123 East Tennessee Street, Florence
SPAR (Stafford Publishing and Recording) was located above the City Drug Store in downtown Florence at the intersection of Seminary and Tennessee streets. Tom Stafford, whose father owned the drug store, opened the studio in 1959 with a $300 investment from Tune Records founder James Joiner, and the assistance of Tune recording artist Bobby Denton, whom Stafford had known since childhood.
As manager of the Princess Theater, Stafford had developed friendships with a number of young, aspiring musicians, including such future luminaries as Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, David Briggs and Norbert Putnam. SPAR became their playground and a place where they could hone their craft.
“Tom was the kind of guy who encouraged you to continue writing. And he brought you together with all these wonderful people.”
“We were just kids who hung out at the theater and the drug store. We’d go to the drug store, buy a hot dog, see a pretty girl… then go upstairs and write a song about it.”
“SPAR Music was the ‘in place’ to be. Musicians, writers, wannabe soul men, all swigging cough syrup, chasing it with coca cola and having a lot of fun!”
Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill came onto the scene in 1959, when Joiner, in his “most profound and lasting act,” introduced the pair to Stafford. The former Tune songwriters entered into a partnership with Stafford, which they christened Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME), but the union didn’t last long. In mid-1960, annoyed by Hall’s ambition and work ethic, Stafford and Sherrill showed him the door.
“They would sit and talk for hours about any subject in the world. I was constantly kicking butt and taking names, trying to get the business going. I was a man on a mission.”
Hall bought the FAME name for one dollar, while Stafford and Sherrill retained the studio above the City Drug Store, along with the SPAR Music record label and most of its publishing arm. Sherrill himself left soon afterwards, however, taking a job at Sam Phillips’ newly opened Nashville studio. Within a decade, Sherrill would be the Music City’s top producer, making hits with such legendary artists as Tammy Wynette (for whom he co-wrote “Stand By Your Man”) and George Jones.
In December 1960, Stafford bought out Joiner’s share of SPAR for $900, changed the company’s name to Spartus, and enlisted two new partners, the teenaged David Briggs and Donnie Fritts. Stafford also began managing Arthur Alexander, a black singer-songwriter from Sheffield whose SPAR recording of “Sally Sue Brown” (co-written with Stafford and Peanutt Montgomery) had been released as a single on Judd Records.
“Tom was into black voices. In fact he was into it enough he went and got one when no one else was interested.”
Spartus published Alexander’s first solo composition, “You Better Move On,” in 1961, and cut a rough piano demo of the song above the City Drug Store. Recognizing both the song’s brilliance and his own limitations as a record producer, Stafford turned to his old business partner, Rick Hall, for help.
123 East Alabama Street, Florence
Tune Records and Publishing Company was established in 1956 by James Joiner, Walter Stovall, Kelso Herston and Marvin Wilson. Joiner and Herston ran Tune out of the Joiner family’s Greyhound bus station. Inspired by Dexter Johnson, they set up a modest demo studio in the bus station diner, using an adjoining office as a control room.
“We started at the bus station and then moved over [to] the Ryan Piano Company on Court Street," Herston later recalled. "There were some lawyers there and they complained, so we moved to the Ritz Theater in Sheffield and also did some recordings at local radio station WLAY.”
One song recorded at WLAY was “A Fallen Star,” written by Joiner, published by Tune, and performed by local high school student Bobby Denton. The recording “was probably the first master tape in Alabama to actually be stamped and sold,” according to Janice Hume of the Times Daily. It became a regional hit in 1957 and was subsequently recorded by a number of other artists, including Ferlin Husky, Jimmy C. Newman, Nick Noble, and the Hilltoppers.
“The recording session was done in about an hour or two using three musical instruments and a local gospel quartet for backup. Of course, we didn’t have the equipment to overdub mistakes, so the complete song had to be recorded all at the same time... Also, the engineer who was the radio station disc jockey... had to do his work and carry on the regular programming of the station at the same time... He had to play an extra long record in order to oversee the two minutes and fifty-one second record we were recording.”
Following the success of “A Fallen Star,” word of the burgeoning Shoals recording industry spread across the state, attracting a number of aspiring songwriters and musicians to the area. Among them were Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill of Hamilton-based band The Fairlaines, who began making weekly trips to the Shoals to pitch their material to Joiner. One of their Tune-published songs, “Sweet and Innocent,” was recorded by Roy Orbison in 1958, and later recorded with greater success (and with Hall as producer) by Donny Osmond.
Tune also released four singles by rockabilly pioneer Junior Thompson, including “How Come You Do Me?” James Joiner never managed to replicate the success of “A Fallen Star,” however, and by the mid-1960s he had returned to the family bus business full-time. In 1959, he introduced Hall and Sherrill to a “local bohemian type” named Tom Stafford, setting the stage for the next chapter in Muscle Shoals music history.