Like with any celebrated mythology, there's plenty of lesser-told tales from around Muscle Shoals. So let's spin a real story. Let's tell one that isn't abject legend, that isn't Mick Jagger and Keith Richards re-conjuring the lyrics to "Wild Horses" huddled in the Sound's bathroom. One that's not pre-Oscar Liza sneaking into town to record bizarrely overwrought country-pop plastic like New Feelin'. Muscle Shoals is a gem of cultural curiosity more than an Alabamian musical Camelot, a place where white boys in the recording industry have been extollingly playing black music for almost a half-century, before it was given the disparagement of too many synthesizers and grandma-palatable niche terms like "blue-eyed."
Let's talk about Mary. You may know her better as Mariann, or maybe not. Maybe you know her from Chuck & Mariann, whose 1968 cut "Let's Walk Down the Street Together" was destined to orbit alongside the last-call slow numbers at red-carpeted nightclubs all over. That was, until fellow Alabamian Jo Jo Benson and his partner in song Peggy Scott dropped "A Lover's Holiday," which ensconced itself as the singular hot-in-love, call-and-response tune haunting the end of those nights. "Let's Walk," along with the B-side burner, "The Woman in Me"—a fiery solo soaked in such weakly resignation it tastes exactly like the end of your drink—were followed quietly in 1969 by "Going Through the Changes" and its flip side, "Motivation," completing the total of Mary's releases.
She was born in Selma, Alabama, in 1943. That's twenty-two years before the marches. That's a time when there was no black radio station. Instead, Mary and her older brothers sat around mooning over Hank Williams. Sure, they heard black artists like Ella Fitzgerald at night, but they cut their teeth on country. Her brothers taught her the words, got her singing along to the tune. But she didn't really start performing until they slid farther into lower Alabama, to Opp. Preteen Mary started singing in their Baptist church, the first time she joyously felt the command of her wide-open voice.
When the family relocated to Fort Walton, Florida, her musical older brothers put together a band and booked themselves, along with Mary in front, at the whimsical age of sixteen, at the Silver Inn Bar. Mary's brothers Jimmy and Willie ventured on to become gifted musicians in their own right. Most notably Willie, who, as she says, led Joe Tex's band (and others), and whose classmate at Alabama State, Fred Wesley, famously fronted James Brown's band. Fred always credited Willie's encouragement as the reason he ever practiced his trombone at all.
Mary says she loves history, she loves politics. When she talks on the phone, you can hear Chris Matthews or some other shoutinghead in the background TV blur. She watches the Grammys, which is how she learned that Barry Beckett, from the original Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, had passed away last year. She speaks reverently of Johnny Cash; she says he was "honest." She cherishes singing Bob Dylan songs. But most of all, she loves "to rock"—the near-scream of it, allowing her to blast it so high on the chorus that it almost breaks. With a voice dynamic enough to anchor in her gut like a just-struck cannonball and then launch into exalted soprano pleas—she can feel it all. She could probably teach us, captive to her expression, what searing heartbreak really is.
A Briton by the name of Garry Cape found Mary again—on a pilgrimage in 2004 to comb through Malaco Inc.'s tapes in Mississippi, sleuthing material for his reissue label, Soulscape. He uncovered a trove labeled muscle shoals sound. After playing hundreds of demos, he grew enchanted by the bawl of this unidentified woman, so heartful it provoked him, so forgotten as to fascinate him. Nobody there knew who she was. But a couple years later, he played the tape for longtime producer Jimmy Johnson, who named her immediately.
Chuck and Mary had wed. After touring for a while with the Wesley-David Mastersound (a group Fred Wesley co-founded) in the late '60s, they settled in Atlanta. They gigged pretty seriously until she became pregnant and had to stay at home and care for their daughter. As they do in show business, things began to fall apart with Chuck. They split in 1971, and Mary went back down to Fort Walton and worked singing at the Silver Inn Bar again, trying to reconcile her life as a single mother with her designs on a music career. Chuck remained a friend of Mary's, in part because of their child. They spoke regularly until he passed away, the way Mary tells it, in a mysterious bicycle accident just days after Obama was elected to office in 2008.
In 1973, Mary relocated to Muscle Shoals, a move fueled by the sole desire to return to where the music was. She knew if she could get up there, she would make herself useful at the studios. She remembered when she and Chuck recorded their songs, when Rick Hall himself sat in during their takes for "Let's Walk Down the Street Together," excitedly asking after her, "Who is this woman?" and kept flashing her approving hand signals during their sessions. It thrilled her. This was the place where Aretha recorded, of course. This was what FAME felt like.
Wilson Pickett asked her out once. Mary turned him down. "He had a reputation, man," she says. For a while, they sent for Mary. She recorded an album's worth of material to be released on Sussex Records, but the label went under in the late '70s, claiming her catalog in their wreckage. Somehow undaunted, she kept singing backup for artists like Johnnie Taylor, kept recording demos at places like FAME and Wishbone and Muscle Shoals Sound. She met Annette Snell, who, according to Mary, was engaged to the comedian George Wallace (not to be confused with the political comedian of the same name). The studio was courting Annette with a demo Mary and her brother wrote called "Promises Should Never Be Broken," and Mary was delighted to meet the young singer and, with her, a fair first shot at a hit. On a Sunday, Mary sang backup on Annette's version of "Promises," while between takes Annette showed pictures of George and talked about how excited she was to get married. The following day, Annette perished along with over seventy others in the crash of Southern Airways flight 242 near New Hope, Georgia.
The song "Get on Back on the Right Track" was taped at Playground Recording Studio, in Fort Walton, around 1972. Mary doesn't like this song. Mary was hungry to perform, and she'd record anything they'd give her—she says she was naive. Naive? Not so. Not only does naïveté fail to enter the equation, that opening thrust of her voice, "Don't want to hear that same old story/about you being temptation's fool" feels more like the brazen admonishment of a gospel diva—who bothers to use the word "temptation" when calling out a low-down man on his catting around? It's more like we're about to hear a lesson from a woman with miles of experience beaming down from her sternly brandished index finger. The punching horns, dubbed later at FAME Recording Studios, for a moment, are the only hint of this being a deep soul threat. But then out of nowhere there's that chorus, that aching-beneath-its-octave cry—the only pain Mary allows to surface.
Mary's about to leave Muscle Shoals, she thinks. It's getting about time. She has plans to do country in Nashville—she knows her gift brings all people together, makes people appreciate one another. Totally without fear, she's an unapologetic black woman who will "charge into your culture," charming you all the while. Though she had a regular booking at a Mexican restaurant there in nearby Florence, Alabama, for fourteen years—fourteen years of working alongside white pickers, Bo Bice among them. Young Chris Tompkins, also, who after being fired from their house band went on to co-write the smash "Before He Cheats" for Carrie Underwood. Mary knows she's an empath, a communicator. She can't help but sense the diabolical promise of young talents, and can't resist encouraging them—even just to take them aside, lay a hand on their shoulder, and say, "You got it. Don't waste it."
Muscle Shoals has served her well, but Muscle Shoals is not paradise. Though Rick Hall and Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (among others) were white knights who championed black artists, who had soul themselves like scary second nature, and who joined the hands of black and white music in proverbial perfect matrimony. Mary is a product of this marriage, having grown up in it, but even while living in the depths of lower Alabama or the Florida Panhandle—it didn't begin with Muscle Shoals, though perhaps the music's heart thrums there. Mary is an ambassador of these legends, though not exactly a beneficiary of them. For all the clandestine celebrities who've passed through the studios, for all the up-and-comers who lit in Alabama for an ephemeral moment on their paths to success, or for all of the chance encounters with industry royalty, there is a Mary Gresham, who has come so close to being a thread in that rich fabric, but finds herself tending the loom, ever diligently, instead.