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Jesse Boyce's remarkable career starts at Muscle Shoals

Shoal Man

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Muscle Shoals, Ala., is a magical place for many music fans, the locale of the legendary FAME Recording Studios where numerous American anthems were created. But it has an even deeper meaning for Nashville's Jesse Boyce, whose remarkable career as an instrumentalist, bandleader, vocalist, songwriter, label owner and Music Row businessman included lengthy stints at FAME in the 1960s and '70s.

He'll be reliving those times this week as Greg Camalier's documentary Muscle Shoals debuts at the Nashville Film Festival. Boyce, who is also participating in a special benefit concert titled "Muscle Shoals: The River That Sings" after the April 20 screening, says FAME (which stands for "Florence Alabama Music Enterprises") played a critical role in helping positively change American society.

"Rick Hall (FAME's owner) took a chance on me when I was a young, raw bass player," Boyce recalls. "He listened to me play, liked it, and told me the only thing that mattered to him was the quality of the music and making it sound great.

"He took black and white musicians from different backgrounds, had them work together, contribute equally and create something that benefited everyone. All he cared about was whether you could play, and what ideas you may have about a session. Beyond that, we were a team. You left any baggage you might have regarding someone's race or religion on the outside. You didn't bring it into FAME studios."

Camalier's documentary includes interviews with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Clarence Carter and current hitmakers like Alicia Keys and Bono. Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Wilson Pickett and numerous others made huge hits at FAME.

Boyce's achievements aren't limited to just his time at Muscle Shoals. He subsequently spent more than 13 years as part of Nashville's esteemed A Team group of session musicians, becoming one of the city's first prominently featured black players in that vein. 

His long list of other pioneering feats include being co-founder of the first black rock/R&B band from Nashville to be signed to a major label in 1973 (Bottom & Company), serving as vice president of Dillard and Boyce productions on Music Row, and cutting national disco and dance-music hits as a local writer/producer. Boyce has earned several other honors, as well as Grammy and Dove nominations, for his playing and versatility. As a bassist and pianist, he's worked with everyone from Little Richard and Duke Ellington to the Osmonds, Ben E. King and Shirley Caesar. 

"We played with everybody and did all kinds of music," Boyce remembers. "That was a big part of the job. You had to be able to interact with everything and everyone. That background has played such a key role in my life, whether it is business, teaching, or music."

The founder and current executive director of North Nashville's Mid-Town Music Academy for at-risk children, as well as CEO of the Sovereign Music Group, Boyce sees Muscle Shoals as the embodiment of America at its best.

"We were all united in a common goal, and we put our personal agendas aside to work together," Boyce says. "That's America at its best, when it allows different groups of people to contribute to something that will ultimately benefit everyone."

Muscle Shoals debuts Saturday at the Nashville Film Festival. The screening is sold out. The benefit concert "Muscle Shoals Live: The River That Sings" is being presented in conjunction with Mid-Town Music Academy, the International Black Film Festival of Nashville and the Nashville Film Festival. It gets underway at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Lipscomb University's Collins Auditorium and features Boyce along with Donna Godchaux of the Grateful Dead; Harvey Thompson of the Muscle Shoals Horns; Gino Speight and the SOS Band; Angela Primm of Still Waters; and jazz musician/vocalist Thomas Cain. Tickets are $40 general admission, and more info is available at ibffnashville.com.

For more on the Nashville Film Festival:

Three priceless visions of bygone Nashville at NaFF 2013, courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame's Moving Image Collection
Want to do the 2013 Nashville Film Festival in just five films?
Songwriter Desmond Child's modern family includes a partner, twin boys — and the boys' surrogate mother

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