Rick Hall, Founder of Muscle Shoals' FAME Recording Studio, Dies at 85

Rick Hall—the songwriter, producer, publisher, and studio head who was responsible for nurturing and capturing the Muscle Shoals sound—has died at the age of 85.

Hall’s FAME Studios matched the talents of Alabaman session players with soul music’s biggest vocalists to create timeless music, making the out-of-the-way Muscle Shoals a sought-after recording destination for artists across the world.

Among the enormous volume of hits FAME Studios produced—which included 75 gold and platinum records—were Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," Etta James’s Tell Mama, and Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances.”

As viewers of the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals or readers of the 2015 memoir The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame will know, Hall’s early life was marked by hardship and tragedy. Born into a family of poor sharecroppers, he’d lose his brother to a horrific accident as a child. The tragedy would cause his mother to leave the family. Later, after getting married, his wife and father would both die within a two-week period.

It was after those losses that Hall decided to focus on music, leaving his factory job to play in a few bands and write songs.

As Hall recounts that time in the documentary: “I went through a stupor of three or four years, staying drunk, playing in bands. I just became a nobody, just a vagabond. After I came out of that stupor, I decided to go into the music business full time.”

Hall had some success with his first forays into songwriting. Roy Orbison recorded his “Sweet and Innocent” in 1958 and George Jones released his “Achin, Breakin’ Heart” in 1961. But it was Hall’s cofounding of a music publishing company—Florence Alabama Music Enterprises—that would set a new course for his life and give FAME Studios its name. (Florence, along with Muscle Shoals, comprises a metropolitan area commonly referred to as “The Shoals.”)

The first hit to come out of FAME was Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On.” The studio and its regular session players, which included Spooner Oldham, David Briggs, and songwriter/producer Dan Penn, would make records with Otis Redding, Clarence Carter, Percy Sledge, and other black soul stars. Duane Allman was hired as a full-time session guitarist for a few months in 1968, in which Hall pushed back against Allman’s attempts to record elongated jams.

Throughout the ‘70s, FAME would continue to record Southern soul records, along with new ventures into country music, while many of the original session players would move across town to form Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. He continued to run FAME Studios and would run his publishing company to great success.

Hall, who came to be known as “The Father of Muscle Shoals Music,” was awarded a Grammy Trustees Award for his “significant contributions … to the field of recording.”

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