The creator of the Muscle Shoals sound reveals the secrets to his success
By Michael Gallant
Muscle Shoals was ground zero in the ’60 and ’70s for a wide range of artists—Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James and many more—who recorded some of their biggest hits in this tiny town in northeastern Alabama. The potent, soulful vibe that emerged had such an impact that it became known as the Muscle Shoals sound.
And the man at the center of it all was Rick Hall. The producer-engineer persevered through a hardscrabble life of poverty and tragedy—his mother left the family when he was young, and he later lost his wife and father—to set up a music publishing company in Florence, Ala., in 1959. Its name: Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, or FAME. The following year, Hall opened a studio in nearby Muscle Shoals, where he achieved early success recording Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On.” It was an auspicious start.
Soon R&B artists were flocking to Muscle Shoals, as Hall pulled together an ace team of backing musicians and his reputation as a hit-maker grew. Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You),” and Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away” were just a few of the hits recorded at FAME.
Hall’s achievements in sharing African-American music with the world were even more remarkable considering racial tensions—especially in the South—were at a peak. “We were hell-bent on cutting hit records on black people because we loved black music and we loved black people,” says Hall, 80.
In the ’70s, Hall focused on pop, producing hits for the Osmonds, Paul Anka, Tom Jones and others. Later he turned his attention to country and worked with Mac Davis, Bobbie Gentry, Jerry Reed and the Gatlin Brothers. Meanwhile, Hall’s publishing company generated smash hits for country stars in the ’80 and ’90s. More recently indie artists including Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell and Band of Horses have recorded at FAME Recording Studios. Hall chronicles his amazing life in his new book, The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame to Fame.