It’s always sad to hear of the death of anyone whose music has been such a huge part of one’s life.
2018 has begun with the loss of Rick Hall, founder of Florence, Alabama Music Enterprises - or FAME, as it’s known throughout the world. Ace has represented the Fame catalogue exclusively for many years, and is proud to do so to this day. It goes without saying that we are all greatly saddened that the gregarious and immensely likeable Mr. Hall will no longer be sitting in his big chair in his office above his studios, running his company in a hands-on capacity. He may have been getting up there in years, but Rick had the energy and enthusiasm of a man half his age. Although nobody and nothing lasts forever, you always felt Rick had a better chance than most of making that happen.
If you have seen the Muscle Shoals film documentary, you will know that Roe Erister Hall overcame incredible personal hardship on his way to becoming one of the leading record men of the 20th Century. No matter what tragedies befell him, Rick kept on keeping on, and his personal strength of character was at the core of everything he accomplished. The first major record to come out of his first FAME recording studio in 1961 was Arthur Alexander’s ‘You Better Move On’. When no label showed any real interest in Jimmy Hughes’ ‘Steal Away’ three years later, Rick put it out on the Fame label and got in a car with his lifelong friend and former employee Dan Penn to promote the record themselves, driving all over the south and ending up with a Top 30 Pop hit for their pains.
It was the sound of Rick’s studio and musicians that gave Aretha Franklin a new musical identity, and turned her into the artist who many still regard as the ‘Queen Of Soul’. And it was Rick who evolved family act the Osmond Brothers into a global chart phenomenon after years of innumerable TV appearances and so-so record sales. The success of these, and the many others who passed through the studio over the years, was driven by Rick’s unflagging determination and vision.
He knew that every great singer needs great musicians, and his studio bands always displayed greatness. Few would have given FAME much of a fighting chance after Rick’s first rhythm section was lured to Nashville en masse by Ray Stevens to become part of the pool of A-list players that the City could already boast. Rick confounded expectations by assembling a second studio band that was even greater than the first, the line-up of Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson, Junior Lowe (quickly replaced by David Hood) and Roger Hawkins providing the foundation on which the definitive Muscle Shoals sound was built. When they in turn left to start their own studio in 1969, Rick built a third great studio band, the Fame Gang, around Lowe. The FAME sound was kept constant throughout, thanks to Rick’s unquestionable ability to recognise quality in a musician.
Unlike his contemporary Jim Stewart a few miles up the road at Stax, Rick never believed in keeping the sound of his studio to himself. The doors were open seven days a week to any label who wanted a little bit of Muscle Shoals magic to rub off on their acts. From major labels like Atlantic and Chess to highly regarded indies such as Goldwax and the Jewel-Paula-Ronn group of labels, all were welcome on Avalon Avenue. Rick didn’t engineer or produce every act that passed through the doors of FAME Studios, but all of them, without exception benefitted greatly from the sound in his mind.
Rick was proud of all his productions, whether they were hits or not – and he had every right to be. He was as thrilled with the success of the Osmonds’ chart-topping ‘One Bad Apple’ as he was with the unexpected breakout hit that was Clarence Carter’s throwaway B-side ‘Slip Away’. He enjoyed tight and lasting relationships with his protégés including the notoriously difficult Wilson Pickett, a man who many would have crossed the road to avoid but who Rick seldom got less than the best out of in the studio, and who Rick got on with in a way that few of his other producers before or after did.
Rick produced hit records consistently for four decades, in three Muscle Shoals studios that bore the name of FAME. He started with the country soul of Arthur Alexander’s ‘You Better Move On’ in 1961 and his last major hits came via the soul country of Marty Raybon and Shenandoah and songs like ‘Two Dozen Roses’ and ‘The Church On The Cumberland Road’ in the early 1990s. He never stopped looking for a hit song, and was still signing up potentially successful country writers in the noughties when Alec, Dean and I made many pleasurable visits to FAME in order to copy the contents of the studio’s tape vaults.
We had been warned before the first of those visits that Rick did not suffer fools gladly, and that we might not get to see him much while we were going about our business. But within a day of Alec and myself setting up Alec’s gear in Studio B and starting in on the first round of tape copying, Rick was already wandering down regularly to take an interested listen to some of our more spectacular finds, and sharing stories with us about the origins of some of them. We got on like a house on fire, and the relationship never flagged over the course of several more visits that I made with both Alec and Dean Rudland. He was always interested in what we were doing and always pleased with the CDs that came out of our marathon vault trawls, the 3CD FAME Studios Story in particular.
My fondest memory of Rick – and I am sure it’s one I share with Dean – is of a marvellous interview Dean and I conducted with David Hood and Jimmy Johnson on a cold January afternoon a few years ago. We were sitting in the control room of FAME Studio B chewing the fat and generally reminiscing, when Rick unexpectedly popped his head round the door, pulled up a chair and joined his friends and former employees in a magical three-way conversation that really required very little from us to push it along. Almost 40 years earlier I had purchased Clarence Carter’s ‘Looking For A Fox’, the label of which proudly proclaimed that it was produced by Rick Hall and recorded in Fame Studios, Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The teenaged me felt he had as much hope of ever visiting this place with an already legendary reputation as he had of visiting the moon. Now here I was, sitting in a room in that same studio with two of the men who had played on the record and the man who produced it. Those kind of ‘dream come true’ moments only happen a few times in every lifetime. I’m glad this one happened in mine.
There really WILL never be another Rick Hall, and we should all be glad that Rick was around to contribute to the evolution of popular music at a time when it was evolving so rapidly. All of us at Ace are sad beyond words that he has moved on, and we remain committed to preserving his recorded legacy now and for a long time to come. It goes without saying that we offer our most sincere condolences to Rick’s widow Linda, his son Rodney and all other members of the Hall family.
Roe Erister ‘Rick’ Hall – 31/1/1932 – 2/1/2017
Muscle Shoals, and its neighbouring cities, still isn’t much to look at. If you were taking a long drive through the Southern states, I’m not sure you would choose it as a place to take a break. Too little going on. And yet Rick Hall set up his studio there and within a decade this part of Northern Alabama had become an international recording hub. Of all Rick Hall’s achievements this still bewilders, it wasn’t like Nashville or Memphis weren’t just up the road; they were. But it would take just five minutes in his company for you to understand that if anyone could do it Rick could.
The first time I met him, Alec Palao and I were taking part in what would eventually become a fifteen-year Ace campaign to do a deal with Fame. He was behind the control desk and mixing his latest country discovery; he was pleasant, but quite clearly focused on the moment. We felt a little apprehensive as he shoo-ed us out of the studio – we felt that perhaps we’d not really made our mark. At dinner that night, it was initially a little polite, with Rick telling us some stock stories, but no-one really connecting. It took one question to change all that, instead of asking about Aretha or Wilson Pickett, we enquired about Bobby Gentry and the recording of ‘Fancy’ – it was one of Rick’s favourites and he opened right up. The next day we were back in his gold disc-lined office discussing music, Memphis hair and listening very loud to that office’s sound system.
Over the next few years and several visits we were given an insight into his world, which revolved around his family – wife Linda and son Rodney were ever-present at the studio – music and Fame. He offered up great interviews with insights on recording, the artists and the dynamics of the record business. We’d been told that Rick could be difficult, and whilst we sometimes felt the force of his stare, it was because he was engaged in what we were doing and was determined that if he trusted us with his legacy, we’d better be doing it right. One such grilling happened to Tony and me immediately after the interview he describes in his obituary of Rick. I’m sure we both still tremble thinking about, but you can bet we were determined to get it right!
Our final meeting happened when Alec and I wanted to film an interview with him. Rick and Linda were at their place on the Gulf Of Mexico, at the very Southern end of Alabama, so after a seven-hour drive we finally arrived. Rick was in a good mood, and we joked and laughed through several hours of filming, lunch and more filming. The Muscle Shoals documentary had recently come out to great acclaim, especially for Rick, and he was loving it, suggesting that he was actually a great English Shakespearean actor who we should call ‘Sir Richard’.
We had a great time, but more importantly so did Rick. We started out wanting to represent some of the greatest music we had ever heard, and we ended up friends with the man who produced it. It was an honour.
I can only concur with Tony and Dean’s eloquent reminiscences and agree that it was an unprecedented privilege get to know Rick Hall, the architect and the instigator of so many records that have meant the world to us all. I myself made at least half a dozen visits to 603 East Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals during our ongoing excavations over the past fifteen years, and it was always a pleasure to spend time in those hallowed halls, with a warm welcome from Rick, Rodney, Linda and everyone else.
Unlike so many famous recording facilities, since 1964 the FAME studio has remained more or less in the same spot, with little architectural adjustment, so one truly had a sense of entering a temple of sound. This also meant that the building retained a full complement of master tapes that Rick had engineered and produced. I made one fascinating trip by myself, ostensibly to take inventory of the vault in order to map out priorities for further tape copying. Rick of course couldn’t resist peeking round the door to see what I was up to, and our chat morphed into a lengthy one-on-one interview, where we really got to grips with dissecting the technical aspect of Fame – why it was that the actual space sounded so magical. I cherish that experience, and I think Rick did too, because it was one amongst his many achievements that he had rarely gotten to discuss in detail.
In truth, we all constantly grilled Rick on the whys and wherefores of the Muscle Shoals golden era, and yes, it did take just a little while to fully win him over. Like that first time dinner-table discussion of ‘Fancy,’ another signal moment early on was when Tony and I were in his office chatting about his favourite productions, Rick responding with his pat riffs on the making of big pop hits like ‘Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me’ or ‘You’re Having My Baby.’ Yet, when Tony inquired about obscure soulster Marcell Strong, he visibly raised an eyebrow in surprise. The penny had dropped that these Limeys might actually know what they were talking about.
From those moments on, it was always a good time with Rick, who answered our ever more arcane queries with grace, cracked a lot of corny jokes, and shared hilarious and occasionally unrepeatable anecdotes about everyone from Wilson Pickett to Tom Jones. Yes, we did frequently and politely have to lend an ear to the demo from his latest hot new country writer, which as Dean describes above, was played back at ear-splitting volume, while Rick sat behind his desk tweaking the end of his moustache with a smile. If you recall that Maxell ad from the 1980s, where a poor hapless soul is pinned to their seat with hair flying, you’ll appreciate something of the experience.
When I ran into Rick at the Grammys in 2013, he seemed genuinely pleased, and waxed lyrical once again over the various repackages Ace had released of Fame material. It was an honour to be in the audience when the man received his richly-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy, even if the Muscle Shoals documentary sadly didn’t snag the prize that year. Similarly, Rick seemed to appreciate that Dean and I had made the lengthy trip down to Mobile to visit him on our last jaunt to Alabama the following year. He was on good form, especially when the camera was rolling, waving his Grammy around while contributing choice Hall tidbits such as his disappointment that Pickett had never asked him to play country fiddle on a session. See, I told you he was a comedian. More importantly, he was a remarkable individual that all of us at Ace will miss.