Rick Hall: The Soul of Muscle Shoals
If you heard just about any soul, pop, or even country hit between 1960 and 1974, and well beyond, you were hearing a special sound produced by a musical genius named Rick Hall. In a little northern Alabama town called Muscle Shoals, Hall worked tirelessly — he would later write in his autobiography, The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame (Heritage Builders Publishing) that he was “working in the studio fourteen to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week” and sometimes “hibernate for two or three days without coming home” — to produce what became known as the Muscle Shoals Sound. Without Hall’s vision and insistent drive to pull the very best music, lyrics, and sound out of his musicians, artists, and himself, it is fair to say that the music world would be poorer and we’d have never heard the brilliance of Etta James, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Candi Staton, Percy Sledge, King Curtis, Duane Allman, and even Donnie Osmond, Wild Cherry, Mac Davis, and Shenandoah. Of course, some of these artists went elsewhere after a time at Muscle Shoals — most famously Aretha Franklin after her husband and Hall got into a fight — but Rick Hall and those who worked with him created a magic and produced an unmistakable sound still coursing deeply through the music world’s veins.
As singer, songwriter, musician, and producer Walt Aldridge says, “Every musical success from Muscle Shoals — song, record, artist or personnel — has Rick Hall in its DNA somewhere. Opinions may vary on what working with him was like but there can be no denying his importance in the legacy of music made here since day one until today. It will be many years, if ever, before someone is able to step out of his shadow.”
When Rick Hall died last Tuesday morning at 85, of prostate cancer, he left a gaping hole that will likely never be filled. From an early age — his father gave Hall a mandolin when he was six but he soon picked up fiddle, bass, and guitar — he turned to his love of music as a way of dealing with the daily struggles of his hardscrabble life in the fields and forests of Freedom Hills, Alabama, so called because it was a destination for moonshiners, escaped convicts, and other scoundrels running from their families or the law, where he endured the hardships of living the dirt-poor life of a sawmiller and sharecropper’s son. Hall’s mother abandoned him when he was four; his first wife died in an automobile accident, and almost immediately after his wife’s death, his father died when the tractor that Hall had bought him to make life easier for him turned over on him. Hall turned to music and eventually rose to fame as the man who built Muscle Shoals and the man whom everyone wanted behind the panel on their recordings.
In 1959, Hall founded FAME Studios (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises), and moved it to Muscle Shoals in 1961; he also created FAME Publishing and Fame Records. In addition to his musical genius, Hall created a space where black and white musicians worked together in a safe space in a very segregated South. For Hall, this was all about the music and artists working together to find the groove on a song. He produced his first hit, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” in 1961, and the string of hits started pouring out of that little north Alabama town and studio. Over the past 50-plus years, Hall amassed more than 300 hit singles and more than 40 Gold and Platinum records. That string of hits includes Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” Little Richard’s “Greenwood, Mississippi,” Solomon Burke’s “These Arms of Mine,” Willie Hightower’s “Uptight Good Woman,” Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy,” The Osmonds’ “One Bad Apple,” Johnny Jenkins and Duane Allman’s “Goin’ Down Slow,” Paul Anka’s “I Don’t Like to Sleep Alone” featuring Odia Coates, and Mac Davis’ “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” among many, many others.
Hall produced Etta James’ “Tell Mama,” though James wasn’t so sure about Hall and his work. According to bassist David Hood — who played on the session — Hall took Clarence Carter’s “Tell Daddy” and changed the gender so James could sing it; she argued with him, but he kept pushing her, knowing what he wanted from her, and she ended up with a hit. James said: “I looked at him and said, so this is Rick Hall, this is FAME recording studios, and I’m in Alabama and I’m gonna get some of this Alabama mud. Rick Hall was the 1st white man I had seen that had that kind of soul: he was an engineer that was soulful. I would be so hard headed and say, don’t tell me nothing, but I finally realized that everything he used to badger me about, he was always right.”
Wilson Pickett, who scored hits from “634-5789” and “Land of a Thousand Dances” to “Hey Jude,” once reflected on Hall and his methods: “I was there to make it work, period. We would sit there and make that record together. I was singing along. Rick Hall stuck there every minute; we would all work it out together. Rick Hall was his own engineer; he built the studio; he knew all the electric wiring in there. After my 1st night in that studio I was convinced that this could be my recording home. Rick Hall and I were the real nitty gritty down in the cold nitty gritty.”
Duane Allman, in Hall’s words, “was a lily-white man with a body like a stick and yellow hair straight as a horse’s mane all the way down to his waist. When you looked at him with all that hair and straggly mustache, he looked like a sad-eyed old hound dog hungry for attention.” Famously, Allman taught “Hey Jude” to Wilson Pickett — Pickett sang the title words as “Hey Jew” and Hall had to correct him — and the song became an iconic Allman track, too.
Hall’s vision and his exacting desire to produce the best sound of which each artist was capable led a parade of artists through FAME, including Paul Simon (who also produced Maggie and Terre Roche’s Seductive Reasoning at FAME), Mac Davis, the Osmonds, and Shenandoah. Candi Staton recorded her most recent album, Life Happens, there, and Gregg Allman recorded his last album, Southern Blood, at FAME in 2016.
When Staton recorded Life Happens (2014) at FAME, she reflected on Rick Hall and his part in making the album: “A couple of years ago, I was touring for my album, Who’s Hurting Now?, and Rick Hall showed up at one of the shows. I hadn’t seen him in many years, so after the show I changed as fast I could to go out to see him and give him a hug. He said, “Candi, I think we’ve got another hit record in us.” It took about two years for us make the record, and Rick produced three of the songs on the album: “I Ain’t Easy to Love,” “Commitment,” and “Never Even Had the Chance.” It was so good to work with him again; he’s a perfectionist, but he’s always in the service of the song.”
Today, some other artists shared their memories of Rick Hall and working at FAME.
Bassist and songwriter David Hood, one of the Swampers, FAME’s rhythm section, recalls: “My first impression of Rick was that he was one of the hardest-working people I’d ever met. As a musician he was a hard taskmaster. He pushed me to be better than I was. In the studio, he would push us to get what he wanted. Rick was also very loyal to his home and to his people here. You know, other people got famous and would move to Nashville or Memphis or L.A., but he would not give up on his people here and helped make this place into what it is.”
Singer-songwriter John Paul White says, “Rick Hall was my hero, idol, and friend. No one embodied the heart and soul of this anomaly of an area called the Shoals the way he did. From the day I met him, he treated me with complete respect and generosity. Although I never was a staff writer for Fame, he never hesitated to open his doors at the studio when I needed a place to create. Although he was already revered in the music community, it does my heart good to know that the Muscle Shoals documentary brought to light his trials, tribulations, and successes for the broader public. He put us on the map, and will live on in every record we ever make.”
The Beehive Queen, soul sister, songwriter, and Saturday Night Live band singer Christine Ohlman reflects on Hall: “Rick Hall was a giant of American music, a man who forged an entire style and stayed true to his roots, always. I was proud to participate in a tribute to FAME organized by his son Rodney at the Shoals Theatre during the 2016 Handy Festival, and the deep tracks covered opened my eyes, even as a longtime collector of Muscle Shoals music. The time I spent with Rick was always gracious and pleasant. Candi Staton and I shared the stage, again at the Handy Festival, and Rick, ever dapper, did the introductions. His presence is everywhere in the Shoals. It’s almost unimaginable that he is gone.”
Singer Emily Duff recalls making her most recent record at FAME and it impact on her and her music: “Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet Rick when I recorded at FAME Recording Studios & Publishing Co.. He was laid up with a back injury. I did, however, visit his upstairs office and was moved to tears with every breath I took inside his ‘house.’ What he made there is the foundation of my heart and soul. I will be eternally grateful for all of his hard work, passion, and creativity. To be able to make a record at FAME Recording Studios & Publishing Co. and share that energy with people like John Gifford III, Tyra Newkirk, Spencer Coats was a thrill, an honor and a privilege. Maybe in the Morning was written because of That Sound and Rick Hall.”
Hall’s family also released a statement about their beloved father and grandfather: “His spirit will live on forever through the massive amount of legendary music that he so tirelessly produced. Music was his life and because of him, Fame Studios and Muscle Shoals will always be “shooting for the stars!” We hope the band in Heaven is ready. If not, there’s going to be a problem.”
In late September 2013, Magnolia Pictures released the documentary Muscle Shoals, both a celebration of the studio’s funky, gritty soul sound and a glimpse into the life and times of Rick Hall. While the film was long on conversations with the musicians who recorded their chart-topping albums, or songs, there — from Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, and Percy Sledge to Gregg Allman, Keith Richards, and Alicia Keys — it was shorter on Rick Hall’s life. In 2015 Hall had a chance to tell the rest of the story in his book The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame. (The movie took his life up until 1972, but the book covers the years following the movie.) Hall’s memoir is chock full of stories that will have you laughing one moment and crying the next. Every page of Hall’s story brings a smile, a frown, a tear, a sigh, and the clear, deep voice of a man reminiscing about friends like Dan Penn, Chips Moman, Spooner Oldham, Jerry Reed, Mac Davis, Arthur Alexander, Jerry Carrigan, Norbert Putnam, and the many others who trod through Hall’s studio on their way to lasting friendship with Hall or enduring musical success.
Rick Hall may have left us behind, but he’s surely joined his FAME studio in the sky, joined by Pickett, Sledge, James, Allman, and Alexander. As many of Hall’s artists have said, he knew how to find the soul of a song and connect it to the soul of the singer and the music. It’s the music of the Shoals that endures because of Hall’s oversized and generous soul.
I had the chance in 2015 to talk to Rick Hall about his autobiography in a wide-ranging and delightful conversation.
What prompted you to write this book?
Hall: It started off, Henry, as a diary. Well, this daily diary became humongous and full of information. Ten years later I had a mess. I was never quite happy with all the results; I’d go through the material and find places where I’d say to myself, “I’m not quite satisfied with that,” or, “That’s not the way Rick Hall would say it,” and I changed those places. I spent a couple of three years looking for a publisher, but the ones I talked to wanted to keep movie rights or television rights; I had visions of one day the book becoming a movie, so I didn’t want to give up those rights, and so those conversations didn’t go anywhere. People here in Muscle Shoals told me, “you need to call Sherm Smith, he’s doing a George Jones book”; well, I was always a big fan of George’s, Henry, so Sherm and I met in Nashville one evening, had a long talk over dinner, and we hit it off and decided to work together.
The book’s been out about a month now; how’s it doing?
Hall: We been doing a lot of events; I was in Nashville at the Country Music Hall of Fame a couple of weeks ago, talking about the book, and when I visit bookstores for events, they’re packed. We’ve averaged selling over 100 books at those events.
How did you come up with the book’s subtitle, “my journey from shame to fame”?
Hall: My wife came up with the idea. It refers to the hard times I came up with. My father was a sawmiller; he made 35 cents an hour, which was 10 cents more than anybody else did, because he was so good at what he did and a hard worker. My mother left my father when I was five and my sister was four, and she went to live with my aunt and became a matron in a brothel. My father wound up raising my sister and me. That was all shameful to me. We had no shoes to wear to school, and my father cut my hair, which meant he pulled out chunks of it with rough scissors. I carried that shame throughout my life; it turned me into a rascal of sorts, and I became very hardened and determined. My determination made me a tough businessman and I was very hard to say no to. All of this helped me become a great record producer. I’m the guy who started the Muscle Shoals music industry; everybody in Muscle Shoals is a spinoff of Rick Hall. This is the oldest recording studio in the world owned by the same people. So, that’s the fame part of the journey.
What are your father’s most memorable traits?
Hall: Dad was first and foremost a country gospel singer. He loved country music and old fashion Southern gospel music. It was nothing for him to walk 10 miles to lead one song he had just learned from the new Stamps-Baxter songbook he’d just got. He would sit up all night to learn a new song—“fa-so-la”-ing a song from his new songbook. He was a big Jimmie Rodgers fan; he could relate to Jimmie Rodgers since they were both from Mississippi. Dad would wear us out dragging us out from one camp meeting to another. Sister was the lead singer, and I was a harmony singer, and I used to hate it when he would ask us to get up and sing in front of the meeting. He would promise us a stick of gum if we would sing, but I didn’t always want it and would refuse. When he told me I’d better or sing or he’d give me a whipping with his belt, that usually persuaded me. (Laughs)
What are your mother’s most memorable traits?
Hall: My mother tried very hard. I think about her often, and I have to have a little cry sometimes thinking about her. Me and my sister hated our stepmother — who was much younger than our father and who had babies every year, it seems like, for about six years — because she took our father away from us.
What was the lowest moment in your music career?
Hall: The lowest moment was when my two original partners in FAME, Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford, fired me. They called me in one day and said we’re going to have to let you go because you’re too dramatic and too much of a workaholic. I couldn’t believe it, and it hurt me. Before that, my first wife, Faye Marie, was killed in a car wreck; I was driving the car that night when we had the wreck. Then, my dad died when the tractor he was riding fell over on top of him. I stayed drunk for about three months; I’d sit over their graves after a gig and cry.
Did you ever think about killing yourself?
Hall: No, Henry, I never did; it never crossed my mind. That’s just something that back then we just never thought about, especially in the country, in the South. Instead, I said I’m gonna get even. I’m going to overcome country music and everything.
What were your highest moments?
Hall: I’ve had so many great moments in my music life; it’s hard to pick just one. I’ve changed the industry. I had an industry and a sound named after me—the Muscle Shoals Sound; I received a lifetime Grammy Award for my work. I’ve had thousands of hits cut in this studio. Aretha cut her first #1 record there, and so did Mac Davis, Clarence Carter, and the Osmonds. I cut over 100 gold or platinum records there. It’s hard to fathom that this boy from Freedom Hills became the #1 record producer in the world. I used to be conceited, Henry, but now I’m perfect. (Laughs)
What’s your favorite mistake, or is there a decision you’ve made that turned out for the best even though you couldn’t have known it at the time?
Hall: I was saved when I was 12 or 13 in Liberty Hills, Alabama. Even though I was going to church, I’m not sure I knew what that decision meant to me since I didn’t feel a whole lot different after I made it. When my first wife and my father died, I thought God had given up on me, so I started to drink a lot and wasn’t involved in church. About a year ago, I was re-baptized and found the real God, and I love the Lord and owe it all to Him.
What are the elements of a great song?
Hall: I was always a big melody man. If I didn’t have the song, I didn’t want to cut the artist. Lyric is the strongest thing you can have in a song. But a song won’t work unless the melody is one the artist can carry in his back pocket. Jerry Wexler once told me that if you can’t figure out the A-side right away, you’ll never have hit records.
You’ve been called a “redneck white boy in Muscle Shoals cutting all these hit records by black artists.” What for you is the relationship between country and soul?
Hall: I think they’re the same in the sense that many country and soul artists come from hard time, tough times, and they’ve had a rough life. Both country and soul songs often dealt with growing up dirt poor, trying to make life better, hopeless love. But, Etta James, Aretha, Clarence Carter were all raised up listening to a lot of country music; race music, as it was called back then, was harder to find on the radio, so country music was all they heard and could relate to. At one time, I was a born-again country music musician, so I took the first record I cut, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” to Nashville and shopped it to radio stations. They all told me the song was too white for the blacks and too black for whites. Lyrically, the songs I was cutting were close to country music, and melodically they were more akin to a soul song like Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” It’s ironic that both Stax and FAME studios were founded and run by two country fiddle players. In my case, I would teach the horn players the fiddle licks that I would play in country music, and they’d lay them down in the soul songs we were cutting in the studio.
What will readers be surprised to learn about Rick Hall?
Hall: I think they’ll be surprised that Rick Hall is from meager beginnings, and that I was a sharecropping farmer who was able through hard work and attention to detail to be able to do this.
What message would you like readers to take away from your book?
Hall: If you’re gonna make it in the music business, you have to be the best in the world. You have to say, “I want to be #1 and nothing else will do for me.” If I’m willing to work 80 hours a week, and you’re willing to work only 40 hours a week at this business, I’m going to eat your lunch every time. You have to be willing to work hard.
What’s next for you?
Hall: I want this to be a #1 book, so I’m working a lot on that right now. I still go into the studio from 9-6 every day. I’m having the time of my life because I’m a Christian and I’m going to heaven. I’ve never been happier.