was Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, which drew an amazing array of singers and bands to north Alabama, including Clarence Carter, Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Linda Ronstadt, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Traffic, Duane Allman and the Rolling Stones, to name a few.

Despite its chart-topping success, Shires finds “What Kind of Fool” isn’t widely remembered today. It isn’t mentioned in the recent documentary “Muscle Shoals,” which played the Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill for several weeks last fall and was a hot ticket at Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last spring.

But the song, and Shires’ inspired playing in it, have an important place in music history, Reali says.

“It’s one of the holy grails of (Carolina) beach music tracks. That tune helped The Tams sustain themselves – they still play although now they’re into the second generation. To a certain element of listeners, that’s a huge song.”

On a broader scale, it also represents the no-holds-barred diversity of pre-Beatles pop music, circa 1963, he said. The biggest hits that year were all over the map and included singles from the likes of The Beach Boys, Skeeter Davis, Andy Williams, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Henry Mancini.

“In that context, The Tams song makes perfect sense,” Reali said. “It’s catchy call-and-response and the flute line helps support the melody of the track. ... It speaks to this glorious age of pop music when the future was wide open.”

Shires’ future was wide open then too, and she continued to travel a musical path. After receiving her degree in flute performance from Yale University, she moved to Los Angeles, where for 16 years she played in ensembles, in pit orchestras, as a session musician for radio and television productions, and for two years as a principal with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

She also had at least one more brief return to pop/rock music, playing on Seatrain’s “Watch,” recorded in 1973. She has been a librarian for 20 years in Chapel Hill, where she catalogs music, among other responsibilities. She’s retired from performing, but attends as many performances as she can and sings in her church choir.

“I experience music incredibly deeply,” she says. “Now I experience it as an audience member. I had wonderful experiences as an artist, and I’m grateful for that.”

Isom: pcisom@gmail.com

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