Rick Hall: Always Looking For That Song

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If you saw Paste’s 2013 Documentary of the Year, Freddy Camalier’s spectacular Muscle Shoals, you’re most likely already fascinated by its central character, the founder of FAME Studios and the ringleader of the music scene in that town, Rick Hall. But any documentary can only tell so much of the story. Recently a motley Paste crew—editor-in-chief Josh Jackson, associate editor and music editor Bonnie Stiernberg, and movies editor Michael Dunaway—took the trip to Muscle Shoals to hear more stories. In Dunaway’s interview below, Hall gives more details about his growing up, becoming a musician, and how FAME got started.

Rick Hall: In the music business, you are constantly looking for that song. That’s what it’s all about. Producers, like myself, we’re always trying to figure out how we should produce that song. We might change the melody slightly. Sometimes the artists are too sexy, and we have to change that. And, believe it or not, people want to dance. Most hit songs have dance beats.

I’ve always been an independent record producer. I’ve never had a locked-in deal. If you don’t cut hit records, you don’t make any money, and you don’t stay in business. We’ve been in business for 50 years. I’ve been producing records for 50 years.

Paste : I wondered after I saw Muscle Shoals whether or not you would ever write a memoir.

Hall: I have. You’ve got to understand… when you’re talking about the musical aspect of my book, it’s over half of my life. The reason why I wanted to do the book is because the movie cut off at 1972, and that’s when I really started blossoming. I had Andy Williams. I had Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music White Boy.” I had The Osmonds. I had Mac Davis and many others. That’s when I had all of my big stuff. There are only so many minutes you can put in a documentary.

Paste : I just met Mac at SXSW. He was being given an award. Such a nice guy.

Hall: I have a cattle ranch about 15 miles out of town. [He and his wife] lived with us during the time that they were in their courtship. Of course, he lost Sarah while he was in the studio with me recording. His first wife left him, and it broke his heart. He stayed drunk all the time. I hauled him around in my limousine, and I tried to help get him through it. He was torn, really torn.

Paste : Something that the movie didn’t touch on that I wanted to hear more about was how you started out as a songwriter. You were a musician, yourself. Tell me about how you go started.

Hall: When I was six years old, my father taught me and my sister to sing duets together. We sang at community gatherings and neighbors’ houses. Dad would prompt us to sing gospel songs. Things like: “Keep on the Firing Line,” “Amazing Grace,” etc. It was all gospel stuff.

Later on, my uncle bought a mandolin. He brought it home and hung it on the wall. My father was a saw miller, and we lived in a saw-miller shack made out of scrap boards that were taken off of lumber yards. We lived in the Freedom Hills. Our only recreation was to play with ourselves. Just the two of us. We sang. We were lonely because our mother had left us. We had no other kids to play with, and we never saw cars. In the Freedom Hills, all they did back there was make whiskey and sell whiskey. My dad used to say that everyone had to start wearing badges to keep from selling whiskey to each other.

We were hillbillies, in the best sense of the word. We were barefooted in the winter time. When we became teenagers we went to Cleveland, Ohio. My daddy was trying to find better work. Relatives of ours would go to Cleveland and write back about how money grew on trees in Cleveland. Jobs were plentiful there, so we went to school in Cleveland. It was a crazy adjustment because, in the Freedom Hills, the teachers lived in boarding houses. The schoolhouses were deep in the woods and only had three classrooms. You didn’t learn much. We played with sticks and things like that.

No black person or white person has ever been as poor as we were. Nobody. Nobody, I’m telling you. Ask any of the old people, and they’ll tell you. We had no shoes. We had no mother. We hardly saw our father, because he had to work for a living. We spent our afternoons at the sawmills with our dad. We played in the sawdust piles and chased flies. We lived like animals. Our main concern was dying. I was afraid I would die without anyone able to help me. The houses were 20 miles apart from one another out there in the boondocks. They were hard times.

But my father raised us and taught us everything we knew. I was seven when I first went to school. I went to Cleveland four years later. It was the end of the second World War. As you can imagine, going to Cleveland from Freedom Hills was shocking. There were three-story buildings, and we had never seen anything like that! We didn’t know what lockers were, and could never remember our combinations. My dad made 35 cents an hour cutting lumber. We were always afraid of getting kidnapped by our mother. We would crawl into drain culverts and hide. Or we would hide in closets or under our beds. We were always afraid. I was a small child with little arms. I was always afraid of dying. People thought I had TB because I was so small.

I started playing the little mandolin that my uncle had brought home. I would break teeth out of my dad’s comb and use it as a pick on the mandolin. In school, my teacher convinced me to perform my music in chapel. I had a hit there called “Slap Her Down Again, Pa”. It was a Spike Jones-like song. It was my go-to song. Everybody wanted to hear hillbilly songs in Cleveland. I was convinced to start singing in quartets.

I finished school in Alabama, and the Agriculture teacher there took us under his wing. He said, “Rick, you’re special. I want you to continue your music.” He would take us from house to house in his old 1939 Chevrolet car. We’d tie our bass to the roof of it. We went from neighbor to neighbor to neighbor, and we’d play. We practiced all the time. There was about eight or nine of us in the band. The first year we were together we went to Auburn University in Alabama and won third place in their string band contest.The second year, we won first place.

I went into the army then. I was in special services. I started writing songs and playing music. My dad was very old fashioned and conservative. He killed hogs and never made any money. He thought I could have been the president of the United States. He thought that I should exploit my talents. He was a big influence on my life in the music business. He never saw any of my success though. He died thinking I was going to be a pauper.

Paste : I think it’s a good thing that you didn’t become president. I think what you did for the world was way more important than that. You helped a heck of a lot of people with what you did for music.

Hall: Thank you. I really appreciate that.

Paste : You and Billy Sherrill were in different bands. So, how did you meet each-other, and how did you both meet Tom Stafford?

Hall: Billy lost his mother and daddy, and I lost my daddy around the same time. We were bound by the fact that we both understood what it felt like to be lonely. As you probably saw in the movie, I lost my mother to the red light district. She became a waitress there, so to speak. Bill and I met Tom together. We played in separate bands in a town called Hamilton.

We became good friends. We enjoyed each other’s abilities. He thought I was a great fiddle player. I thought he was a great saxophone and piano player. He went to one school, and I went to another. He was always concerned about writing songs together. We went on double dates together with our wives. We wrote songs about girls. We both wanted to be big and famous. We didn’t want to write country songs—we thought that would be belittling to our integrity. We wanted to be famous, so all of that was beneath us. We were crazy about The Ink Spots. We were crazy about The Atlantic Group, The Coasters, The Drifters, etc.

We wanted to write something special. We wanted to write a national anthem. We thought big. We started writing a lot of songs together in Hamilton. I played music every day at a radio station. It was a 10,000-watt station, and we had a program where we played for 30 minutes from 11:30-12 daily. We made our living playing square dances. We were both disenchanted with what we were doing, so we tried to write great songs. Back then, you could record music in the Greyhound bus station. There was a restaurant in there too. We spent our weekends there and cut songs. There was a burlap tape recorder that sat on a desk and two microphones. We were our own background singers. I played the mandolin, fiddle, guitar, drums, etc. We did it all.

I became a lifeguard in Cleveland, Ohio through the YMCA. I was a great swimmer. There was a blonde girl at the pool who I fell in love with. Her boyfriend was in the National Guard for a month, so I thought it was time to move in on her. She fell for me too. I wrote a song about her. It was called “Sweet and Innocent”. She was gorgeous, and a good swimmer too. Her mother hated me. She was a school teacher, and she wouldn’t let me date her daughter. She thought I was beneath her. But, rightly so—I stayed drunk half the time back then. I was the type of guy you didn’t let your daughters date.

When we recorded the song, I thought Billy sounded exactly like Roy Orbison. The song was taken to Nashville, and it was cut by Roy Orbison of all people! Roy was big back then. We had our pictures taken for the local paper. There was a man named Tom Stafford who said, “I like you guys. I want to start a publishing company and be three-way partners. I’ll be a silent partner and furnish the money.” We stayed in Florence, Alabama, and founded Florence Alabama Music Enterprises. We called it FAME for short. Tom’s dad gave us permission to use his drug store on Main Street as the location of our publishing company. I was appointed to be the mouth of the organization and the salesman. I started getting cuts for big name artists. Brenda Lee cut one of the songs that I wrote. This went on and on. So, we went back home and attended a meeting. Everyone in the meeting said, “We want to have fun! You’re too adamant. We’re going to let you go. You’re obsessed with the music business, and you’re too strong willed.” I was fired for working too hard! I made a million-dollar company out of nothing, and they fired me! I was devastated, so I went back home and licked my wounds for a few months.

Paste : Wow. Who was the first employee you ever hired? Tell me about that.

Hall: I hired Jimmy Johnson as a male secretary. I never had a lot of confidence in Jimmy as a musician, so I made him my assistant. He was all over the place. I was the producer, so he set up the studio for me and ran errands. He was in a band; we were all in bands. I said, “Look, I really don’t need any help. But I’ll try you out and see how you do.” He was at my elbow all the time. I don’t think Jimmy had the knowledge that I had, so I didn’t give him a lot of authority. We cut records for his band. We cut records for everybody. But, the first record I cut was not in our studio. It was a studio down the highway. The first record I cut at my own studio was for Jim Hughes. I was batting 1.000 back then. I knew everything. Nobody could tell me what to do.

Paste : I read something very interesting lately, and I have to know if it is true. I read that you had a limited number of microphones, and when you wanted a guitar to get louder or softer, you had musicians move closer to the microphones, then further away. Is that right?

Hall: Yes. That’s true. I’ll take it further. We couldn’t afford many microphones, so we bought cheap ones. You could get one for about seventy-five bucks in those days, but that was a lot. We only had one microphone, because that was all we could afford. I hung the mic between Arthur Alexander and the acoustic guitar player. If we needed more or less volume I’d say, “Back it up, Peanut!” He would scoot back if it got too loud. We cut whole albums using just that one mic.

Paste : That’s a great story. That sounds beautiful.

Hall: Yeah, but you gotta know what I had to go through to get there. It was terrible!

Paste : People started flocking to work with you. You started making a lot of hits.

Hall: Yeah. I had cut two records. Both were big hits. I had no qualms about the fact that that could happen to anybody though. I believed that anybody could do it if they worked as hard as I did, so I didn’t give myself much gratitude. Elvis’s producer was my best friend. He wanted to bring Tommy Roe down. He was signed to Paramount Records. Neither Jimmy nor Rodger nor David worked on this with me. Tommy brought Ray Stevens with him. They were brother-in-laws. They had married sisters. They wanted to play together but didn’t have a song. So, I got together with another songwriter, Dan Penn, and wrote a hit song for them. The song was called “Everybody”, and it was the third song we had cut. Tommy was the first white man we cut songs with. Everyone before him was black. Bill and I had become good friends. Then, Bill brought The Tams to the studio, and we cut “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am”. We used flutes, the whole deal! In fact, the girl who was playing the flute on that track was only fourteen years old! After working with The Tams, we did “Laugh it Off”. On “Laugh it Off”, the band laughed in harmony. Yes, they laughed in four part harmony. [Singing] “Laugh it off. Hahaha. Laugh it off…” It was incredible. I had never heard anybody laugh in harmony before! Bill was tied to Vee-Jay Records at the time. Vee-Jay had done stuff for The Beatles, so they had money. They wanted me to help Jimmy Hughes. It was on my label. They put me on the spot and made me the producer of The Tams. Then, they wanted me to help Joe Simon. Joe was coming off a record called “My Adorable One,” which was very successful. By this time, the world knew about Rick Hall. This was either in 1964 or 1965. Mine and Billy’s philosophy had always been: anyone can be a millionaire by the time they’re 40 years old. But, I wanted to be one by the time I was 30! And I made it! [Laughs] I had a lot of good help though. People get confused about Jimmy and Rodger and the rest of the guys… people assume they were with me from the get-go, but they weren’t. They were one of five rhythm groups that I was in, and they were the only ones that were white. That’s when I got smart about it and started mixing people up. We wanted it to be integrated. That’s why Aretha’s stuff was integrated.

Paste : Can you tell me about the echo chamber?

Hall: I put a speaker in a bathroom and hung the microphone up too. That was my version of an echo chamber. Yes, we used a bathroom for an echo-chamber. Once, I took a crap in there when I was recording and had to recut it! [Everyone laughs]

Paste : I was born in 1968, so by the time I even knew what music was, Aretha Franklin was already Aretha Franklin. The idea that there was once a time when people didn’t know what to do with her, that there was a time when she was still trying to find her voice, that blew my mind. And in that one day, during that one recording session, things started to turn around for her. What are your memories of her first coming in? Did you seen any vulnerability?

Hall: Well, I was a strong young boy with a lot of piss and vinegar. We were very old-fashioned. My wife would go to church while I was on the phone with Jerry, screaming. She would come back from church two hours later, and I’d still be on the phone screaming. We fought all the time, but I still have the utmost respect for him… and for Jimmy too. Jerry was very instrumental on what happened during that session with Aretha. As a trial to see what I could do, Jerry sent down Wilson Pickett. Pickett and I produced “Land of a Thousand Dances” and “Mustang Sally” and “Hey Jude,” so we had a string of big hit records.

Paste : So, the two of you were like brothers? Can you tell me about that connection?

Hall: Pickett and I were inseparable. We were running partners. We were buddies. We would drive down Broadway going 85 or 90 miles per hour. He would say things like, “I heard Johnnie Taylor is in town. Let’s go whoop his ass!” I would say, “No, no, no, Pickett, I just want to have fun. Let’s eat some soul food or something.” I always had to make him back down. He got into a scuffle in the studio once with Percy Sledge. Percy said, “I can sing higher than you can.” Then Wilson said, “You’re full of shit! Nobody can sing higher or better than me!” Pickett was the lead singer of The Falcons. They had a song called “You’re So Fine.” [Begins singing very highly] I was the only one who knew he could sing that high. He was under contract at the time, but I heard he was somehow able to get out of it early. I was curious, so I asked him how he got out of that contract. He said, “It was easy, man. I just went up to the second floor where the boss man was. Then I held a .45 up to his head and told him I was there to get my contracts. He just opened up his file drawer and handed them to me. There wasn’t nothing to it.” That shows you the kind of attitude he had back then! If you were his friend, you were always his friend, but if you weren’t? Oh boy. He’d say things to me like, “What do you have that beard for? What are you trying to prove?” He hated my mustache, and he was a troublemaker. But, he loved me. He loved me, and I loved him. We were truly inseparable. Believe it or not, we hardly ever had cross words. He was always on my team. I was always on his team. I really loved Pickett. He was here for the ceremony when I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was on the board of directors, so I had a little pull back then. We decided who would be inducted and who wouldn’t be.

Paste : And how did that lead up to the Aretha Franklin gig?

Hall: I was a fan of Wilson Pickett long before I had even heard of Aretha Franklin. I had no idea who she was at the time. I knew her father though. We used to listen to him preach. That was our entertainment when we were driving. We had to stay awake, so we would listen to him preach. We figured that since we had so much success, we should try recording Aretha. Most every writer who ever writes about this gets it wrong. We did not just use the usual four guys for it. Chips Moman helped. He was a record producer who had worked with Elvis Presley. He had done “Son of a Preacher Man” and all of these things. Chips was also a guitar player who knew what to play and when to play it. Most of the other guys just hunted for things. “Funky Broadway” was his lick. “Land of a Thousand Dances” was his lick. He said, “Jimmy, why don’t you play this, and I’ll play that.” I’ve had about five rhythm sections in my organization since I started. Each one of them cut hit records, but it wasn’t really integrated until we left and went across town.

Aretha Franklin was young and pretty. A few of the guys had brought a bottle into the studio, and they were sipping on it. They became a bit obnoxious, and one of the horn players said to Aretha, “Hey baby, why don’t you do so-and-so and so-and-so!” It was enough to get Ted White, her husband, a bit offended. He came to the control room and told us to fire the trumpet player for making passes at Aretha. I asked Jerry what he thought, and we decided to fire him. The guy was a friend of mine. He had been with me from the beginning and played on most of my hits, but I fired him anyway. I had to let him go. I got worried that soon my whole band would be gone.

That day was tough, because it got really thick in the studio. Everyone was uptight. I was uptight. Jerry was uptight. The last thing we wanted to do was blow that thing. We thought, “This is our big chance! If we can pull this off with Aretha, this is our big chance!” We thought that we would be considered the best in the country if we could do it, because nobody else could. At the time in New York and Los Angeles, they were all doing written sessions. We had numbered sessions. Arrangers got paid huge amounts of money to arrange songs, but what you got was an arranger’s interpretation of a song. There was no variation. We, on the other hand, went in with the idea that we were a basketball team. We all worked our individual parts as a team, and Aretha sang her songs. She had the main part, and we built the record around her. It was a team effort. We had eight or ten songwriters, musicians and producers working in sessions. We put the records together as a team. That, I think, is why we had so many hits. We all listened to each other. We’d say, “You’ve got a great bass line going there,” and we’d follow the base line. That’s how we did it.

Things were still thick that night, so I went to the hotel across the river, the Holiday Inn, I think it was. I planned to have drinks with Ted White, Aretha’s husband. I thought I could hash things out with him, but it didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. The moment Ted greeted me at the door he said, “What do you want?” I said, “Oh, I just came over to have a drink with you. I’m sorry about what happened in the studio today.” He was upset and said he knew he should never had come to this country to support his wife. He called me a whitey, so I called him a n****r, and he tried to throw me over the balcony. We were on the fourth floor, and he tried to push me over the banister. Once I made it down to the first floor, I saw about 10 bridesmaids standing there. They were all decked out in their wedding clothes. I was cussing, and screaming, and yelling. I probably scared them. He left without Aretha that night. I didn’t realize that until I saw it in the movie.

Paste : Tell me about some of the acts from the ‘60s and ‘70s that you are most proud to have worked with.

Hall: Well, Etta James. Etta was a sweetheart. When I played stuff back to her that we had recorded, we would dance around and rejoice about what we had captured. She was one of my favorite acts. Also, The Osmonds. I loved The Osmonds. They were great to work with. I went to Vegas to see them play the first time. Frank Sinatra opened the show. It was at Cesar’s Palace. They had just been on the Andy Williams Show in L.A. Andy came down here, then we recorded him. I also liked Tom Jones. He was one of my favorites. And Bobbie Gentry, I loved Bobbie. My God, she was a beautiful woman. She had a great mind! She had all kinds of talent. I’ll tell you a story about Bobbie Gentry. The first time I heard “Ode to Billie Joe”, I was driving past the studio, and I almost ran my car into a telephone pole! I was so amazed! Her story was my story. That’s how I grew up. “Bale the hay. Pass the biscuits,” you know? There were so many Southern things that she did. I felt in my heart that if I ever met her, we’d hit it off. I offered to produce her. We had dinner together, and we did hit it off. We were on the same wavelength. Bobbie thought she was Vivien Leigh. She was very Gone With the Wind, and I mean that with nothing but respect. She was gorgeous. She was married to a guy named Bill Harrah. He bought her a Ferrari car, and a new home in the hills. He gave her a five-carat diamond. The second time she came here, she came in a jet. I laughed and said, “You’re bad. You really are bad.” She said, “Well, you know, you do the best you can.” [Everyone laughs]

We had a great time together. I had lunch one day with her and Carl. She asked me what she should do, because she wanted for me to be her producer. I said, “Write me another “Ode to Billie Joe.” She said she’d do the best she could. She was an artist and a painter. She could sell her paintings for $20,000 each! She was the female Elvis Presley, she really was. She graduated from UCLA in Los Angeles. She was one of my very favorites. Clarence Carter was one of my favorites. Clarence had three strikes going against him. He was blind, he was black and he was from Alabama. A lot of people don’t know that. We had a lot of fun together, and we laughed all the time. He was a very bright man. He even graduated from college. Clarence came to me as part of a duet called Clarence and Calvin: The Blind Boys From Alabama. I loved them! They called me one Sunday and asked to rent the studio. I came down and watched them. I was amazed. They had a hit record or two. They were a joy to be with. Both of them were so talented. Everything they did was so unique and pure. Their rhythm patterns were very natural, and you could tell they had rehearsed for months and months. They didn’t have much money, so they’d come in and do a song once through, because they didn’t want to pay for extra studio time. They were fun guys, really fun guys. And of course, Mac Davis was great. I was crazy about Aretha Franklin.

Paste : Well, we shouldn’t let this interview go by without mentioning that you are still working and doing well. If any new artists have anything they’d like to record, they should probably contact you. In fact, you have a new album with Candi Staton that is about to drop.

Rick Hall: Yes. That’s right. And I forgot to mention Candi. She’s a great artist, and I loved working with her too.