Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Rick Hall

4th January 2018

Legendary Muscle Shoals record producer Rick Hall died this week aged 85. Lois Wilson pays tribute:

Rick Hall and Etta James. Photo from the House Of Fame LLC/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

In 2013 the Greg Camalier documentary Muscle Shoals shined a light on Rick Hall, the producer, studio owner, songwriter, arranger and label boss who was the chief architect behind the Muscle Shoals Sound: a warm, greasy southern soul music based around intimate storytelling, and a musical collision of grits, groove and country.

The recognition was well deserved, Hall was a singular talent driven by a unique vision. He could be cantankerous, stubborn and demonstrative in his dealings, but he was also warm-hearted and had a social conscience.

Throughout the 60s, when racism was endemic in the deep south, this white producer invited Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Etta James et al to his Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record. He couldn’t eat with these singers in public, but inside 603 East Avalon Avenue, he made astonishing music with them and his all-white house band The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section aka the Swampers — Barry Beckett on keyboards, Jimmy Johnson on guitar, David Hood on bass and Roger Hawkins on drums. Records such as Pickett’s Mustang Sally, Aretha’s I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) and Etta’s I’d Rather Go Blind.

Hall was born Roe Erister Hall on January 31, 1932 in Forest Grove, Mississippi. His background was tough: he slept on a straw bed on a dirt floor in a shack with no toilet, bath or running water. His brother fell into scalding water when he was three and died; his mum left the family home to become a sex worker; his dad, a sawmill worker and sharecropper, who gave Hall a mandolin to play when he was six, was crushed to death in later life by the tractor Hall bought him as a present.

In his 20s, Hall played in local bands including the Country Pals, appearing on the radio regularly, then after writing songs with saxist Billy Sherrill, he formed The Fairlanes with singer and songwriter Dan Penn. In 1959, with Tom Stafford and Sherrill, he set up Fame as a demo recording studio and music publishers. When their partnership broke up, he took the Fame name and with friend Sam Phillips as his model, he set up his equivalent of Sun Studios, and found success in 1961 with Arthur Alexander’s You Better Move On, which the Rolling Stones covered in 1964. He ploughed the money from the 800,000 record sales into building his new studio at 603 East Avalon Avenue.

Through Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Woman in 1966, he caught the attention of Atlantic Records boss Jerry Wexler. Wexler sent Wilson Pickett to record with him, and the relationship was fecund, with Land of 1000 Dances, Mustang Sally and Funky Broadway all making the charts. Then Aretha arrived and things didn’t go so well during the recording of I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You). Hall and her then-husband and manager Ted White got into a fight – the result being that Aretha finished the album in New York with the Swampers.

Hall, having fallen out with Wexler over the dispute, carried on, resurrecting an ailing Etta James’ career with Tell Mama and I’d Rather Go Blind, hitting on Clarence Carter with Slip Away and Patches and inadvertently inventing southern rock when Duane Allman swung by and convinced Wilson Pickett to record Hey Jude.

In 1969 the Swampers, with Jerry Wexler, left to set up their rival studio the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio at 3614 Jackson Highway, working with the Stones, Traffic, Bob Dylan and Bob Seger. Hall was knocked, but recruiting the Fame Gang as his new house band, continued to rack up the hits, most notably with The Osmonds’ Number 1 One Bad Apple and Paul Anka’s You’re Having My Baby. Hall eventually made his peace with the Swampers and Wexler and started to gain numerous accolades. In 1985, he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall Of Fame. In 2014, he won the Grammy Trustees Award in recognition of his services to music.

“I thrived on rejection,” Hall said. “I wanted to prove the world was wrong and I was right”. The enviable body of work he has left behind proves just that. He was right. On January 2, he died from cancer, aged 85. He will be sorely missed.

Rick Hall, 31 January 1932 – 2 January 2018