“The name Muscle Shoals had developed some sort of mystique and mysterious drawing power to music industry people in the way Liverpool had during the Beatles era…I believe the power of Muscle Shoals is in the do-or-die attitude that made this little town such an important player in the music scene…We all understood the urgency of the moment and had that now-or-never need to succeed. I wanted so badly for all of us in Muscle Shoals to wake up one day and be much better than we ever thought we could possibly be.”
-Rick Hall The Man From Muscle Shoals; My Journey From Shame to Fame
Rick Hall started FAME Studios in 1959 in an isolated corner of northwest Alabama and produced some of the biggest hits in music during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. Records produced at FAME have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide. Failure was not an option and Hall worked twice as hard anyone else to be the best producer in the world and to do it in Muscle Shoals. “My philosophy was if you work eight hours a day and I work 16 hours a day, I will eat your lunch and put you out of business, whether it is making records or playing basketball,” he said in a phone interview.
Hall inherited that drive from his father, a poor sharecropper who never made more than 50 cents an hour when he worked in a sawmill. In Hall’s new book, The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to FAME, Hall says he has “never seen someone work so hard, care so much, and accomplish so little as my dad.”
“My dad was what kept me going,” Hall says. “Everything in the book is about my dad. He taught me what I know about staying power and never giving up. He said, ‘If a job is once begun, never leave it until it is done.’ He lived those standards and taught me to live by them. I knew early in life I wanted to be a songwriter, a record producer, and own a recording studio and publishing companies. My dad taught me how to work hard to make it happen.”
Music began as an escape out of poverty in Franklin County, Alabama and a way to get the attention of girls. Hall played mandolin, fiddle, and guitar in high school in a country band called The Country Pals and later played in the The Fairlanes. He had no formal music education and couldn’t read a note of music, but he learned about people, business, salesmanship, and how to write a song. He paid attention when The Fairlanes played by songs by black musicians that excited the audience.
With money made from writing hit songs for Roy Orbison (“Sweet and Innocent”), Brenda Lee (“She’ll Never Know”), and George Jones (“Aching Breaking Heart”), Hall invested in building a new cinder block studio for FAME and signed over his ‘56 Mercury as collateral for the bank loan. He left country music for pop, rock, rhythm and blues because he wanted to sell millions of albums. His first recording session in FAME studio was in 1963, with Jimmy Hughes and the song “Steal Away.”
“I was apprehensive the night before we recorded because I didn’t know if the studio had the magic, if it was real or if I had invested all of my money in a dud,” Hall says. “My voice cracked when I said ‘rolling’ for the first time. I realized during the song that we had it, and I wept. That is where the ‘Muscle Shoals sound’ was born.”
From an early age, Hall survived the desertion of his mother and his parents’ divorce, poverty, a broken back, and the death of his first wife and his father (within weeks of each other). Rejection and heartache helped him understand the record-buying public and also understand the tears, sorrows, hard times, and desperation of rhythm and blues music because he had been through it too. In recording sessions at FAME, Hall and his white horn and rhythm sections created the heartfelt, from-the-gut soul music that made Aretha Franklin a star, “When A Man Loves A Woman” a worldwide hit for Percy Sledge, and brought bands including The Rolling Stones and Traffic to record in Muscle Shoals.
FAME was known for horns that added funk and feeling to a song. But the horn lines that blast open Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and pump through “I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers began as fiddle lines in the Country Pals band. “I would use some of the lines from a song like ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ and turn them into horn lines,” he says. “It was backup fiddle playing. We knew not to play fiddle on top of the singer or you’d wipe out the lyrics. Fill between the lines and play what fits the melody. If it’s a sad song, don’t play boogie lines.”
Hall was one of the first independent record producers, taking the risk of production and hoping a record label would put the record out. He had the freedom to record his own way with musicians who could improvise and play off one another with their best licks. The musicians became the arrangers as the song was played.
“We didn’t use charts in recording sessions because if you are reading music you are copying someone else’s line,” he says. “Musicians were required to improvise with a new method called the number system. Each musician had to come up with a new lick that impressed me and was pleasing to the ear of the listener. That was hard to do, and I usually shot it down and asked for what else he had. I did a lot of studying before a session and knew the direction of the song and what the groove should be.
“Everything starts with a hit song. Not the singer, the band, or the producer, but the song,” Hall says. “I became a producer by producing demos and I spent so much time listening to songs that I learned to trust my instincts because I knew which songs would be hits. I wanted them to be original.”
The Man From Muscle Shoals tells the stories of recording hit records for The Osmonds, Paul Anka, Mac Davis, Bobbie Gentry, Otis Redding, Clarence Carter, Etta James, and Jerry Reid. There is a chapter about the stress and success behind recording Aretha’s first big song, “I Never Loved a Man The Way I Loved You” and Hall’s drunken fight with Aretha’s husband at the Downtowner Hotel in Florence that led to her leaving town the next day. The fight destroyed Hall’s relationship with the powerful Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records.
Another chapter tells of Duane Allman’s attempt to be a studio musician at FAME with a bottleneck slide guitar that Hall thought was “garbage and behind the times.” However, Allman convinced Hall that Wilson Pickett should record “Hey Jude” as it was climbing the charts for the Beatles. Pickett’s version was also a hit and Allman’s guitar playing on the song was the birth of Southern rock. Hall couldn’t figure out what to do with Allman and sold Allman’s recording contract to Atlantic Records for $10,000. He admits that The Allman Brothers later proved he was “painfully wrong.”
Hall is 83, and his book also tells of the early days of walking ten miles barefoot on gravel roads, becoming a stiltwalker, moving over and over with his father to find better land to farm, and kidnap attempts from his estranged mother’s family. Tearing out a commode in an attempt to escape from a jail cell, broken friendships and record deals, selling moonshine, drinking himself away during depression, and building a dreamhouse that almost bankrupted him. Music saved Hall and brought him back every time.
Included in the book is the documentary Muscle Shoals that was released in 2013, and revived interest in Muscle Shoals and music recorded in the area. After the documentary, Hall won the trustees Grammy for lifetime achievement.
“You can do anything if you believe in yourself,” Hall says. “Don’t give me the crap, ‘I do believe, but just not that much.’ That’s never going to make it. It’s called persistence and I am still fanatical about perfection, but it is still not good enough. I have never been happy with a record I’ve produced or the engineering I’ve done.
“I said I was going to be the best in the world and in 1971, Billboard magazine voted me the Number One Record Producer in the world. I have gotten better since.”