Rick Hall, Music Producer Known for Muscle Shoals Sound, Dies at 85
Posted January 3, 2018 4:30 p.m. EST
Rick Hall, the producer who forged the Southern soul style known as the Muscle Shoals sound, died on Tuesday at his home in Florence, Alabama. He was 85.
The cause was prostate cancer, said his wife, Linda Kay Hall.
Hall turned small-town Alabama into a crucible of soul, country, pop and rock after he founded FAME Studios in 1959 in Florence. FAME stands for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, although in 1961 the studio moved to nearby Muscle Shoals, where it remains. Hall also started FAME Publishing, which would amass a substantial catalog of hits, and FAME Records.
Hall’s versatile output drew on Southern roots — country, blues, R&B, gospel — and on his instincts for concisely emotive storytelling, lean arrangements and solid grooves. He was a proud taskmaster in the studio.
“For every hit I have ever produced, I have given three pints of blood and one pint of sweat,” Hall wrote in his 2015 memoir, “The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame to Fame.”
In the segregated Alabama of the 1960s, black and white performers collaborated at FAME, as they did at another fortress of Southern soul, Stax in Memphis.
“It was a dangerous time, but the studio was a safe haven where blacks and whites could work together in musical harmony,” Hall wrote.
Hall was a producer, co-producer, engineer or songwriter for major hits by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Etta James, the Osmonds, Mac Davis, Paul Anka and Shenandoah, among many others. His preferred recording method was to gather trusted musicians and seize the best ideas from studio jams. “We cut them from the heart, not from the charts,” he told The New York Times in 2015.
Rick Hall was born Roe Erister Hall on Jan. 31, 1932, in Forest Grove, Mississippi. He grew up in rural poverty in northern Alabama, raised by his father, a sawmill worker and sharecropper. He was 6 when his father gave him a mandolin, and he would go on to learn fiddle, guitar and bass.
By the mid-1950s, he was in a band, the Country Pals, with a daily radio show on WERH in Hamilton, Alabama. Billy Sherrill, who was in another local band, began writing songs with him; Sherrill would become one of country music’s most important producers.
In 1959, Hall, Sherrill and a third partner, Tom Stafford, started FAME as a demo-recording studio and music publisher. Hall and Sherrill also formed a rock ‘n’ roll band, the Fairlanes, that added Dan Penn as lead singer; he would become a Southern soul mainstay as a songwriter and producer.
The initial FAME partnership fractured, and Hall restarted FAME Studios across the Tennessee River in Muscle Shoals. He wrote songs that were recorded by country singers including Roy Orbison, Brenda Lee and George Jones. But he saw more opportunity in rhythm and blues.
In 1961, he produced a hit: the soul singer Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” which would later be recorded by the Rolling Stones. That song financed the studio where FAME is still located, built in 1962 at 603 East Avalon Ave. in Muscle Shoals. Another soul hit in 1964, Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away,” established FAME as a record label.
The producer Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records brought Wilson Pickett to FAME for sessions that yielded five singles: “Land of a Thousand Dances,” “Mustang Sally,” “Funky Broadway,” “Hey Jude” and “Hey Joe.” The idea of recording “Hey Jude” came from the studio’s lead guitarist: Duane Allman.
Wexler returned to the studios with Aretha Franklin, who recorded two career-defining songs there in a day: “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”
But that day ended in a fistfight between Hall and Franklin’s husband and manager at the time, Ted White. Franklin never returned to FAME Studios; Muscle Shoals musicians, without Hall, recorded “Respect” with her in New York City. Still, FAME’s soul hits continued, among them Etta James’ “Tell Mama” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” and Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away” and “Patches.”
A studio band Hall had assembled at FAME — Barry Beckett on keyboards, Jimmy Johnson on guitar, David Hood on bass and Roger Hawkins on drums — became recognized as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, also known as the Swampers. In 1969, in partnership with Wexler, they founded the rival Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, and went on to record with the Staple Singers, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Traffic, Bob Dylan and many others. They eventually reconciled with Hall.
Hall gathered other musicians and continued to make hits. The Osmonds had a No. 1 pop single with “One Bad Apple,” produced by Hall in 1970. Hall was nominated for a Grammy Award for producer of the year in 1970, and Billboard magazine named him producer of the year in 1971.
Hall largely turned toward country and pop with hits including Bobbie Gentry’s 1970 “Fancy,” Mac Davis’ “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me” and Paul Anka’s 1974 duet with Odia Coates, “(You’re) Having My Baby.” He co-produced Shenandoah, which had been a bar band in Muscle Shoals, as it became a country hitmaker in the late 1980s.
The Muscle Shoals sound got renewed attention with a 2013 documentary, “Muscle Shoals,” and in 2014, Hall received the Grammy Trustees Award, a lifetime achievement award. Through the decades, FAME Studios has remained active. Gregg Allman worked there on “Southern Blood,” his final album, in 2016.
In addition to his wife, Hall is survived by his sons Rick Jr., Mark and Rodney Hall; his brothers Larry and Jerry Hall; his sister, Betty Bedford, and five grandchildren.