Talking with Rick Hall: “The Man from Muscle Shoals”
In late September 2013, Magnolia Pictures released the documentary Muscle Shoals, which was both a celebration of that recording studio’s funky, gritty soul sound and a glimpse into the life and times of its founder, Rick Hall. While the film was long on conversations with the musicians who recorded their chart-topping albums and songs there – Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Keith Richards, Alicia Keys – it was shorter on Hall in particular.
A born storyteller, Hall now gets his chance in the studio, so to speak, as he invites us to come sit on his front porch, have a glass of tea – he doesn’t drink alcohol anymore – sit back, and listen to his mesmerizing tales of triumph and tragedy, love and loss, shame and fame in his new memoir, The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame (Heritage Builders Publishing).
“You know,” he says, “the movie Muscle Shoals ends in 1972, and that’s the year I became music publisher of the world. With this book you get, as Paul Harvey used to say, ‘the rest of the story.’”
Hall takes us to the fields and forests of Freedom Hills, Alabama – so-called because it was where moonshiners, escaped convicts, and other scoundrels running from their families or the law went. There, he endured the hardships of living the dirt-poor life of a sawmiller and sharecropper’s son. He also takes us to the deaths of his first wife and his father, and his rise to fame as the man who built Muscle Shoals, the man whom everyone wanted behind the panel on their recordings.
Hall’s memoir is chock full of stories that will have you laughing one moment and crying the next. He learned an early lesson from his father: to not let anyone screw you. He also took to heart the deep value of hard work – he’d be a “Type A workaholic” if that term were invented back in his early days – and he reveals candidly that he left a band he was playing with, The Fairlanes, “to concentrate on becoming the best record producer, studio owner, engineer, and songwriter I could possibly be,” he writes. “I was working in the studio fourteen to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. I would sometimes barricade myself inside and hibernate for two or three days without coming home. … I was determined to make the most of the little success I was experiencing. … Those were some of my most proficient days as a record producer and songwriter, but they were also the toughest days of my life, especially on my wife and kids.”
Some of the best parts of the book are Hall’s stories about the musicians he’s worked with over the years. “Tommy Roe was a nice, congenial guy with an eye for the ladies and ladykiller looks to match,” he writes. Also, “Etta [James] was a real hell-raiser, but I cut right through all that B.S. because I knew who she was and where she was coming from.”
Later, “Aretha Franklin was one of the most phenomenal recording artists I have ever met, and in a short twenty-four hour period in my FAME Recording Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, she was to change my musical life forever.”
“Duane [Allman] 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. He’d say, ‘Rick, I want to be just like you when I grow up, I’m gonna burn some ass some day!’” Whenever Allman suggested that they do a song and Hall would object, Allman slipped his arm around Hall’s neck and said, “Rick, this is tomorrow, son.”
Every page of Hall’s story brings the 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 him or enduring musical success.
Hall called from his office in Muscle Shoals recently for a wide-ranging conversation about his new book and his life.
Henry Carrigan: What prompted you to write this book?
Rick 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 or 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?
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”?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.