With her long blonde hair, legs built for tights and heels, and a voice that can fill a room with gospel and blues, Donna Hall is music royalty in Mobile, Alabama. Her family’s band, Wet Willie, started in the Port City and was recently inducted into the Alabama and Georgia Music Halls of Fame. She has sung on albums from Grand Funk Railroad to Kitty Wells and has been through the highs of touring and the lows of depression and self-destruction.
Today she is still singing with Wet Willie and jumps in as a special guest with local musicians at Callaghan’s and Veet’s, or with the bands of her husband, Stan Foster. But her day job is helping people to see, and her passion is caring for her family. As much as music means to her, the people she loves mean even more. For the Halls, music and family have always flowed together.
“Music is a big part of who I am. It’s like breathing and I don’t think I could live without it,” Hall says. “My accolades come from being associated with a talented bunch of guys in a band, but family overshadows anything I have ever done.”
Hall’s first music memories are singing with her brothers and sisters as their mother, Nanny, played piano in the corner of the living room. Today, a song book of Hall Family Gospel Favorites sits on the piano beneath a picture of a young Nanny — born Mattie LaVera Richardson before she married Jack Hall and had six kids.
“Music is in our veins and that came straight from Nanny,” Hall says. “We started out singing hymns and practicing the barbershop quartet harmonies of the Chuck Wagon Gang and the sibling harmonies came naturally. We still get together around that piano and the years drop away.”
They moved beyond the streetside harmonies and Donna developed her style from listening to Bonnie Bramblett. “Bonnie Bramblett is the queen of the world to me,” Hall says. “She is a dear friend and a trailblazer with her big, powerful vibrato. Growing up, I wanted to be her and went overboard with the vibrato. I learned to take from that soulful, gospel rhythm-and-blues and be myself.”
Her brothers, Jimmy and Jack, started a garage band that became Wet Willie, one of the biggest Southern bands of the 70’s, and Donna’s soulful voice backed them up.
“Donna and I have been very close since we were kids,” says her brother Jimmy, lead singer of Wet Willie. “It was exciting when Donna joined us in the studio and watching her vocal talents come out on songs like ‘Keep on Smiling’ and ‘Soul Sister’ and the duets she has done on albums with me.”
“It was a glimpse into the singer she was going to be.”
“Ella Avery and I were The Willettes, the first girls in a Southern rock band and we wore the short shorts,” she says. “I just offered harmonies and made it a little different, but thank goodness for the ride. It was great to be a woman in music at that time. I wouldn’t trade it for the college education I didn’t get.”
Hall says those years were magical and thought they might last forever. The band lived together in a yellow, two-story Victorian house on Georgia Avenue in Macon, Georgia, and the Allman Brothers lived down the street. Hall shared a room with her brother Jack and drummer Lewis Ross. There were no cell phones or computers, but there was a pay phone in the living room. Barely out of their teens, they had no chores and the house was always a mess.
The touring and band years ended for Hall when she met Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad and moved to his farm in Michigan. “Living on the farm, I learned how to skin a deer, ride a horse and use a chainsaw with a .38 on my hip,” she says. “I was a pretty good shot.”
“Grand Funk Railroad was huge and people were weird and stalked Mark. He was a survivalist on his 1,500 acres and we had guard dogs and guns everywhere. That was the opposite of me, but I was in my 20s and in love. We were on the road and the world was our oyster.”
They were happy together until he fell in love with someone much younger. Hall moved home heartbroken and soon found out she was pregnant with Adam, the child she and Mark had been trying to conceive.
Hall met Walter Anderson shortly after she moved to Mobile. He was good to her and accepted her situation. They married in 1978 and had two children, April and Alan. They were together for 18 years until marital problems and depression set in.
Hall wrote “Status Quo,” the first and only song she’s written, when she was going through the divorce. “This status quo has really got to go. I need a change of scene before I start to scream. This rut I’m in, it has no end. I need to be revived, I feel buried alive. Maybe it’s just a passing thing that makes me want to lose this wedding ring.”
“Status Quo” was a snapshot of her life and took only 30 minutes to write. “Songwriting is too transparent. That is why I don’t do it,” she says. The song is on her CD, It’s Never Too Late, recorded in 2005.
Depression and midlife changes were difficult for her. “I was not a nice person and didn’t like myself. I started to drink because I didn’t want to feel bad,” she says. “I didn’t realize I was self-medicating, I just wanted to take the pain away. I was hard-hearted and it was debilitating and hard to survive. I went through self-confidence group therapy for women and now I try to mentor women going through midlife changes.”
After the divorce, Hall wasn’t herself and admits her family and kids weren’t the priority they should have been. “Thank God their dad was stronger than me and got them through it. There was a time I was alienated and thought I would never become a close part of their lives again.”
There was also a child she never knew. Hall got pregnant when she was 17 and her family sent her from Mobile to Macon, Georgia to have the baby and put it up for adoption.
“Back then, adoption is what some young unwed women did. I was young and didn’t love the father,” she says. For many years, Hall feared her unknown daughter resented her. How could a child understand why a mother gave her away? Years later, Hall posted on several websites looking for her daughter and they found each other in 2001. She opened a letter and there was a picture that looked like herself in her 20s with a note that said, “Hey Donna, my name is Laura and I believe that you are my mom.”
“Laura came to meet all of us for the first time and felt like she was home,” Hall says. “I had nothing to do with her upbringing, but we are alike in many ways. Of my four kids, she is the one who looks most like me. It was an act of love that I put her up for adoption, but I am so glad to have her back. I had wondered about her every day of her life.”
Those dark times are the distant past, but they made Hall a better mother and she doesn’t let that go. “My kids, Laura, Adam, April and Alan, are adults now and I want to be with them as much as possible. I don’t take that for granted. I still try every day to make it up to them and they tell me every day that it is OK.”
Hall is now married to Foster, bass player and vocalist for Rollin’ in the Hay and The Marlow Boys. They met when Hall was hired to sing on Rollin’ in the Hay’s live CD. Advice about dating and getting over broken hearts led to a lunch date and a five-year, long-distance relationship between Mobile and Birmingham until she persuaded him to move to Mobile to be closer to her family. Their time away from work is now spent with their five grandkids. “Stan never had kids of his own, but he joined our family and made the kids and grandkids his. It takes a special man to love a family like that.”
During the day she works as an ophthalmic tech in Mobile fitting specialty contacts for patients who have had an injury or an irregular cornea surface. After she put hard contacts on a young patient with corneal dystrophy and he read the 20/20 line, he said, “Mrs. Donna, you have given me life.”
“He can now see leaves on trees and drive,” she says. “I get to help people see again, to go to work and live normally. Think of all of the things that you would miss in life if you couldn’t see. I love my job and it is touching people in a different way than music.”
She also stays with her mother several nights a week, adjusting her chair, telling stories and filling in forgotten details or pretending to be interested in the Braves’ baseball games Nanny likes to watch.
“This is a transitory time in my life,” Hall says. “From music and family to our reputations as good people with honorable intentions, none of that would have happened without Mama. She set high standards and selflessly sacrificed her time and life for us and now we are all slowing down and doing our part caring for her. I am thankful for this time with her.”
As much as Hall loves her family, caring for multiple generations is overwhelming. Her garden, filled with caladiums and ornamental foliage, is her therapy and the place she recharges. It is also her connection with her late father, Jack. The green fronds and elephant ears are from his yard and when they come up, she thinks about his hands that tended the plants now growing in her sanctuary.
Singing is also where she lets off steam. “Singing is a time warp and I am a different person when I sing,” she says. “I am 64, but there is no age limit to music. It is time to grow and reinvent myself, and singing with the new generation of local musicians like Kristy Lee, Chris Spies and Shawna P inspires me.
“Sometimes my emotions take over and I get lost in the story of the song or the emotion it evokes. It is almost like a trance.”
Hall feels invincible when she is singing but also feels the bright light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer and there will be things she won’t see her grandkids do. “One day there will be a world without me in it,” she says. “That scares me and I would like to be in denial about death, but I can own up to my miles.”
“Right now, I am happy to be healthy and alive and spending as much time as I can with my greatest achievements. I am who I want to be.”30