Chris Reali spends a lot of time in UNC’s libraries. The Ph.D. candidate in musicology combs reference materials researching the subject of his dissertation: 20th century American popular music and, more 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 released on DVD Feb. 25 featuring Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and The Rolling Stones, among others, in songs and interviews.
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 unexpected finds 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 last month, 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 and No. 9 on the Cashbox pop chart and the Billboard R&B and pop charts, Shires’ high school band director got a call from FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, asking if he could recommend a flute player for an upcoming recording session. The director immediately thought of Shires, who had graduated that spring after earlier skipping a grade.
“I was the hotshot flutist” she said, recalling her days as a first chair holder and 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,”
Shires drove herself to FAME Recording Studios, which in the days before visits from Franklin, Pickett and others was housed in a converted tobacco warehouse. She found herself face to face with members of 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.”
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 50 years ago is a little fuzzy, but somehow, she said, it just came together.
“I was a good musician and could pick up a lot of styles.”
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 quite prominently from beginning to end, are posted on YouTube. She remembers hearing “What Kind of Fool” on the radio as a freshman flute performance major at the University of Illinois.
“One of the things Jill's story emphasizes is the do-anything-it-takes attitude to get a hit,” Reali said about what’s now celebrated as The Muscle Shoals Sound. “It speaks to how limited, musically, the Shoals was. … 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 was an early hit for FAME and 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 – most notably 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 October 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's a vocal group – which were still big at the time. 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, following her bachelor’s with a master’s in flute performance from Yale University and then moving 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 an album by Procol Harum. She has been a librarian in Chapel Hill for 20 years, where she catalogs music scores, CDs and LPs, 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 a wonderful experiences as an artist, and I’m grateful for that.”