By Randy Lewis / Los Angeles Times
Bad blood between two key figures in 1960s R&B and soul music turned out to be good fortune for another, helping transform Rick Hall’s tiny recording studio in out-of-the-way Muscle Shoals, Ala., into one of the most fertile musical breeding grounds in pop music history.
Because of the falling out between esteemed Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler and Jim Stewart, the co-founder of Memphis’ celebrated Stax Records label, Wexler took his business — and acclaimed artist roster — about 150 miles east to Fame Studios, owned by Hall, a veteran studio operator, producer and songwriter.
Hall, who died Monday at age 85 after a battle with cancer, remained a musical force for decades.
Aretha Franklin has cited her first experience working at Fame in the mid-1960s as “the turning point in my career.” Before that, she’d struggled at Columbia Records to fit within the mold that label’s executives tried to create for her as a sophisticated jazz-pop vocalist.
But when she signed with Atlantic and Wexler took her to Fame, everything changed. She found her groove as the “Queen of Soul,” digging into a grittier, earthier sound fueled by the Fame session players who came to be known as the Swampers for their down-home feel for R&B, soul and rock music.
Fame, originally an acronym for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, began in 1959 as a collaboration between Hall, future Country Music Hall of Fame producer Billy Sherrill and songwriter Tom Stafford. After dissolving their business partnership, Hall hung onto the name and used it for the new studio that opened in 1960.
The first hit to emerge was soul singer-songwriter Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” a 1961 song — released on Los Angeles’ Dot Records label — that soon perked up the ears of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards across the Atlantic Ocean. The Rolling Stones recorded it three years later.
But by the mid-’60s it had become a hotbed for pop musicians of various stripes, including the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Solomon Burke and Percy Sledge.
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Because of the reputation for greatness Hall had established, others continued to come calling through the decades, among them Duane Allman, Etta James, Rod Stewart and the Osmonds and more recently pop-R&B singer-songwriter Alicia Keys, alt-country group Drive-By Truckers and avant-bluegrass band the SteelDrivers and critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Jason Isbell.
“Rick Hall and his family gave me my first job in the music business,” Isbell tweeted Tuesday, “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.”
Hall recounted his life story in his 2015 autobiography “The Man From Muscle Shoals,” and was the focal point of filmmaker Greg Camalier’s 2013 documentary, “Muscle Shoals.”
One of the key virtues Hall often touted in recounting the studio’s unlikely success against better known and more centrally located competitors in Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, Memphis, Tenn., and Detroit was the inclusive mindset of all who worked there, one he summarized with a single word: “colorblind.”
Roe Eristor “Rick” Hall was born Jan. 31, 1932, in Tishomingo County, Miss. His parents, Herman and Dolly, had married young, and his mother left the family when Hall was 4, and he and his younger sister were raised by their father and grandparents.
One early professional mentor was Sam Phillips, a Florence, Ala., resident who had moved to Memphis and set up the venerated Sun Studio and record label that gave the world Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and made some of the earliest recordings by B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas and dozens of other early rock, R&B, country and blues musicians.
“We would sit up and talk until 2 o’clock in the morning,” Hall told the New York Times in 2015 of his relationship with Phillips, “and Sam would tell me, ‘Rick, don’t go to Nashville, because they’ll eat your soul alive.’ I wanted to be like Sam — I wanted to be somebody special.”
Like Phillips, Hall, who was born into poverty, yearned to provide a broader audience for the black music he loved.
“Pickett was reluctant to come to Alabama,” he said in the same interview, “but when he met me and saw who I was and what I was, he changed his mind. We were trying our best to do what we had to do to prove ourselves to black people.”
He flaunted the widespread segregation policies in place, often eating in local restaurants with clients such as Redding in a state where Gov. George Wallace had been stumping for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
At Fame, Hall, who was white, as were most of the Swampers, helped numerous African American artists create some of the great soul and R&B records.
“Black music helped broaden my musical horizons and open my eyes and ears to the widespread appeal of the so-called ‘race’ music that later became known as ‘rhythm and blues,’ ” Hall wrote in his book, subtitled “My Journey From Shame to Fame.”
Hall had grown up immersed in country music — another of his passions — and as a budding songwriter he wrote songs recorded by George Jones, Brenda Lee and Roy Orbison.
Of his initial work with Franklin, Hall wrote that “Around lunchtime of that first Aretha session, we still hadn’t nailed ‘I Never Loved a Man.’ Aretha was singing and playing her can off, but nothing exciting was happening on the rhythm track until Spooner [Oldham, one of Fame’s session keyboard players] began playing that lowdown blues riff. As soon as he hit it, everything about that track started coming together.
But relations between Hall, Wexler, Franklin and her husband-manager Ted White began to fray and Franklin would never return to Fame, and Wexler also gradually moved his productions to other studios.
But Hall soon struck up a similar connection with Leonard Chess of Chicago’s great blues and R&B label, Chess Records. Chess sent Etta James to Fame to record, and Hall thought she could make something out of a song Clarence Carter had a minor hit with, “Tell Daddy.” He changed it to “Tell Mama,” and persuaded James to record it against her protests that “it’s not a hit and it’s driving me crazy.”
“Sometime later,” he wrote, “when the record was high on the pop charts, I went backstage to visit her at the Troubadour in Los Angeles…..She grabbed me and hugged me and cried, ‘Rick Hall, I love you! I’m so glad you made me do that damn song! It brought my career back to life and I’ll always be grateful.’”
He also connected her with the song “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which became one of the cornerstones of her repertoire and one of her most admired recordings.
In the often-volatile music business, Hall often faced challenges, among them the defection of the Swampers rhythm section in 1969, when the musicians wanted more control over what and with whom they played. They eventually opened their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, not far away, creating a rift that lasted decades. But he said that in recent years they had patched up their differences.
Hall is an Alabama Music Hall of Fame inductee and received a Trustees Award from the Recording Academy during the Grammy Awards in 2014.