Posted June, 2015
Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall
Unless you’re a music geek like me - and neck deep into the history and minutia of all things music - the name, Rick Hall, may not mean anything to you. To heavy music buffs and geeks, though, Rick Hall is a giant in the music business and it’s history.
Founder of the now legendary FAME (“Florence Alabama Music Enterprises”) Studios (and FAME Publishing), Rick Hall first taste of success in the record business came in 1961. It was then that he produced Muscle Shoals’ first hit record with Arthur Alexander. The song, “You Better Move On”, was later covered by the Rolling Stones. That hit was followed by Jimmy Hughes’ hit, “Steal Away.” And, as they say, the rest is history.
Talent such as The Tams, Buddy Killen, Etta James, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Osmonds (including Donnie and Marie for some of their solo work), Mac Davis, Jerry Reed, The Gatlin Brothers (as well as Larry Gatlin), and many, many other biggies in music, all recorded at FAME Studios.
Oh, and if you think FAME’s big name days are all in the past, they are still quite productive and finding their work on new albums every year – both big names and up-and-comers.
These accomplishments made Rich Hall the poster child of rags to riches stories in America. In fact, it seems that many rags to riches stories – or stories of great accomplishments-have as their foundation the fact that the champions had poor or hard lives when they were young.
In his recent book, “The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame To Fame,” details Hall’s amazing story of his literally dirt-poor upbringing in the deep South to becoming a music mogul, thus supporting the theory of adversity breeding success.
I recently called Rick at his home to discuss his book and started out by asking him why he thought this theory works as it does.
“That’s a great question, Randy. It’s tough to say exactly, but I believe strongly that kids today just don’t have the work ethics that we had. When I was growing up, we had it so much tougher- farming with mules, plows, that kind of thing. Mine’s uniquely different than today’s kids who think, ‘Well, you get to college, get out of school, and get a job making $50,000 starting pay’. That’s just not the way it is. I tell people the difference. I don’t let them just go on thinking that, because it’s not true.
“Secondly, I think that my generation, our generation… if you were the oldest child, you had it a little tougher than the middle one or the others. In my case, I had three boys. With each one, I let up a little bit. I thought, ‘Well, dad wouldn’t have done that. He wouldn’t let them get by with that kind of thing’. I don’t know if it works better, because mamas are always there saying, ‘Well, he’s your child. You should give him the money he wants and let him do what he wants to do’. So you fight that battle. In my case, I’ve been married all my life almost. Well, I hope not all of it yet.
“I have been through the rough and tumbles. I really do believe that if you go through the rough and tumbles like I have with tragedies in the family… My first wife was killed in an automobile, and I was driving the car. It was a guilt trip I had for four or five years. I lost my dad a week later and buried him right beside. A lot of it was tragedy in my years. Of course, my dad meant everything to me, because my mother had left us and went to work in a red light district when I was five years old. My dad raised me and taught me how to work. Like all fathers, he preached at me constantly: ‘Do this. Don’t do that. Move when you move. Get the job over with, look back at it, and move on to something else’… that kind of thing. He was constantly criticizing and condemning me. He was right, and I was wrong. He was a stern dad, and he made me toe the mark. I’m not sure I did that so much with my kids as he did with me. I let up, because my kids had a mother. Me and my wife have lived together for almost fifty years now. They always had a good mother.
“Kids today say, ‘Well, dad had fun all of his life, and he was in the music business. He played the fiddle, had a lot of fun, had a lot of girls. I’m going to follow in his footsteps’. I’m not sure they’re thinking, ‘When Dad passes on, I’ll get the ranch, 1600 acres of land, the recording studio, and publishing company. I’ll have it made!’ That is the down side with Rick Hall. I have fought to make that not true. I believe that God gives you a talent, but you have to work at it. You really have to work hard at it. You can’t take the attitude that the old man made it without working hard. He didn’t do common labor and dig ditches and that kind of thing. I’m going to do what he’s doing and reap the benefits. I think that’s part of the problem, but I could be wrong about that. I guess time will tell.”
In reading Hall’s book, there are a series of events that lead to the launching of FAME. I asked him if there was one main, core event in his life that he felt that if it hadn’t have happened, FAME Studios would have never started.
“Growing up was a tough gig for me. I had no mother. My father raised me and my little sister who was one year younger than me. My mother left us and left my dad to raise us. We never saw her again until we were fourteen or fifteen years old. Times were tough.
“My book is titled ‘The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame to Fame’. People ask me, ‘we know about the fame part. What about the shame? Where did that come from?’ And I
Rick Hall With Clarence Carter
Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall
say, ‘Well, if your mother went to work for a red light district and left your father to raise you, it was kinda shameful in my book’. Going to school with long, uncut hair and living in a sawmill shack with your dad making thirty-five cents an hour was also shameful. I was intimidated to ask a girl from the right side of the tracks for a date. I just wouldn’t do it, because I was afraid I’d get turned down. I had somewhat of an inferiority complex when I was growing up, so I always made sure my boys had as good an education as I could afford. One is a lawyer. One is working here with me and has his Master’s degree. I wanted to make sure my kids had their education. I had a high school education, so it was tough for me. Not particularly with the songwriters, singers, and guitar players, but it was tough for me to compete with the New York society and people I had to butt heads with in the music business.
“Looking back on that, I was partners with Billy Sherrill who grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Wound up finding the Silver Fox (the late Charlie Rich), George Jones, Tammy Wynette, all those people. He ran CBS Records. He was my partner and a band member with me. For several years, we were known as The Fairlanes. We were a country band of sorts. Of course, we were songwriters, and we wanted to write “that big song” like everybody else who wrote songs. We didn’t want to write just any number one record. We wanted to write a classic.
“Our philosophy was that anybody could be a millionaire by the time they’re forty years old. We wanted to be a millionaire by the time we were thirty. That drove us, and we always kept that in mind. He played saxophone and the piano as well as Floyd Cramer could play a piano. I played the fiddle, mandolin, and guitar as well as doing background singing with some groups I was with. When all was said and done, By the way, he was a Bible carrier. I was the town drunk. In the end, he turned out to be a heavy drinker, and I turned out to be a Christian boy. Well, I tried to be. With his upbringing, he played the saxophone and played tenor sax in our band. He was a great piano player and a great songwriter. He was a genius, I thought. He wound up producing some of the biggest country records in the business, and I wound up producing some of the biggest pop records in the business. Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter- all the people I was producing were black acts, and I was in Muscle Shoals.
“The point I’m trying to make was that I completely turned around and became a black record producer in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, when George Wallace was standing in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama saying, ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’. While he was making those speeches, we were in the FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals cutting ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’, ‘Mustang Sally’, and ‘Funky Broadway’ with Wilson Pickett. We were doing Aretha Franklin’s first hit record. We were going against the grain.”
Because Rick is white, I asked if he found that, in working with those great black acts, they had distrust towards him as a white man in Alabama.
“No, no, no. They trusted me to the umpth degree. All the black people I worked with- Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Candi Staton, Jimmy Hughes, all of them- put their complete trust in me and believed that I could perform miracles. I was able to do that with their lives. By the way, on every record I’ve ever produced, I was also engineer. I picked the songs. I was an independent record producer. I didn’t have any record label to go to, so I just played the field.
“It did break my heart when I went to Nashville, Tennessee, and took a record I’d made called ‘You Better Move On’ by Arthur Alexander. I played it to everybody I could play it to up there- Owen Bradley, Chet Atkins, Shelby Singleton. In fact, I played it to all the publishing companies, and they said, ‘Rick, it’s too white for black and too black for white’. I was stuck in the middle. Anyhow, I wound up getting a record out, because of a man by the name of Noel Ball. Noel was a disc jockey at WMAK in Nashville. He sent it to his boss, Randy Wood, who was just promoted and sent to Los Angeles. Randy called him back and said, ‘I want to pick this record up, because I think it’s a big hit’. That’s how it came to be. Of course, it was hit record, and I was suddenly the king of Muscle Shoals.
“Then I looked around and found Jimmy Hughes who was working for Robbins Rubber Company here in Muscle Shoals. I cut a record on him called ‘Steal Away’, and it became a smash hit, also. I was batting a thousand and feeling good about myself. I couldn’t have done that if I went to Nashville and tried to compete with the boys up there who were cutting all the great records. Nobody could cut better country records than Nashville, Tennessee, never. But I felt like I had to do something a little more unique, so I started producing black acts. That was my shtick.”
Rick Hall and Gregg Allman
Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall
In book, Hall tells of his mom leaving her family and living a bit of a scandalous life. Being a church going boy, I asked if he found that church people were especially tough on him as a result of what she did, even though it had nothing to do with him, his sister, and dad.
“They were in some cases. But I found more people receptive to us and our upbringing, because they felt sorry for us. They looked at our lives and how my dad struggled to raise us, and they would bring cakes and pies and things like that. They’d give us milk to drink. We didn’t have cows, livestock, hogs or anything like that. They were usually really nice to us, so we didn’t have that cross to bear. We had some great neighbors. They were church-goin’ people, and they loved us and felt sorry for us. They gave us whatever they could. For birthdays, they’d bring us birthday cakes.
“I never will forget the first birthday cake I ever got was from a lady who lived next door to us. She brought it over, and it was a banana cake. I’d never saw a banana cake before. It was a weird thing for me to see a banana cake with the little slices of bananas all over the top of it, you know? I thought, ‘my gosh, that looks great!’ I feasted on that.”
The term, “Muscle Shoals sound” is thrown around a lot, so I asked Mr. Hall his definition of it and what he would point to as the best examples of it.
“I believe that the Muscle Shoals sound came about when I started close-micing a kick drum during recording sessions. I coerced the bass player into playing the bass with the kick drum. A lot of other things entered into it. The piano had a lot to do with it, because I don’t recall any number one record that I produced where I didn’t use a Wurlitzer electric piano. It started with The Osmonds’ ‘One Bad Apple’, ‘Go Away Little Girl’ with Donny, Mac Davis’ ‘Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me’, and Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’. I became such a schizophrenic guy that I wanted a Wurlitzer electric piano on everything I recorded, or I wouldn’t record. I became so mindful of the fact that everything I’d cut had been with a Wurlitzer electric piano. My first taste of it was in the band. We tried to copy Ray Charles’ version of ‘What’d I Say’. That was the kind he used- the Wurlitzer piano. We fell in love with that.
“So many records I had that were hits, I credit to the Wurlitzer electric piano. That, to me, is part of the Muscle Shoals sound along with close-micing, which means that you put a mic on the kick drum. You put a mic on the snare drum and the cymbal. In my mind, you don’t need but three or four mics on a drum set. If you look back at records by The Everly Brothers and Don Gibson, most of them had maybe two or three mics. To me, it’s a waste of microphones to put more than four on a set of drums. I’d say save those microphones for the lead singer, because drums aren’t normally a musical instrument. All they do is keep time.”
To the question of if her were to point to one song or one artist that symbolizes all that he’s done in the music business, what would it be, he replied:
“That’s a tough question. I have a lot of favorite records: ‘(You’re) Having My Baby’ with Paul Anka, Aretha’s version of ‘I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’, ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’, Clarence Carter’s version of ‘Patches’. I always thought ‘Patches’ was a song about me, my father, and our livelihood. Bobbie Gentry was a classic, I thought. We did a record called ‘Fancy’ which was a follow-up to ‘Ode to Billie Joe’. It was one of my favorite records, but ‘Mustang Sally’ has given me probably the most mileage as a record producer of maybe any record I’ve ever produced. I never liked it when I was doing it. I thought ‘Mustang Sally’ is about a girl driving down the street in a convertible Mustang with the radio on and having a good time on Saturday night. I don’t hear anything more than that in the song. It’s not a great love song. It’s not a great heartbreaker or a funny song. The reason I think it had such a long life is because every little bar band in the world can play it. It’s so simple. Everybody can sing it, and everybody can play it.”
Of all of the accomplishments that he’s known for, what is the one Rick Hall is most proud of?
“I never rolled over and died. I’m a workaholic, and I believed with all my heart I could do it with God’s help. I’ve never been a quitter. Through all the tragedies and heartbreak, I never gave up. If you have a musical talent God gave you, and you don’t work at it, you can’t expect to be the best. In 1972 and 1973, according to Billboard magazine’s terminology, I was the number one record producer in the whole world. To be the best producer in the world, you’ve got to be more than just a good ‘ol boy who produces records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and that’s as far as you go. That can only take you so far. I’m proud of the fact that my father taught me how to work hard. To be the best at anything I wanted to do, I should give it my best. If I have to cut a record fourteen times and reproduce it for three different artists, I am going to do that if I like the song. I believe I know what people like, because I’m one of those people.
“I grew up hard and tough. I think we have the tendency to say, ‘Well, nobody ever made it in my business, so I’m not going to even try’. It’s called a ‘cop out’. We don’t have that kind of attitude in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We aren’t in it for the money. We are in it for the long term, and we want to be number one in the world. We’ve developed that attitude, and I’ve taught it to my people. They’ve passed it on to their people, and everybody in Muscle Shoals has worked for me at one time or another.”
Hall has worked with a lot of great artists and bands and had a lot to do with some of the biggest recordings in music. Are there any musical fish that got away that he’s
Wilson Pickett and Rick Hall
Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall
still kicking himself in the butt over?
“Not an awful lot, because I’ve won a lot of them. I’ve had my part of the number one records. We’ve had over two hundred chart records and over one hundred gold or platinum records. I’m producer of all those hit records. There are others in Muscle Shoals who started out with me as musicians. They went on to own their own studios, and God bless them. They’ve had a lot of success, too. There was Percy Sledge, the Rolling Stones, and a lot of people who didn’t record with me but went on to have big hit records. It makes me feel pretty good to think that they started out with me and became bigger than me and bigger than themselves. Lo and behold, they had hit records, and maybe I had something to do with it.”
Can a young Rick Hall start a FAME Studio today and meet with the same kind of success as you did back then?
“I believe the answer is yes. I think today would be a perfect time for a young man or woman to start out and say, ‘I want to do what Rick Hall has done for Muscle Shoals. I want to be big worldwide rather than just to be big in Alabama or wherever’. I think they could, but they must be prepared to have a lot of losses. You’ve really got to believe with all your heart and soul that you can make it. If you believe that, you have to be willing to put your money where your mouth is. You have to be willing to go to the bank to borrow $20,000 and pay it back over time. You can do that. Anybody can build a FAME Recording Studio. I had nothing. I had no money, no guitar players, no engineers, no people qualified to build recording studios. I had to do it all myself. Everything in Muscle Shoals today started with Rick Hall.
“Later on, it began to spread, and now there are twelve or fourteen recording studios in Muscle Shoals. We’ve been an intricate part of the best music in the world. Now, I guess I can claim credit for having the Muscle Shoals sound. It’s a world-renowned thing now. We have people coming by the busloads that pay ten dollars to visit FAME Recording Studios. It’s the oldest studio in the world owned by the same group of people, which is me and my family, of course. It’s here to stay. This is the first time it’s happened in a million years, and it will probably never happen again in the next million years. That’s a pretty drastic statement to make, and it kinda turns people off to think, ‘Rick said it couldn’t be done, so I’ll never bother to try’. I’m reluctant to make that statement. It can be done, but you’ve got to make a lot of sacrifices. Be true to yourself, God, and the people around you. Always be good to people and pay them what they’re due.”
If Rick Hall was made Music Czar, what would he do to fix the music business or does he even think it needs fixing?
“It is absolutely broken. I don’t know if I have all the answers, but I have a few. What’s broken is downloading from computers and not paying the musicians, studios, and people who write the songs. If something doesn’t take place in the next ten years, there will be no more music. Trust me. I’m speaking from the heart. I think something has to be done. I’ll tell you from experience that record producers don’t die; they just fade away. When I go in, I pick six or seven musicians for the rhythm tracks, then I go back and redo the vocal so I can spend adequate time getting the best vocal I can possibly get. I still believe that the vocalist in the song is where it all starts. If you don’t have the song, you will not cut a record. I don’t care how well you can produce it or which musicians you use. If you don’t have a hit song, you will not have a hit record. I can go in and produce a bad production on a great song and still have a number one record. It’s the song that captures the imagination. It tells people what they want to hear or what they want to be or what they decide to become one day. It has to be fun or danceable or one of those factors.
“Songwriters are the people who are quitting the business. They are walking away, because there’s no money for them. You can’t sell a million records anymore. I’ve worked with artists like the group Alabama that was selling five million albums, not five million singles, per release. That’s how big they were. Now, I think that’s gone forever. People have been forced out of the business, because they can’t make a living in the business. Thievery is the reason for that. Record companies can’t exist anymore, because the production of a record has become so costly that they have to sell a million records to break even. When you have to sell a million records, desperation sets in, and you start thinking, ‘Maybe if I put out ten different artists, I can make it’. You spend your money putting those ten acts out, and you never make it.
“Another factor is the fact that you have to pay musicians on the union scale. You think, ‘These guys are making too much money’. But let me tell you something, a musician has spent his life learning how to play his licks on the guitar, mandolin, or whatever. You pay him double scale on a record. You may think, ‘I don’t have the budget to hire so and so, because I can’t afford what they’re used to making’. He may make a lot of money in the studio today cutting Wilson Pickett, but he may not get another call for a recording session for four months. How are you going to feed your family when you don’t get a call for a recording session but every three months? I don’t care how good you are. You can’t make it on that. When you’re a songwriter, and you have one hit record in a lifetime, you get paid pretty good on the front. At the end, they quit paying you. They cut you off, and you don’t get your money.
“Thievery, Pro Tools, and computers have completely annihilated our business. If something is done about it in the next four to five years, there will be no music except old music. If you go into a record session as one man and say, ‘I want to sell my records out of the trunk of my car. I will put my records out on my own label, and I will sell them cheaper than RCA Victor can sell them’. If you play all the instruments, and go on Pro Tools to tune your voice and make a 5-string banjo sound like a harmonica- you can do that. But it ain’t like getting Rick Hall as producer and engineer, Chips Moman and Jimmy Johnson on guitar, Clayton Ivey on keyboards, etc. When you have eight people in the studio, it’s like a basketball game. You’ve got a team of players who know what to eliminate. It ain’t about the guitar lick or hot player. It’s about simple knowledge of what you play, don’t play, and deciding that you’re getting in the way of the piano lick here.”
Hall then drilled into his book a bit more.
“You’ll find most all of this in my book, and you’ll find things that I’m not talking about, obviously. I could go on for two weeks giving you all kinds of advice and telling you all the things that worked for me. What I want to tell you is the artist I recorded the first number one record on was Aretha Franklin, and I’m proud of that. Clarence Carter, Paul Anka’s ‘(You’re) Having My Baby’, Mac Davis’ ‘Stop And Smell The Roses’, Wilson Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’, Etta James, The Osmonds- I had a whole string of hit records. All these things are in my book: my philosophy about life in general, my hits and misses, and why the music business is on its knees. The way to do it is the old-fashioned way. Forget about computerization, and go back to classics. A 24-track recorder with a two inch piece of tape will pick up any signal from 30 or 40 cycles to 30,000 cycles. Digital may go from 100 cycles to 10,000 cycles. The range you lose will be the warmth and depth of the record. It won’t be funky and hard to listen to. It’s like you’re sitting in the room. Going into the studio with seven musicians- all of them the best players in the world- you will always do better than doing it by yourself. Each one of them will contribute something. The guitar player will play a different lick for you; the piano player will find his best lick. They will play off of each other. It’s like a basketball team. If they never practice together, even though they’re all superstars, they will not accomplish the mission of winning the game. If you are a musician and want to be part of the big guys, you have to go into the studio and cut your records live. You can’t put them together six months apart then in five years, you have a hit record. That don’t make it. You’ve gotta walk out of there with you tape or disc in your hand.
“Buy the book. It’s called ‘The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame To Fame’. It will tell you all these secrets. I spent ten years writing the book when we only spent three hours on a recording session. Things that happened over a fifty-year period that I can recall, I put in the book. Oh man, I had a ball. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life. Number one records, you get one, oh man. But you get one hundred… multiply that. When you read the book, you find out who Rick Hall is, what made him tick, and what he’s all about. You get the DVD inside the back cover of the book- two for the price of one. Watch the DVD first then read the book. You’ll watch the DVD five more times, I promise you.
“I’ve had incredible feedback. Flying off the shelves like hotcakes- sales are phenomenal.”
“The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame To Fame” is a must have/must read book for anyone who is even mildly interested in the back stories of some of the biggest hits in music. The DVD that’s included ain’t too shabby either. You can order from the links below.