Rick Hall Interview: The Genius Behind the Muscle Shoals Sound Details His "Journey from Shame to Fame"
Image attributed to Carol M. Highsmith
Rick Hall was born to a family of sharecroppers in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, and was raised in Franklin County, Alabama. He moved to Rockford, Illinois, as a teenager, and then went on to become a record producer, songwriter, music publisher and musician who is best known as the owner and proprietor of the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Hall won the Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievement when the 2013 documentary, Muscle Shoals, brought his accomplishments to the limelight. The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame, released April 7, 2015, is the compelling rags to riches story about how he rose from extreme poverty in rural America to build one of the most famous recording studios in the world, pioneering a new sound that would inspire artists, give birth to new kinds of music and launch the careers of hundreds of superstars.
“People usually ask, ‘What’s the shame?’ The shame was that I was in poverty. I didn’t have adequate clothes to wear to school. That was a shame. My mom left me, my sister and dad and went to work in a red-light district when I was five years old. We never saw her again until I was fifteen years old. That was a shame. We never had a decent house.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Rick, when and why did you decide to write a memoir?
Rick Hall: That’s a great question. It started out as a diary. I made a few remarks in the diary about Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, Etta James and others, what songs we did and that kind of thing. Somebody asked, “Well, Rick, why don’t you just write a book about your life and experiences in the music business?” I said, “Great idea.”
I called a friend of mine, and we made the diary into a book. We worked on it, Melissa, for seven solid years. It took that long to write it and took me another three years to make a deal on it. Everybody wanted the book, but nobody wanted to pay me anything, or I wasn’t happy with the deals they presented to me. We’ve gotten a great publisher from California, and he’ll be down here for a couple of weeks because we’ll be doing a show or two in Birmingham and Montgomery. We have the governor coming out to see the show, which is a talkathon kind of thing.
I’m excited about it. I started FAME fifty years ago, and it’s the largest recording studio in the world that is owned by the same people. Of course, the people that own it are yours truly and my family.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Can I assume the “shame” in the title refers to your growing up in poverty?
Rick Hall: Absolutely. People usually ask, “What’s the shame?” The shame was that I was in poverty. I didn’t have adequate clothes to wear to school. That was a shame. My mom left me, my sister and dad and went to work in a red-light district when I was five years old. We never saw her again until I was fifteen years old. That was a shame. We never had a decent house.
My father was poverty-stricken. He worked at a sawmill, and we lived in a sawmill shack with dirt floors made out of reject lumber with no bathrooms, no windows and no porches with straw beds to sleep on at night. Bed bugs ate us up every night, Melissa, while we slept. We were little guys and didn’t know any better. We were twenty-two miles from the closest neighbors and the closest store. It was hard times, man, and nobody black or white has ever been through what I have in my lifetime. That was the shame of it all.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was your love of music inspired by family influences?
Rick Hall: Well, my father loved to sing gospel music in quartets all over the country. He would walk ten miles to sing one song in a small country church, and that probably meant as much to him as getting on national television with me and playing in a rock and roll band. It served two purposes. He was single at the time.
My mother had left us, and my father thought he could get up to sing, and there might be a pretty girl in the audience that would take to him with his high tenor voice and suave manner. He was all about singing, so he’d walk for miles and miles because he didn’t have any transportation. We never had cars. Even if we had a car, we couldn’t afford the gasoline. We always rode horseback or walked.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about the early part of your career.
Rick Hall: I was a country picker early in my career, played country stations and made my living doing that, and then I joined a group called the Fairlanes. When rock and roll came along, I was taken by it. I had a songwriter named Dan Penn (who wrote songs for the Box Tops), and when we were playing in bands, he was one of the guys we used for a lead singer. We’d go to play at the University of Alabama, Old Miss and Auburn. We played a lot at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
We’d always pick up Billy Sherrill who worked for Sam Phillips. Sam and I were good friends, and he was from the Muscle Shoals area. He built the Nashville studios of Sun Records and wanted Billy to run it, so I began to traipse back and forth to Nashville playing them songs I’d written or some of the songs my people had written. I shopped them to all the publishing companies or to anyone who’d listen to them. They’d say, “It’s too black for white and too white for black.”
I finally came back home and said, “Well, hell, I’ll just build me a recording studio in Muscle Shoals.” I was having some hits as a songwriter and as a musician playing in bands and was making good money and had a string of girls following me around. Yeah, that (laughs). I had a big hit by Brenda Lee and one by Roy Orbison and George Jones, so I was hot to trot. Billy Sherrill and I played in the same band together, and he later became CBS’s manager in Nashville and produced all the Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Ray Charles records, everything that was on CBS.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I thought the documentary, Muscle Shoals, was done very well.
Rick Hall: Thank you. The documentary was great, and it gives you a teaser of what’s to come, but it cut me off in 1972. I didn’t start to really happen big time until that year. Then I was the number one record producer in the world.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In that film, you said that when recording Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away,” you wept. Did you feel that you were embarking on something special musically?
Rick Hall: No, Lord, I didn’t have any clue that I was making history. I still have that doubt in my mind, that I’m making history, even today after all these years and after all the accolades I’ve had in my time and the hits I’ve had with all the biggest artists in the world – Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, Otis Redding, Paul Anka, Mac Davis, Marie Osmond, the Osmonds, Tom Jones, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Duane Allman, the Allman Brothers, Bobbie Gentry and the group Alabama with Randy Owen. I’ve been around the block two or three times, you know.
I never knew I was making history, but I was determined that I was going to make history. I wanted to be somebody special. It wasn’t the money for me. It was just that I wanted to pull myself up by the bootstraps and get out of the poverty driven section of Alabama and do something with my life, be something I’d be proud of and that my family and grandkids could be proud of.
I’ve had a lot of success, but I’ve never let it go to my head. Money was never the thing with me. It was always that I wanted to see my name in lights. I wanted to be something special in life and wanted to prove something to those who said I’d never amount to a hill of beans. I wanted to prove them wrong.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I know that Elvis Presley never recorded at FAME, but did you ever meet him?
Rick Hall: Oh yes. My best friend was his producer, Felton Jarvis. I’d go to Las Vegas to be with Paul Anka, opening his show, Bobbie Gentry was coming off a big record and Mac Davis was there. I’d have to go out there and set up the band for them, get the sounds, mark the spots and all that stuff. Felton would be there with Elvis, so I’d go over there, and he’d come to my place, and we’d swap tales. I never spent a lot of time around Elvis, but I met him a time or two.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It must’ve been exciting to meet Liza Minnelli in 1970 when she came to FAME to record the album New Feelin’.
Rick Hall: It was, but I was full of pee and vinegar back then. I was starstruck, but not on her … on myself. I thought I was as hot as they came, and I was. I had just made Billboard’s number one producer in the world and was hot as a pistol. I wasn’t going to bow down to anybody. Liza came here with her boyfriend. She was about ready to go to Germany to make a big movie, so we cut an album on her.
Liza signed with us, but her boyfriend’s wife put a stop to us ever releasing the record because she sued him for alienation of affection and didn’t like the fact that he was running around on her. He was the leader of Liza’s band, so that ended in tragedy. She wasn’t a very important piece of my life, to be honest with you, and was a heavy drinker. She wasn’t one of my favorite people. A good artist and actor, but never made it to the top 100 (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was it music journalist/producer Jerry Wexler that brought Aretha Franklin to FAME?
Rick Hall: It was due to Jerry Wexler and the fact that I had sent him a record called “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge and told him I thought it was a number one record. I was responsible for putting that deal together, and he gave me a finder’s fee and label credits and all that crap on Percy Sledge. Also the fact that I had done some hit records for him on Wilson Pickett, and I produced them all. The songs included “Land of a Thousand Dances,” “Funky Broadway” and “Hey Jude.” He knew me through those records.
I had become a hot ticket with Jerry, and he was one of the owners of Atlantic Records in New York. He told me he had a falling out with Jim Stewart (who co-founded Stax Records in Memphis). Jerry said, “Jim doesn’t want me to do Wilson Pickett or any acts there anymore because I’m using his musicians, and he thinks it’s kind of a rip-off. I’d like to bring a new artist named Aretha Franklin down there because I’m looking for a southern-based recording studio where I can work and bring artists. I think yours would be a good place.” I said, “Hallelujah! Bring her on.” So he brought Aretha down to the studio around the time when Martin Luther King was marching in Montgomery and marching from Selma to Montgomery.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What happened during the short time that Aretha Franklin was at FAME?
Rick Hall: During the session, her husband and manager, Ted White, got hold of a bottle, and he began to share it with the horn players. What started out to be just a palsy-walsy thing drinking and all turned out to be sort of a bad situation. We had to call the session off because he came up and told me I had to fire this horn player because of some remark he made. The session ended, and I went over to make up with Ted. He was mean to me, very arrogant and, of course, very drunk.
I’d had a couple of drinks myself, so we had a brawl. It was that simple. Wexler got mad at me for ruining the relationship with Aretha and said, “I won’t ever come back here anymore, and I’ll end your career.” I told him, “You can’t do that.” He asked, “Why not?” I said, “You’re too old. I’m younger than you are, and I’ll be here after you’re dead and gone.” That was one of those things that I hated terribly bad the next day, but the damage had been done, and I had shit in my nest (laughs).
Jerry took the name “Muscle Shoals Sound” and went across town in Sheffield, Alabama, built a studio for my musicians and hired all of them away from me. That’s where the bitterness comes from. It wasn’t because of Aretha. She was a darling to work with in the studio. Ted was a mean guy. He was from Detroit, Michigan, and he had made up his mind he wasn’t going to like white boys.
We were Alabama white boys, and he thought all of us were “that” kind, you know. But we were not. We were colorblind players. Anyhow, Ted has been out of the picture for a long time, and all has been forgiven. I love Wexler. We made up in the end, and everything was beautiful. But it was a tough time for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And that’s how the rivalry between FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio began.
Rick Hall: Yes. We hated each other for about five years. Since then, as I said, we’ve made up. I actually cut one of the biggest hit albums I ever cut on Candi Staton in Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. I went over there and cut an album with her to show my good will and that I was willing to bury the hatchet. We were rivals. We were terrible rivals. We hated each other for a long time.
You’ve got to understand that Muscle Shoals Sound Studio has been out of business for twenty-five years. They’re not our competitors anymore, but when they were there, they were signed to me as musicians, singers and pickers. They never produced a record that I know of. In those days, they were pickers, and I was a record producer, so I hired ‘em and fired ‘em. They were the third group of people that I used.
The first group was my band the Fairlanes. It was me, Billy Sherrill, Terry Thompson … Charles Senn was the lead singer. I was the background singer and the bass player. Those are the people I used on my very first hit record, “You Better Move On” by Arthur Alexander. By the way, it broke at WVOK in Birmingham by Joe Rumore, and then there was Dan Brennan at WBAM in Montgomery. We played the record for them, and they felt sorry for us, so they played it, and the song became a big hit.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you responsible for the legendary Muscle Shoals sound?
Rick Hall: I am responsible for starting it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were the musicians interchangeable for the most part?
Rick Hall: The Swampers, as they made some believe, weren’t the only group I had. The musicians were absolutely interchangeable. I had different horns on different sessions, different guitar players, different bass players, different drummers, the whole thing. For a while, I did use them exclusively, and they took that to mean … they call themselves the Swampers, but that came much later. They had all their hits when they were just the FAME gang and working for Rick Hall.
I am the grandfather of the Muscle Shoals sound, and that still exists, and the Swampers have been gone for fifteen or twenty years. They don’t exist anymore. I believe that Barry Beckett is dead, but they were great musicians. Don’t get me wrong. They were incredible musicians, but we had a lot of incredible musicians, white players who loved and grew up on black music. Anyway, when they went across town with Jerry Wexler and he built them a new studio over there, that was the end of our relationship. I never used them again.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That was the crew with Jimmy Johnson, correct?
Rick Hall: Yes, with Jimmy, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins and David Hood. They went across town to build the studio called Muscle Shoals Sound. That meant they would tell people that all the hits were cut at that studio, but the early records on Aretha, Wilson Pickett, all of those artists, were cut at FAME and either produced or co-produced by Rick Hall, and I engineered every one of them. They worked for me and did what I told them to do. That’s the name of that game.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): During that time in the 60s when Martin Luther King was marching for freedom, you proved to be one of the Civil Rights pioneers through your music.
Rick Hall: Thank you. I appreciate that. Let me tell you something. I love black people. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be a record producer today. I wouldn’t have been doing Clarence Carter’s number one record “Patches,” or Wilson Pickett on “Hey Jude” and “Mustang Sally” or Etta James on “I’d Rather Go Blind,” or Aretha Franklin on “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.” I cut her first hit record in my studio.
I need people to know that I am that guy who was there in the 60s when George Wallace was standing in the schoolhouse door making sure no black people came through and making his speeches of “segregation now, segregation forever.” I am the guy that was in the recording studio that same night when that was all taking place, and Bull Connor’s dogs were chewing them up and fire hoses were turned on black people in Birmingham, Alabama.
I’m that guy who was cutting hit records on Wilson Pickett the night Martin Luther King got shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. We were cutting “Land of a Thousand Dances” that night in Muscle Shoals. We were always color blind, and they were always good to me. I loved working with them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Weren’t you and Wilson Pickett close friends?
Rick Hall: Very close, nobody closer. We were soul brothers. He’d say so if he was here today. I knew his family and went to New York to visit with him and play songs. We drove down Broadway at 2:00 in the morning in his Ferrari at 80 MPH. Of course, we were both smashed at the time. But that’s how close we were. We were buddies.
Otis Redding was one of my dearest friends. Clarence Carter was one of the people I loved the most. Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” was my first hit record ever.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was there ever anyone in the studio that you just absolutely couldn’t work with?
Rick Hall: There was one guy. He was a country artist. I couldn’t stand him, and he couldn’t stand me. I can’t think of his name. That’s how far we were removed from each other. He thought I was an SOB. I really can’t think of his name, but he never was a huge star like George Jones or Hank Williams.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you own another company with your sons?
Rick Hall: Well, we’ve had four publishing companies for twenty-five years. We’ve sold two of them. I’ve given them stock over the years, but I’m still the owner and principal stockholder. I’ve got three sons. One’s a lawyer, one works in Nashville, and the youngest one works with me here in Muscle Shoals.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Ever thought about cashing it all in and retiring, Rick?
Rick Hall: Nah. What am I going to do if I retire? All I know is the music business (laughs).
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