603 Avalon Avenue, Muscle Shoals
In the summer of 1961, a year after his break with Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford, Rick Hall established his own studio in a former tobacco warehouse on Wilson Dam Highway in Muscle Shoals. Almost immediately, his old partner Stafford came calling. SPAR artist Arthur Alexander had written a hit, Stafford said, a song called “You Better Move On.” Stafford, however, had little knowledge of professional recording, and wanted to know if Hall would produce the song. Upon hearing Stafford’s rough piano demo, Hall recognized the song’s potential, and agreed to record Alexander in his new studio with musicians recruited from a local band called Dan Penn and the Pallbearers.
“Rick Hall lived with that record like a hermit until he had it just right. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he wasn’t going to stop until he got it.”
Once it was finished to his satisfaction, Hall took the tape of “You Better Move On” to Nashville and shopped it around to various record labels. “Most said it was ‘too black’ for country and ‘too country’ for black music,” Hall said. He eventually found a buyer in Dot Records, however, and the single was released on the Dot label in December 1961, climbing to number 24 on the pop charts.
Using the proceeds from his surprise hit, Hall hired Nashville producer Owen Bradley to build a new and larger studio complex for FAME on Avalon Avenue, but it seemed for a time that his luck had run out.
“He had no more dealings with Arthur Alexander, because Tom had sold his contract. He was recording demos on various local artists… stuck with a new studio, grandiose ambitions, and no foreseeable way to realize them, or even just to make some money.”
Salvation came in the form of Bill Lowery, an Atlanta-based music mogul whose National Recording Corporation had recently declared bankruptcy. Having signed a new deal with the ABC label, Lowery starting bringing his artists to record at FAME in the summer of 1963. Lowery’s business saved Hall’s sinking ship, and gave FAME-affiliated songwriters like Dan Penn and Donnie Fritts (who co-authored the B-side of Tommy Roe’s 1963 hit “Everybody”) recognition and a much-needed source of income.
While Lowery was in the Shoals, Hall played him a year-old tape of Leighton-born Jimmy Hughes singing his own composition, “Steal Away.” It was, in fact, the first recording Hall had produced at his Avalon Avenue studio, but he couldn't find a label to release it, and was about to give up on the song. Lowery, however, was impressed by what he heard, and encouraged Hall to release the record himself.
“I had to form my own label called FAME Records, press up a thousand or two copies and take it around to black stations who started playing it. I finally put it with Vee Jay on the west coast, and it was a top-ten million-selling record.”
Oddly enough, the first number-one single to come out of the Shoals, Percy Sledge’s 1966 classic “When a Man Loves a Woman,” was recorded, not at FAME, but at Quinvy Recording Studio in the neighboring town of Sheffield. Quinvy had been established, with Hall’s blessing, by former FAME engineer Quin Ivy, and it was Hall who secured a deal for the single’s release by pitching it to Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records.
The success of “When a Man Loves a Woman” convinced Wexler that the Shoals had something special, and in mid-1966, Wexler himself came to FAME with Atlantic artist Wilson Pickett. The session resulted in Pickett’s first Top 10 smash, “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and Wexler was sold on the area’s hit-making potential.
Wexler’s hit-making partnership with Rick Hall, however, proved to be short-lived. The turning point came in January 1967, when Wexler brought Aretha Franklin and her manager-husband Ted White to FAME for a week’s worth of sessions. The recording of Franklin’s single “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” went off without a hitch, and the plan was to cut the B-side, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” after a short break. However, during the downtime, a verbal dispute between White and session musician Ken Laxton escalated to the brink of violence, and White stormed out, taking Franklin with him. Hall followed the couple to their hotel room, hoping to smooth things over, but the visit ended in a second, more heated confrontation and Franklin and White left town the next morning.
Wexler blamed Hall for the unfinished recording session, and the two would never work together again. The incident and its aftermath also sowed the seeds for the departure of Hall’s rhythm section from FAME the following year.
“Wexler… devised a scheme to finish production on Franklin’s debut Atlantic single and album. He knew that Hall would never let FAME’s musicians travel to Atlantic’s New York studio to work with Franklin… so Wexler told Hall that he needed to the group to come… finish an album by well-liked black saxophone player King Curtis.…Hall learned of Wexler’s chicanery and immediately called the FAME musicians home before they could finish… He claimed they were needed for a session but Jimmy Johnson said this was untrue.”
The twin catastrophes of the split with Wexler and the loss of his rhythm section did not spell the end of Rick Hall, however. In 1968, he produced two monster hits at FAME: Clarence Carter’s Top 10 smash “Slip Away,” and the raucous “Tell Mama” by Chess Records artist Etta James. The following year, Hall signed a multi-million-dollar deal with Capitol Records, which heralded a shift away from R&B toward more mainstream pop music and initiated the most successful phase of Hall’s career to date.
Meanwhile, down the road from FAME at 3614 Jackson Highway, Hall’s recently departed rhythm section were hatching plans of their own.