Rick Hall, who died on Monday at age 85 after battling prostate cancer, is being remembered as a stubborn visionary who could be as nurturing as he was exasperating. Yet all agree that he built one of America’s most successful and exceptional music production operations in a place where it shouldn’t have been possible, Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
“He decided that this could happen in a little tiny town down here in the middle of nowhere, so the man that I met made perfect sense,” said Muscle Shoals native John Paul White. The artist, now solo after achieving widespread recognition with The Civil Wars, says Hall was as compassionate as he was demanding. He met his hometown hero almost 20 years ago when White was a developing singer/songwriter.
“He was completely a sweetheart,” White said. “He opened his arms, opened his studio and just embraced what I was doing and patted me on the back and said whatever you need, whenever you need it come do it here.”
White’s not alone in praising Hall for his openness to today’s generation of talent. Jason Isbell tweeted on Monday: “Rick Hall and his family gave me my first job in the music business, and nobody in the industry ever worked harder than Rick. Nobody. American music wouldn’t be the same without his contributions. His death is a huge loss to those of us who knew him and those who didn’t.” Isbell grew up watching the Muscle Shoals studio musicians playing locally and he began working at Hall’s FAME Studio when he was 21.
Hall was raised by his grandparents and single father - a mill worker and sharecropper - in Alabama in the 1930s and 40s. As a teenager he began playing in country bar bands including one with friends Billy Sherrill and Dan Penn, future legends of producing and songwriting respectively.
Hall took the reins of a primitive studio in Florence, Alabama. Working with young musicians who would develop into a famous in-house rhythm section, he recorded “You Better Move On” by unknown local Arthur Alexander in 1961. According to that session’s bass player Norbert Putnam, Hall then personally worked the record in Nashville until he found a champion in DJ Noel Ball, who helped make the song a hit and land Alexander a record deal.
The success of that first single provided the funds to build a new and permanent studio in Muscle Shoals, called Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, or FAME. Countless legends worked there, including Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones, Jerry Reed and Bobbie Gentry. With the same defiance of social norms that led Sam Phillips to record black artists in 1950s Memphis, Hall made FAME Studio an integrated workplace in Jim Crow era Alabama.
“I wanted to do black music,” Hall said in an October 2013 interview with the author at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville. “I wanted to do R&B. I felt like nobody can compete with Nashville when it comes to country music. I felt my only hope was to do black music or something that wasn’t being done as much in Nashville.”
Hall was an impresario and entrepreneur, but he spent most of his time at the recording console as one of the most driven and demanding producers in the history of popular music.
“He’d be the first to say he didn’t always know what he was looking for,” said John Paul White. “Some producers are architects and they build things from the ground up, and they know where they’re heading. I don’t think Rick always did. I think Rick totally had his finger on the pulse of what people wanted and what radio wanted and what clicked with the mass audience at that time. He would just keep pushing people until he heard it. And he told them so. What do you want Rick? I don’t know. I’ll know it when I hear it. And they’d just keep playing and playing, which could be maddening for musicians and artists who were singing vocal takes over and over until he said, ‘that’s the one.’ He worked engineers under the table. He had reserve engineers ready because nobody could put in the hours he could. I never made a record with Rick and I don’t know that I could have.”
“I was chief cook and bottle washer,” Hall said. “I picked all the songs. I paid the musicians. I made the deals with record labels. I was the engineer. I said when it was too fast or too slow. I was the guy who said this key is wrong for the artist or I don’t like this song, let’s throw it out and move on to something else. I took the blame for any mistakes I made.”
Muscle Shoals has enjoyed a significant revival in the past ten years, stimulated by a nationally-distributed documentary and by young and mid-career roots artists flocking there to work. They go for the vibe and the history, all made possible by Rick Hall.
Craig's interview with Rick Hall following a screening of the documentary Muscle Shoals at the Belcourt Theater, Oct. 6, 2013.