The producer who crafted the Muscle Shoals sound
In the 1960s, the small town of Muscle Shoals in northern Alabama became the unlikely heart of a musical revolution. At FAME Studios, black singers and mostly white instrumentalists collaborated in defiance of segregationist mores, creating the mix of R&B, country, and gospel that came to be known as the Muscle Shoals sound. The studio was owned by Rick Hall, an exacting hands-on music producer who oversaw a string of classic soul recordings at FAME, including Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” (1966), Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” (1967), and Etta James’ “Tell Mama” (1968). Many Northern black performers were reluctant to record in a small Southern town, and so Hall—who was white—integrated local restaurants by dining with the artists. “It was dangerous,” he said, “but it was that or nothing.”
Born in Forest Grove, Miss., Hall endured a difficult childhood, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). He grew up in “a shack with dirt floors” and was 4 years old when his mother left his father, a sawmiller, to work in a bordello. Hall learned to play the mandolin, fiddle, and guitar as a child, and determined to “be somebody” in the music business, he began playing in country bands. In 1959, he co-founded FAME in Florence, Ala., as a demo-recording studio and music publisher, said The New York Times. But after falling out with his two partners, he restarted the business “across the Tennessee River in Muscle Shoals.” Hall initially wrote and produced songs for country acts, but his breakthrough came in 1961, when he produced Arthur Alexander’s country-soul hit “You Better Move On,” later covered by the Rolling Stones. Major labels were soon sending their artists to FAME.
After his studio band, the Swampers, quit to open the rival Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1969, Hall turned his attention to pop music, said The Washington Post. He produced a No. 1 hit, “One Bad Apple,” for the Osmonds in 1970 and in the 1980s made a local bar band, Shenandoah, into a regular presence on the country charts. “With no small amount of hubris,” Hall often claimed that his musical guidance was key to the success of the acts he produced. “Musicians are like basketball players,” he said. “They need a manager to tell them when to drop a play.”