IN JANUARY 1967, a young singer named Aretha Franklin arrived in the small Alabama town of Muscle Shoals, her career hanging in the balance.
At the age of 25 Franklin was already a music veteran. She had recorded nine albums, none of which had properly captured the fiery, transcendent intensity of her voice or the rapt, prayerful beauty of her piano playing. But over the course of just a few hours, in a studio where she had never worked before, with musicians whom she had met for the first time that day, Franklin would record not only the most important song in her career but one of the greatest songs in the history of pop music, ‘I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)’.
What made this record all the more remarkable was that the backing musicians who provided the brooding, soulful and unmistakably black sound were in fact white – country boys who had grown up in the 1950s and 1960s in what at that time was the most racially troubled state in America. Equally remarkable was the fact that the recording session would end in an explosion of racial tension that would lead to Franklin leaving Muscle Shoals the next day, never to return. She had recorded only one song. But it would go to the top of the charts around the world, and make her the unchallenged Queen of Soul.
The FAME studio, a squat, bunker-like building, stands on a busy road junction, adjacent to a chain pharmacy and an auto-parts store. Above the doorway to the studio where Franklin recorded ‘I Never Loved a Man’ a sign reads, “through these doors walk the finest musicians, songwriters, artists and producers in the world”. It is no idle boast. Franklin was one of scores of artists who made their way to Muscle Shoals to record in the 1960s and 1970s. The roll call of names is extraordinary: Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Paul Simon… For a brief and exhilarating period Muscle Shoals rivalled New York, Los Angeles and London as one of the most important recording centres in popular music.
You need only visit Muscle Shoals to realise quite how remarkable this was. The town is one of four – the others are Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia – that cluster along the Tennessee river in the north-western corner of Alabama, and are collectively known as the Shoals. The combined population is 69,000. It is a place of wood-framed houses, their porches entwined with bougainvillea; of handsome antebellum mansions – and of restaurants serving fried catfish and turnip greens. Thick forests flank the river, which rolls sluggishly in the summer heat.
For an anonymous backwater, the Shoals has an improbably rich musical history. Florence was the birthplace of WC Handy, the “father of the blues”, and of Sam Phillips, who in 1953, convinced, as he put it, that “if I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars”, had the presence of mind to record an 18-year-old Elvis Presley singing the blues song ‘That’s Alright, Mama’ – effectively creating rock’n’roll.
Now the documentary film Muscle Shoals – an impressive directional debut by Greg “Freddy” Camalier – explores this history through archive footage and interviews with musicians including Franklin, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Alicia Keys. But the star of the film is a man of whom few are likely to have heard, whose life story might have been torn from the pages of a Southern Gothic novel and who single-handedly put Muscle Shoals on the musical map.
Rick Hall is a classic example of a type that no longer exists in the music industry: a musician, songwriter and businessman who could write, arrange, produce and engineer a song, release it on his own label, then persuade disc jockeys to play it and distributors to sell it. In short, a man from a time before music was an “industry” at all.
In the 1950s and ’60s there were any number of so-called “record men” with some or all of these skills. Sam Philips at Sun, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic and Berry Gordy at Motown were the best known – but few embraced all of these skills or went on to enjoy quite the same measure of success as Rick Hall.
Hall’s early success – the foundation of what became known as the Muscle Shoals sound – was built on establishing a particular alignment of black singers and white musicians in a time and place when race relations were dangerously strained. Many of the greatest R&B songs of the 1960s by artists such as Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett and Etta James were recorded at FAME under Hall’s supervision. In the 1970s and 1980s he diversified into pop and country music, enjoying hits with Paul Anka, the Osmonds and the group Shenandoah.
Hall is 81, a tall, imposing man with thick, swept-back hair, long sideburns and a luxuriant moustache with the ends twisted upwards and waxed in a way that reminds you of Salvador Dalí or a Mississippi riverboat gambler. He has twinkling eyes and a laconic, deadpan manner that can leave you unsure whether or not he is putting you on, but thinking it is probably safer to assume that he is.
It is many years since the FAME studio has produced hit records in the quantity it once did. But Hall still comes in most days, climbing the stairs to his office on the first floor to listen to new demo tapes and supervise his music publishing companies. Linda, his wife of 45 years, handles FAME’s accounting and licensing; and one of their three sons, Rodney, is the company’s president.
In a small anteroom outside the studio, two men with thinning grey hair, dressed in T-shirts and trainers, are sitting on a Naugahyde sofa talking. The guitarist Jimmy Johnson and the bassist David Hood were among “the Swampers”, the studio musicians that gave Muscle Shoals its distinctive character – a mixture of gritty R&B and country soul that was to be a prevailing aesthetic in rock music through the 1960s and 1970s. Hood and Johnson worked at FAME for some five years, until 1969 when, along with the keyboard player Barry Beckett and the drummer Roger Hawkins, they left to set up their own studio on the other side of town. This occasioned considerable ill-feeling from Hall, whom Johnson says they always regarded “like an older brother”, and they were reconciled only in recent years. When Hall walks into the room they greet each other with a somewhat strained warmth.
Hall suggests we take lunch, and with Linda at the wheel we drive past the strip malls of Muscle Shoals and cross the Tennessee river to Florence. At the restaurant, the young hostess asks where we’d like to sit. Hall scans the room. “Can you ask the people in the corner to move? We’d like to sit there.” Alarm flickers across her face. Hall’s eyes twinkle. “I’m just kidding you, darlin’…”
Of the hundreds of songs that Rick Hall has produced over the years, he singles out two as his particular favourites: ‘Patches’ by the blind soul singer Clarence Carter, which was a top-10 hit in both Britain and America in 1970, and ‘Fancy’ by the country singer Bobbie Gentry (best-known for ‘Ode to Billie Joe’), which was a hit in America in 1969.
Patches is about a man “born and raised down in Alabama/On a farm way back up in the woods”, looking back on his impoverished childhood and the example of his father struggling against hardship.
Carter was initially reluctant to record it, on the grounds that it would be degrading for a black man to sing a song so redolent of subjugation. “I would have thought the same thing if I was Clarence Carter,” Hall says. “But I told him, it’s about how me and my daddy grew up.” ‘Fancy’ is also about someone from an impoverished background – a girl who becomes a high-class courtesan. Hall does not say as much, but this song, too, has a personal meaning.
Hall’s father, Herman, was a sawmiller, and Hall grew up in the backwoods of the Freedom Hills, Alabama, in a shack with dirt floors, sleeping on a mattress stuffed with straw. Water was fetched from a spring. When Hall was four his older brother died after scalding himself. His mother abandoned the family, leaving Herman to bring up Hall and his younger sister. “[My mother] always thought Dad wasn’t good enough for her,” Hall says. “She was beautiful; she had the gift of the gab; she could have been a movie star and all those things. To her, Dad was a loser, a vagabond, who’d never amount to anything.”
A few months later Herman discovered his wife was working in a bordello in Muscle Shoals. “She was a harlot,” Hall says bluntly. For years afterwards, he says, Herman carried a .32 Colt revolver “hoping to see her and kill her, because he was so fractured from the whole thing.”
Poverty instilled in Hall a fierce mixture of anger and ambition. “We just kind of grew up like animals. It made me bitter and driven. I wanted to be somebody.” As a child he had learnt the mandolin and fiddle, and, determined to make it in the music business, he began playing with country bands, while working in a succession of manual jobs.
In 1955 Hall married a 16-year-old named Faye. Only a few months later, when driving on a country road, he swerved to avoid an oncoming motorist, flipping the car over. Faye died in hospital. “I was eaten up with guilt,” he says. “My father said, this will either make you or break you. You can come back stronger but the other route you could take – whiskey, drugs, whatever – will ruin you for life.”
Two weeks later Hall’s father died when a tractor he was driving, which Hall had bought, overturned. Hall went under. For the next four years there was hardly a day when he was sober. “I was a tramp. I was sleeping in my car. I was thrown in jail four or five times.” He shakes his head. “That was a bad man.”
He continued to make a modest living playing in country and rock’n’roll bands, and in 1960 he and a friend, Billy Sherrill, went into business with a man named Tom Stafford, calling themselves Florence Alabama Music Enterprises. They opened a small recording studio and began peddling songs to the big producers and record companies in Nashville.
Hall was, he says, “the frontman, the gift of the gab, the bullshitter”. But it quickly became obvious that he was a difficult man to be partners with. “They said I worked too hard,” he remembers. “So they fired me. They were thinking, by the time we get to 40 we ought to be millionaires. My thinking was, by the time I’m 30 I’ll be a millionaire.”
Hall was left with only a piece of paper giving him the rights to the name of the company – FAME. He set up on his own as a writer, mostly of radio jingles for local businesses, and, with money lent by one of his customers, a used-car dealer named Hansel Cross (who in his jingles styled himself as “hustling, handsome, Hansel Cross”), opened his own studio in an abandoned tobacco warehouse on the edge of town. He also married Hansel’s daughter, Linda.
In 1961 Hall produced his first record in the new FAME studio, a country soul ballad, ‘You Better Move On’, written and sung by a local gospel singer named Arthur Alexander. Hall sold the rights to a company in Los Angeles, Dot, which made the record a hit in America. (It would later be covered by the Rolling Stones.) With the proceeds Hall built the studio that has been home to FAME ever since, and began to gather a group of local musicians around him.
Despite his own background in country music, Hall realised that R&B was both a more musically interesting and a more lucrative proposition. “We were all copying the black man’s lick and taking it one step further,” he says. His first recording at the new studio – a smouldering R&B ballad, ‘Steal Away’ – was with another local singer, Jimmy Hughes, who worked in a tile factory and dressed, Hall remembers, “like a Philadelphia lawyer”. Unable to find a label to release the record Hall decided to start his own, calling it Fame.
‘Steal Away’ gave Hall his second hit and made the FAME studios a hot property in R&B and pop music. Record companies sent their artists for Hall to produce; he had his own label, the studio and a team of writers signed to his song publishing company. “I became wild about making it in the business. I lived it, slept it and ate it. I was overwhelmed with it.”
“If he’d had to make a choice between me and the music business,” Linda says, “I would have been the one who’d have been gone…”
“That’s not true, honey.”
“Yes, it is.”
Hall looks thoughtful.
Sam Philips, he says, was a friend as well as an example. “He’d always say, ‘Go on man, do it your own way; don’t let people fuck with you.’ I don’t think I’m unreasonable. But I think most people like me don’t think of themselves as being unreasonable.”
“Yes. Arrogant in some cases. Self-centred…”
Hall laughs. “Exactly! All the above. I think I’ve been much more respected than I’ve been loved. No doubt about it. And if you spent some time around me you’d find I long to be loved still. My mother rejected me. The music business rejected me. I lost my wife. Everything bad that could happen to a man mentally has happened to me.”
The waiter brings the food to our table and Hall brightens. “Who ordered the salmon Orleans? That’s the most expensive thing on the menu!” He laughs. “I’m not paying for that!”
When Hall launched FAME there was virtually no music scene in Alabama. The nearest recording studios to Muscle Shoals were in Nashville and Memphis, respectively 120 and 150 miles away, and Hall was able to draw on an extraordinarily rich seam of local musicians. All, as the music producer Jerry Wexler later put it, were “white boys who took a left turn at the blues”, working with black singers in a state where music provided one of the few areas for socialising between races. When Arthur Alexander recorded ‘You Better Move On’ he and the musicians shared food and drink in the studio. But it would have been unthinkable for Hall to take Alexander to a restaurant in town.
“Well, you could,” Hall says, “but you’d get your ass beaten. Or shot.”
The musicians at FAME confounded the conventional wisdom that only black musicians could play soul music, and that white Southern boys played only country. “I hated country music, and still do to this day,” Jimmy Johnson, who began playing on sessions at FAME in 1964, says. Like his fellow musicians, Johnson had cut his teeth playing in rock’n’roll bands at “frat house” parties at universities in the South where, despite segregation, black groups such as Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts & the Thirteen Screaming Niggers (they changed their name to the Screaming Clowns) were hugely popular, and where it was obligatory for any group to include the current R&B hits in their set. “At the University of Alabama, if you didn’t play the Moonglows’ ‘Mama Loochie’ they’d whup your ass,” Johnson says.
In 1966 a local disc jockey named Quin Ivy, a friend of Hall’s, opened his own small studio in nearby Sheffield and, using musicians from Fame, recorded a song with a hospital orderly and sometime gospel singer named Percy Sledge. Ivy asked Hall if he could help place it, and Hall called Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records in New York, America’s foremost R&B label, and said he had a surefire hit Wexler might be interested in. It was a Sunday afternoon; Wexler was in the middle of a pool party and unhappy at being disturbed, but he told Hall to send him the demo anyway.
‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ went on to be number one around the world, cementing a connection that led to Wexler sending his Atlantic artists to record in Muscle Shoals. Don Covay was the first, followed by Wilson Pickett, who recorded a string of hits including ‘Land of 1,000 Dances’, ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘Hey Jude’ at FAME.
“Pickett was a kind of wild guy, but me and him became just like brothers,” Hall remembers fondly. “I’d go to New York to visit him, his wife and his kids, and he’d take me to a soul food place down on Broadway. He had a brand-new Ferrari, this is at three in the morning, and he’d drive that car down Broadway hitting 80mph. He scared the shit out of me.
“He’d say, ‘Johnnie Taylor’s playing across town, let’s go over there and whup his ass’ – because he was another singer that was competition to him! He’d man up in a minute. If you had a drummer that couldn’t get the lick he wanted on his record he might walk back in the drum booth and just pop him – ‘Get the fuck out…’ Musicians were afraid of him, but I wasn’t. He was a man’s man. But nobody could sing like Pickett, man, and me and him had some of the greatest records of all time.”
In 1967 Wexler called Hall to tell him he was bringing down an artist who would be bigger than them all. The daughter of a famous Baptist preacher, C.L. Franklin, Aretha had grown up singing and playing piano in her father’s church choir, and was already a sensation on the gospel circuit when at 18 she signed a contract with Columbia Records in New York. But the albums of jazz standards, show tunes and blues that she recorded over the next seven years did scant justice to her extraordinary talent.
In January 1967 Wexler signed her to Atlantic. What Franklin required, he believed, was a gritty musical setting that would take her back to her gospel roots. And he looked to Rick Hall to provide it.
That same month Franklin arrived in Muscle Shoals accompanied by her husband and manager, Ted White – a man of a particularly menacing mien. Wexler had planned to record an album’s worth of songs. Anxious about racial sensitivities, he had asked Hall to hire a black horn section from Memphis for the sessions; but Hall, Wexler would later write, “goofed”. Wexler arrived to find that all the horn players were white. ‘I Never Loved a Man’ had been pencilled in as the first song to be recorded. White observed from behind mirrored sunglasses as the session unfolded, “deadly watching all of us”, as Jimmy Johnson remembers. Between takes White and one of the horn players began drinking out of the same bottle, egging each other on in what Wexler would describe as “a dangerous camaraderie”. When the horn player made an overly familiar remark about Franklin, White told Wexler he wanted the musician fired. Wexler obliged. The session dissolved with tension crackling in the air. Now Hall began drinking and fretting. Desperate to retrieve the situation, and considerably the worse for wear, he drove to the motel where Franklin and White were staying and knocked on their door. While Franklin disappeared to the bathroom Hall and White began arguing, then trading racial insults and finally fisticuffs, until Hall was bundled out of the room.
“I went downstairs and got on the house phone and I started screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘You son of a bitch; if you come down here I’m gonna beat your damn ass’. Then Wexler came down the hallway, yelling and screaming, ‘I told you not to come over here, now you’ve ruined our relationship with Aretha. I will never record with you again, and I will bury your ass…'” Aretha Franklin left Muscle Shoals next morning.
Hall blanches at the memory. “I was thinking, my God what have I done? I had it made! Wexler thought I was it, you know? He’d put his arm around my shoulder and say, we’re going to make so much money together, and I loved hearing that.”
Hall would never work with Wexler again. The pair eventually made up, but for Hall the bitterness lingered. When the Swampers – Johnson, Hood, Barry Beckett and Roger Hawkins – left Hall to set up their own studio it was with the help of a loan from Wexler.
“Rick’s a strong man, and he was the one that gave us our chance to be in this business,” Johnson remembers. “It was kind of frightening to think we were going to leave him. But our dream was to open our own studio.”
They and Hall would not talk for five years. “We were very busy,” David Hood told me. “And he was too.”
Calling their new enterprise Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the Swampers moved into a small building at 3614 Jackson Highway, across the road from a cemetery. Barely 75ft by 25ft, the building had been used to store headstones and grave slabs. “It was like being entombed,” Johnson remembers.
Artists in search of the mythical “Muscle Shoals sound” flocked to the new studio. Among the first were the Rolling Stones, who in 1969, on their first American tour in four years, stopped off to record ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Wild Horses’. (Much to Rick Hall’s chagrin: “The Rolling Stones thought they were cutting at FAME,” he says.) A host of artists followed: Bob Dylan, Dire Straits, Paul Simon, the Staple Singers, Rod Stewart. “We’d get a new artist every Monday morning,” Johnson tells me. “We were doing 50 albums a year. Can you imagine?”
By the late 1970s the studio had relocated to larger premises beside the Tennessee river (the old building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is undergoing restoration as part of a project to promote Muscle Shoals as a tourist attraction), but business was beginning to drop off. “That was really when disco came in,” Johnson says. “We just didn’t adapt; it wasn’t natural to us.” In 1984 the four partners sold the studio to the blues label Malaco.
Rick Hall, too, was obliged to move with the times. Following the departure of the Swampers he recruited a new rhythm section, the Fame Gang, and through the 1970s enjoyed his most commercially successful period ever, producing a string of pop hits including the Osmonds’ ‘One Bad Apple’ and Paul Anka’s ‘(You’re) Having My Baby’.
In 1976 Hall was operated on for a life-threatening illness, and withdrew from the record business. He and Linda had been building a 23-room home, but when costs overran and he was presented with a tax bill that threatened to bankrupt him he went back to work, this time concentrating on country music, producing hits for Mac Davis, Shenandoah and Jerry Reed. The hits he has made over the years, and the sale of two publishing catalogues (he has four more), have made Hall a rich man. With their three sons grown, in 2009 Hall and Linda turned over the home they built to a charity for abused and neglected children. It is now known as the Fame Girls Ranch. “We didn’t need it any more,” Hall says.
We drive back over the bridge from Florence to the FAME studios, and Hall leads the way upstairs to his office – leather sofas, a green shag-pile carpet, crimson curtains – and sits down behind a big wooden desk. Gold records crowd the walls. Hall swivels around in his chair to the large, antiquated stereo system standing on a shelf behind him, and slots in a demo CD. It is some new songs that he has produced with Candi Staton, a singer who recorded prolifically for Fame in the early 1970s, and is best-known for her 1976 disco hit ‘Young Hearts Run Free’. He turns up the music to a deafening volume, and, his fingers drumming lightly on the desk, stares out of the window.
“I’m going to lease them to a record label if I can find somebody excited about them. Candi’s singing great, she looks great – she’s just beautiful. Why not?” He thinks about this. “Sam, Jerry, Ahmet… all the big guys are gone. I’m 81, but I somehow still think I’m going to live for ever. And I’m still as hungry as I ever was.”
© Mick Brown, Daily Telegraph, October 2013