Originally published in the May 18, 2015 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
How sweet the sounds! From Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” to Mac Davis’ “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” and beyond, FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., has produced some of the best-loved and everlasting hits in modern recorded music. The guiding force behind the sound was producer Rick Hall, who turned the tiny northern Alabama town into a recording mecca for the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, George Jones and a cast of other contemporary heroes. He’s been given the well-deserved moniker, “Father of the Muscle Shoals Sound,” for his groundbreaking efforts in the recording world
After considerable prodding by his peers, Rick has finally written a book about his life, the studio and the musicians who inhabited FAME, titled The Man From Muscle Shoals. The book is already in release and available at bookstores and online retailers. During a delightful and often fascinating conversation, Rick touched on a variety of subjects detailed in the book, including his poverty-stricken childhood and working with some of country music’s finest.
Rick devotes considerable space in the book’s early portions to his childhood in rural Alabama, marked by the divorce of his parents and tough economic times. “There is a lot of detail about that. I think I just have a vivid memory,” Rick says with an amiable laugh. “There were hardships, but I wanted to tell that part of it because I think those times led to me being a better man and a pretty good record producer. I thought people might be fascinated with that part of the story.”
Music buffs, naturally, will want to sink their teeth into the actual day-to-day mechanism of FAME, which became one of the most renowned studios in the world. Who recorded there? Which albums and songs were put together in the off-the-beaten-path studio? You’ll find all the details in The Man From Muscle Shoals.
“The book actually started out as a daily diary that I kept over the years,” Rick says. “I would write down who we recorded today or who I met with and so forth. The diary kind of grew and I made notes in it. People were always asking why didn’t I turn that into a book. Well, I finally did it.”
Though FAME gained its reputation for enhancing the music of R&B stars like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, the studio also became a favorite for country acts like Alabama (of course), George Jones, Jerry Reed and Travis Tritt. Rick grew up savoring both country and R&B and worked in Nashville during the early 1960s as a songwriter and producer. “I have always been a tremendous fan of country music and Nashville,” Rick says. “The first money I ever made was in Nashville as a songwriter. Later, when I went to Muscle Shoals, I did a lot of songs for Bobbie Gentry and Mac Davis. Mac did his big hit ‘Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me’ there. And we did a lot of the hits for Alabama and Shenandoah. The Alabama guys were fun to work with.”
Rick shares a story about one of his favorite country artists, Jerry Reed, who was sent to Muscle Shoals on the advice of his record label head, Jerry Bradley, in the early 1980s. “Bradley said two things to me,” Rick recalls with a laugh. “He said he didn’t want horns on any of the records and I was to tell Jerry not to bring his guitar. Now, Jerry was a great guitar player and a very talented guy. But Bradley said that if Jerry gets in there and starts jamming with the musicians, we won’t get anything done. We’ll never get to the song.”
Rick reiterated the conversation to Jerry Reed, whose response fell somewhat short of enthusiastic. “He took off in his car and I thought that was the end of it,” Rick laughs. “But he came back after about an hour. He said that he thought about it and he was going to be with me.” The song Jerry ended up recording was the fast-moving ditty “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft),” a No. 1 hit in 1982.
Portions of the book were difficult to write, Rick notes, particularly the death of his first wife. But overall, Rick relished the thought of remembering the artists and the musicians who came through FAME. “People have asked me, how did I pick and choose which ones to write about,” Rick says. “I just tried to find the people that readers would be most interested in. It has taken me 10 years to finish this book,” he adds, “but I’m excited to have it out there. I hope people will find it a good read.”