Rick Hall at FAME Studios Roe Erister “Rick” Hall (1932-2018) is widely regarded as a principal figure in the formation of the music recording scene in Muscle Shoals, Colbert County. He co-founded Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME) in 1959; then, acquiring the business in 1960, Hall established FAME Recording Studio on Wilson Dam Road, moving the FAME operations to its current location on Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals. As an independent record producer, Hall launched and shaped the careers of numerous influential recording artists and musicians, many of them African American, thus initiating integrated music-making in the Shoals area. Hall was thus at the forefront of an emerging musical synthesis termed “southern soul,” a recognizably regional musical “sound” that gained widespread popularity in the 1960s. In the ensuing two decades, he became universally known as an industry leader in the fields of pop and country music. He was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1985.
Hall was born on January 31, 1932, to Herman and Dollie Daily Hall in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, and was raised in the Freedom Hills area of Franklin County, Alabama. He had a brother and a sister. Hall’s life was touched by a series of tragedies early on, beginning with the death of his brother and the unhappy separation of his parents. His modest circumstances reveal the complex conditions of poverty in Alabama that resulted in a persistent underclass of “poor whites.” The poverty that shaped Hall’s later ambitions explains the subtitle of his memoir: My Journey from Shame to Fame (2015). During the Great Depression, the economic privation that Hall endured was endemic to the region around Russellville, Franklin County, where his father, Herman, eked out a living as a farmer, logger, and sharecropper. Indeed, the Depression and an overall lack of infrastructure in the state produced dire living conditions for many citizens throughout the state. Many U.S. citizens of this era leaned toward populism, a perspective that ultimately resulted in progressive change in Alabama and other impoverished states. The advent of New Deal programs, construction of the Wilson Dam at Muscle Shoals and resulting electrification, and the post-World War II boom created the environment in which opportunities for a fledgling music industry could flourish.
In the mid-1940s, Hall followed his father north to Cleveland, Ohio, a city that offered cultural opportunities that Freedom Hills lacked. There, he attended symphonic concerts and, importantly, was exposed to Black urban culture. Returning to north Alabama, Hall attended school in Gravel Hill, Franklin County, and became involved in several musical activities, from shape-note singing to string-band fiddling. He left high school in his late teens and lived for a short period in Rockford, Illinois, then worked in an auto parts plant in Battle Creek, Michigan, and later in a factory in Chicago, where he bought a Gibson guitar. Back in Alabama in the early 1950s, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He expected to be stationed in Korea but was injured in a car accident and spent a year in the Army hospital at Fort McClellan, Calhoun County. Upon his recovery, he was stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, assigned to the Third Army Honor Guard, and joined a Western swing band as a fiddle player.
Upon his discharge from his Army service, Hall returned to Phil Campbell, Franklin County. (He remained in the U.S. Army Reserve as a corporal in the Medical Corps through 1960.) In the early 1950s, Hall joined the Country Pals, whose repertoire included gospel and bluegrass tunes. He married Faye Marie Stegal in June 1955 in Iuka, Mississippi; she was killed in a car accident in March 1956 and two weeks later his father was killed in a tractor accident.
FAME Studios, Muscle Shoals Hall, who had been working at the Reynolds Aluminum plant in Muscle Shoals since 1955, continued playing with the Country Pals for their live radio broadcasts on WERH in Hamilton, Marion County. Hall met future Nashville record producer Billy Sherrill of Phil Campbell in 1957. At the time, Sherrill was playing saxophone with Bennie Cagle and the Rhythm Swingsters, a band that performed in the area around Fayette, Fayette County. Hall gravitated to the Muscle Shoals area from Russellville, forming the Fairlanes with Sherrill, and took up electric bass. Hall and Sherrill penned the hit “Sweet and Innocent” in 1958, first recorded in the Shoals by Bobby Denton and then by Roy Orbison the same year in Nashville. With a chart hit in hand, Hall and Sherrill joined Florence music entrepreneur Tom Stafford and set up a small demo studio in the second-floor area above City Drug Store, where the three music entrepreneurs in 1959 formed FAME. Here the upcoming generation of Muscle Shoals musicians initially gathered, among them Arthur Alexander, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, and Donnie Fritts. Many of these young musicians played with a local bandleader Hollis Dixon and the Keynotes. Hall married Linda Kay (Cross) Hall in 1961; the couple would have three sons.
Hall parted ways with Stafford and Sherrill, who subsequently had an illustrious career producing Tammy Wynette, George Jones, and Charlie Rich, and became famous developing Nashville’s “countrypolitan” sound, a blending of orchestral instruments and traditional country style. Hall then struck out on his own, building a recording empire that would bring international recognition to the Shoals. He produced Arthur Alexander’s break-out hit “You Better Move On” in 1961 at his Wilson Dam Road studio. Upon the success of that recording, in 1962, Hall moved his studio to its current location on Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals. He hired assistant guitarist Jimmy Johnson, whose band, the Del-Rays, played throughout the region for fraternity dances and recorded at FAME. Next, in 1963, Hall produced Jimmy Hughes’ hit “Steal Away,” promoted it to Black radio stations throughout the South and formed the FAME Records label to release it.
Among the many recording artists Hall produced at FAME were Arthur Alexander, Jimmy Hughes, The Tams, Joe South, Joe Simon, Joe Tex, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, Otis Redding, and Etta James. Hall also established a music publishing arm at FAME consisting of publishing companies House of Fame, Fame Publishing, and Rick Hall Music and signed numerous songwriters, including Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Quin Ivy, Mickey Buckins, Marlin Greene, and George Jackson. Hall released records through the FAME Records label and signed distribution agreements with a network of music agencies throughout the region. This effort resulted in significant relationships with various music industry leaders, most importantly Atlantic Records’ producer Jerry Wexler.
Wilson Pickett and Jerry Wexler Hall’s association with Wexler was especially significant in Atlantic’s release of Percy Sledge’s hit “When a Man Loves a Woman” in 1966, the first number 1 (Billboard Hot 100 and R&B) single recorded in the Shoals. Atlantic Records’ artists Arthur Conley, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett would then record at FAME through the 1960s. The capstone session marking the waning of Atlantic’s relationship with FAME was Wilson Pickett’s cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” featuring a noted guitar solo by Duane Allman. In 1968, Hall signed Hanceville, Cullman County, native Candi Staton, dubbed “the first lady of southern soul,” who recorded 16 chart hits while with FAME and notably covered the Tammy Wynette anthem “Stand by Your Man” in 1970.
After the departure of FAME’s second rhythm section, the members of which set up Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (MSRS) in April 1969, Hall turned to pop artists, recording Clarence Carter’s 1970 cover of “Patches” with his newly installed rhythm section known as the FAME Gang; it became a “crossover” hit (number 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100). “Crossover” is a term often used to describe a hit or artist that demonstrates popularity in a genre outside the traditional genre, such as a song or artist that gains a following in both rhythm and blues (R&B) and country. In the early 1970s, for instance, many white R&B musicians found crossover success in Nashville’s country music scene. Tracing that trend, in this case capitalizing on the mass appeal of “pop” music, Hall produced the Osmonds’ “One Bad Apple,” a number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 1971. That same year, Hall’s career was internationally recognized when Billboard named him Producer of the Year.
Hall turned to other crossover artists with country music backgrounds in the 1970s. He produced Bobby Gentry’s 1969 crossover hit “Fancy,” The Osmonds’ “Double Lovin,” penned by FAME staff writers Mickey Buckins and George Jackson in 1971, and Mac Davis’s hit “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” which hit number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1972. Hall continued the pattern of producing R&B-pop-to-country crossover hits by artists such as Tom Jones, Wayne Newton, and Paul Anka. Late in the 1975-76 timeframe, Hall took a two-year hiatus to supervise a home-building project during which producer and recording engineer Don Daily was on hand for recording sessions.
Upon his return to record production, Hall, ever sensitive to changing audience tastes, took advantage of the widening popularity of country music nationally. The song “There’s No Getting Over Me” was published by FAME (Rick Hall Music Publishing) and co-written by FAME staff songwriters Tommy Brasfield and Walt Aldridge. It was initially recorded at FAME as a demo under Robert Byrne and Hall’s direction but became a 1981 hit for crossover artist Ronnie Milsap, who rerecorded and produced it, along with Tom Collins, in Nashville for RCA Records. Later, Hall produced “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)” and “The Bird” with guitarist, actor, and singer Jerry Reed at FAME in 1982. These two records earned Hall two decidedly country hits, number 1 and 2 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs, respectively. Hall also produced T. G. Sheppard’s “Strong Heart,” which hit number 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in 1986 and appeared on the FAME-produced album It Still Rains in Memphis.
In 1984, local country group Shenandoah was the house band at the MGM club in Muscle Shoals, then named the MGM Band. Songwriter Robert Byrne, on staff at FAME, had penned songs for Shenandoah and he and Hall co-produced Shenandoah’s self-titled debut album (1987) and The Road Not Taken LP (number 6 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart) recorded in 1989. The album was certified Gold (500,000 in sales) by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and included songs by FAME songwriters Byrne, Mac McAnally, and Walt Aldridge. Byrne and McAnally’s contribution to The Road Not Taken, the single “Two Dozen Roses,” hit number 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs. Hall produced Billy Joe Royal’s self-titled album in 1992 for Atlantic Records, and Vern Gosdin’s Nickels and Dimes and Love in 1993 for Columbia Records. Hall also produced former Shenandoah lead singer Marty Raybon’s eponymous album in 1999.
In recognition of Hall’s impressive career and as founder of FAME Studios, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame inducted him in its initial round of honorees in 1985. In the twenty-first century, Hall produced three tracks on the band Alabama‘s When It All Goes South (2001), and it reached number 4 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. The same year, his sons Mark and Rodney Hall set up Muscle Shoals Records, releasing CDs by the Decoys (Shot from the Saddle) and Russell Smith (The End Is Not in Sight). FAME Studios has also released a collection of reissued material from its extensive vault of recordings dating to the early 1960s. Other labels, including Chess, Hip-O, Honest Jon’s, and Rhino reissued many compilation albums, while British label Kent Records released a three-CD set of FAME reissues titled The FAME Studios Story (2011). The film Muscle Shoals, a documentary of the music history of FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was released in 2013. The narrative of the film traces Hall’s life and is quite faithful to Hall’s memoir, The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame (2015).
Hall died on January 2, 2018, in Muscle Shoals from cancer and was survived by his wife Linda Kay (Cross) Hall and sons Rick Hall Jr, Mark Hall, and Rodney Hall, who continues to manage FAME productions. In addition to his many contributions to the music industry in the Shoals and beyond, Hall should be remembered for paving the way for Black recording artists to achieve economic opportunity. His support of numerous Black artists recognized the ongoing struggles of the modern civil rights movement in Alabama by deliberately defying accepted norms of segregation on the basis of his conviction for artistic autonomy.
Hall, Rick. The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame. Clovis, CA.: Heritage Builders Publishing, 2015.
Fuqua, Christopher S. Muscle Shoals: The Hit Capital’s Heyday & Beyond. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
Tapia, Laura Flynn and Yoshie Lewis. Muscle Shoals: Images of America. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.
Whitley, Carla Jean. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2014.
Muscle Shoals. Directed by Greg “Freddie” Camalier and produced by Camalier and Stephen Badger, features Rick Hall and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Magnolia Pictures, 2013.