Motown, Stax & Muscle Shoals Soul

In this article I explore of the key differences and similarities between Motown Soul, Stax Soul and Muscle Shoals Soul? These independents laid the foundation for music in the 60's and pointed the way for all independent labels to follow. I draw comparisons from an instrumentation, harmonic, melodic and production standpoint.

The similarities found in the big three record company/studio/music machine chart makers of the 60’s souls era is the fact they all produced chart topping soul music within its own regional local. This is about where the similarity seems to stop. Granted, Motown, Stax and Fame/Muscle Shoals were gate keeper business enterprises trying to increase revenues, each company produced a similar product line while maintaining their own unique sound and flavor of soul. Similar to selling soap, each of the companies had their own uniquely different, shape, size, scent and ingredients

A key factor in the focus and sound of a Stax, Motown or Muscle Shoals is found in the musicians who were laying down the grooves for the tunes being recorded. Another key factor is also found in the writing staff and a targeted effect towards selling to a crossover audience. That being said, I will try to break down those things which made each studio unique to itself and its listening audience.


Motown was founded by Berry Gordy, a hit songwriter turned entrepreneur. His previous work in an automotive assembly plant along with a strong work ethic, drive and support of family turned his idea of taking unknown raw talent and moving them thru a factory type system of music production and having a top flight artist come out the other end is what fueled the Motown Sound Enterprise.

House Band

Berry Gordy obviously had a knack and insight into what an artist was capable of. His ability to pick and sign a string of hit making artists has become legendary. At the base of the hit making factory was a core of house musicians called the Funk Brothers. They consisted of James Jamerson-bass, Benny Benjamin-drums, with other instruments listed as follows and taken from the Motown Museum archives:

  • Bass: Bob Babbitt, Tweed Beard, Jimmy Garrett, Clarence Isabell, Tony Newton and Eddie Watkins
  • Drums: Richard “Pistol” Allen, Marvin Gaye, Uriel Jones, Clifford Mack, George McGregor, Andrew Smith, Frederick Waites and Steve Wonder
  • Flute: Clement Barone, Thomas “Bean” Bowles and Dayna Hartwick
  • Guitars: Dennis Coffey, Cornelius Grant, Dave Hamilton, Joe Messina, Melvin Miller, Ray Parker, Marvin Tarplin, Larry Veeder, Melvin “Wah Wah” Watson, Robert White and Eddie Willis
  • Harmonica: Joe Messina, Danny Stevenson and Stevie Wonder

    Keyboards: Johnny Gittens, Johnny Griffith , Dave Hamilton, Ted Sheely and Richard “Popcorn” Wylie

  • Percussion: Jack Ashford and Eddie “Bongo” Brown
  • Piano: Marvin Kaye
  • Piccolo: Clement Barone
  • Saxophones: Lanny Austin, Thomas “Beans” Bowles, Ted Buckner, Angelo Carlisi, Henry “Hank” Cosby, “Lefty” Edwards, Eli Fontaine, Kasuka Malia, Eugene “Bee Bee” Moore, William “Wild Bill” Moore, Larry Nozero, Norris Patterson, Bernie Peacock, Ernie Rodgers, Andrew “Mike” Terry, Dan Turner, Junior Walker and Ronnie Wakefield

    Strings: Gordon StaplesTrombones: George Bohanon, Bob Cousar, Ed Gooch, Bill Johnson, Patrick Lanier, Carl Raetz, Paul Riser, Dan White and Jimmy Willkins

  • Trumpets: Marcus Belgrave, Michael Henderson, Joe James, Leroy Taylor, Herbie Williams and Joe Williams
  • Vibraphone/Marimba: Jack Ashford, Jack Brokensha, Russell Conway, Maurice Davis, James Gittens, Dave Hamilton, Billy Horner, Eddie Jones, Floyd Jones, Don Slaughter, Johnny Trudell.

Motown had quite a payroll of musicians on its staff. Artists to record from their studios were Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Dianna Ross & The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson Five, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandelias to name a few.

Staff writers, a live music coaching team, a business office capable of taking care of the payroll, royalties, licensing fees, publishing, promotions, touring acts as well as a continued A & R team to keep new projects coming in the doors kept things very active and busy for the company.

One of the main things which distinguished Motown from Stax and Muscle Shoals. Motown functioned as a full service music recording, publishing, promotion, live production music agency. It considered and took control of all aspects of its artist roster from beginning to end. The quality control exerted matched that of a fine tuned auto production facility.


Motown had what is now of who's who of pop writers on hand providing music for its artists; Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder.



Stax had as its house band Booker T. & The MGS. The instrumentation consisted of guitar, organ, bass and drums with personnel eventually consisting of Steve Cropper-guitar, Booker T. Jones-keys, Donald “Duck” Dunn-bass, Alan Jackson Jr.-drums. Cropper replaced Chips Moman as A&R and went on to be house producer, writer as well as session player on many of the Stax recordings. A horn section of regulars was also added to the house band.

Production Space

Stax converted an old movie theater into a recording studio leaving the slanted floor and stage in tact. This tended to give the room its classic Stax big sound which added to the raw flavor of the soul recordings tracked in that room. Most aficionados of soul could immediately tell after a few notes if it were a Stax recording due to the bigness and rawness of sound.


Stax writers included Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, David Porter and Steve Cropper among others. A distribution deal brought about by Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records found Wilson Pickett and other Atlantic artists co-writing and recording with the Stax family as well. Latter, a fall out between Atlantic and Stax brought Atlantic and its artists, namely Aretha Franklin, to FAME studio with the Muscle Shoals band.


If you were to look at the Otis Redding tunes and Dock of the Bay in particular, they are mostly goseple with a flavor of R & B. The melodies are pretty much diatonic following a traditional blues based progressing with some chromatic approach chords to the IV and V thrown in.


The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was formed in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1969 after the rhythm section from FAME studios left to form their own recording/production studio, and publishing company. The studio produced and recorded a number of artists from 1969 thru the 70‘s including Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Staple Singers, The Rolling Stones, Traffic, Elton John, Boz Scaggs, Willie Nelson, Dob Dylan, Paul Simon, Elkie Brooks and Millie Jackson, Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens, Cher and Lynard Skinard.

The distinctive rhythmic stylings of the house band and the unique quality of the arrangements have found their way onto a tremendous number of legendary recordings. Artists who have recorded hit songs and complete albums recorded at this studio.


The house band at Muscle Shoals Studio consisted of Barry Beckett-keys, Jimmy Johnson-guitar, David Hood-bass, Roger Hawkins-drums. A great recording to differentiate the sound that the Muscle Shoals band put out vs the Stax band is found in the recording Respect. The Aretha Franklin version is a classic which deals with a tight driving rhythm section along with larger production in the way of backing vocals, harmony and arrangement style.


The Muscle Shoals group had their own production staff and apparently which produced their own style of arrangements unique to the facility. Because they owned their own publishing co. They could produce and shop the recordings created in their facility and use to their advantage. Not much info on this only assumed. As with Stax, Muscle Shoals did not seem too interested in promoting their artists through live performance, but more interested in the revenues received from tracking, mastering, distribution of units and collection of royalties from publishing deals.


It seemed the artists were the main writers. Muscle Shoals seemed to provide the musicians and arrangements if need be similar to Stax.


Contingent n the artists they were recording, but if you listen to the rendition of Respect, I would say it could get fairly advanced for an R & B/Soul band.