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Remembering FAME Studios founder Rick Hall

By Stephen Lee, January 19 2018 —

Rick Hall, founder of FAME studios, died at the age of 85 from prostate cancer at the beginning of January. Though few know his name, his influence on the music industry can be heard on countless albums. Hall was the man behind some of the greatest soul and R&B records of the 1960s with artists including Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding and many more.

Hall founded FAME studios in 1959 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a quiet and unremarkable town at the time. He began to attract musicians to his studio after recording “You Better Move On” with Arthur Alexander, a song that the Rolling Stones later covered. The most stunning aspect of this recording is the sweet-sounding bass that undulates beneath a swaying, samba-style rhythm. It was Hall’s sound editing that created this effect, leaving the listener entranced by the orchestration.

Hall later worked with artists like Franklin and Duane Allman. He played a pivotal role in Franklin’s career, recording “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You),” a soulful blues shuffle highlighting the legend’s stunning vocals. Moreover, he brought together one of the tightest rhythm sections in musical history to play behind Franklin and many others — the Swampers. Hall’s house band excelled in the studio. In fact, they can be heard on “I Never Loved a Man.” Those cool, clean guitar licks, the swinging six-eight drum beat and the subtle organ all contribute to the groove of the song. Franklin’s vocals are stunning, but Hall’s group of session musicians make the song more powerful.

The Swampers were Hall’s greatest achievement. They left FAME in 1969 to form their own recording studio, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. There, they recorded with artists like Glenn Frey, Bob Seger and The Rolling Stones. Though they were no longer under Hall’s production, some of the most notable records of the late-20th century wouldn’t sound the same if he hadn’t brought them together.

Hall’s work with Wilson Pickett yielded some of the singer’s greatest work. Pickett recorded a version of The Beatles’ hit “Hey Jude” that begins in a laidback tone, building to a piercing scream followed by a coda that leaves the listener in awe. It’s perhaps the best example of the era’s southern music — it’s funky, soulful and flows right until the song fades. Pickett’s voice and energy are fantastic on their own. Paired with Hall’s musicians, his recordings at FAME studios are elevated.

Hall should be remembered as a visionary. He gave the American South a distinct sound that many would try to emulate. Throughout his career, he remained behind the console, staying out of the spotlight and working behind the scenes. He may not be a household name, but his sound engineering will remain some of the finest work of the ‘60s and ‘70s. His work with FAME studios made Muscle Shoals a focal point for popular music recording when it wasn’t known for much else, exemplifying the ability for quality sound engineering to create lasting legacies — and that those behind the consoles deserve more popular recognition.

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