Nestled along the Tennessee River, in the state of Alabama, lies a small town that draws big names. You may not have heard of Muscle Shoals, but you have definitely heard its sound, thanks to a man named Rick Hall.
Hidden among the cotton fields and corn stalks of the rural South, Fame Recording studios was first established atop a drug store in Florence, Alabama. Hall started Fame Studios in the late 1950s as a publishing company and recording studio. His son, Rodney Hall, runs the studio today.
As the studio grew it would relocate to a former tobacco warehouse, where it would produce its first music hit. "[My dad] recorded an artist named Arthur Alexander, with a song called 'You Better Move On,' which became a hit," said Rodney.
"From there he went on to record Jimmy Hughes, built this studio, and they've been doing it for over 60 years now."
Session musicians at the studio – a bunch of funky White guys known as "the Swampers" – recorded with such artists as Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Clarence Carter, Candi Staton, and Little Richard, and were responsible for creating what is famously known today as the "Muscle Shoals sound."
Little Richard performs "Freedom Blues," recorded at Fame Studios:
One of the most famous musicians to come through Muscle Shoals was the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. Franklin has credited Rick Hall with turning around her struggling career in the 1960s. His keen sense of sound, and a recording business that was run from a "colorblind" perspective (a rare commodity in the rural South), were the perfect ingredients to catapult Franklin musically, producing her hit "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You."
"I think Aretha found her sound in Muscle Shoals," said Rodney Hall. "She had been before doing a lot of pop music that didn't really seem like it moved her, or other people. And so, she came to Muscle Shoals [and] I think connected with her gospel roots, and she started to actually feel the music."
Rick Hall was named "Producer of the Year" by Billboard Magazine in 1971; he also earned a Grammy nomination. He died in 2018, but not before earning himself the title "Father of Muscle Shoals Music."
Today, Rodney Hall continues the legacy his dad started, and the "Muscle Shoals Sound" lives on. "The music that was created here has a soul, the musicians had a soul, and it's all about the feel of the music and the groove and how it feels, which I think is the soul of the music," he said.
Music fans young and old can visit and tour the Fame Recording Studios and stand in the same room that artists like The Chicks, Kenny Chesney, Demi Lovato and The Rolling Stones have stood in to record some of their greatest hits.
"Come experience it. Come experience the Southern way of life, the music, the laid-back lifestyle, the river; it's just an amazing place," Hall concluded.
For more info:
- Fame Recording Studios, Muscle Shoals, Ala.
Story produced and edited by Roman Feeser.