The small Alabama town of Muscle Shoals and record producer Rick Hall don't have the same familiar cachet as the renowned 1960s soul music labels Motown or Stax. But the hits Hall turned out at his legendary FAME Recording Studios are well into their fifth decade of being a beloved part of American pop culture. The familiar riffs heard in Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman," Etta James' "Tell Mama," Clarence Carter's "Slip Away" or Aretha Franklin's "Never Loved A Man" still turn up in movie soundtracks and trailers or over the sound system at a supermarket or Starbucks.
The story of Hall and the session musicians known as The Swampers, who worked for him before setting up their own shop, are well told in the documentary Muscle Shoals, which premieres Monday, April 21, on PBS's Independent Lens (9/8c). The son of a sharecropper, Hall overcame grueling poverty and personal tragedy to build his own studio after success as a songwriter for such artists as George Jones, Brenda Lee and Roy Orbison in the early 1960s. Tensions were high throughout the American south throughout the decade as the Civil Rights movement took hold. But FAME was an oasis where black artists and white musicians worked side-by-side and thrived.
"If it wasn't for black people I wouldn't be a record producer," says Hall, now 82 and still owner-operator of FAME. "We were all color blind. We were concerned about cutting hit records and nothing else." Even after nearly 50 years, it's still surprising to see how pasty, pale Southerners backed up rhythm and blues superstar Wilson Pickett on such classic hits as "Mustang Sally," as depicted in the film. "The time period and the location is an unbelievable setting to what occurred and a tribute to all those guys who were beyond any small-town bigotry," says the film's director, Greg Camalier. "They were incredibly evolved."
Life in the south during the era had a lasting impact on the music. Black and white musicians traveling together outside of the studio for something as simple as a restaurant meal could be risky. It was also dicey for longhaired hippie types such as guitarist Duane Allman, who got his big break as session player at FAME. While in Muscle Shoals to record with Pickett, Allman stayed behind with the volatile singer while the rest of the musicians went to dinner. By the end of the evening he convinced Pickett to cut a version of The Beatles hit of the time, "Hey Jude," and the recording became the inspiration for the southern rock sound of the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and dozens of other bands that dominated radio and the concert circuit in the 1970s. Hall wasn't interested in rock music or the drug culture that came with it in that decade. "I didn't want to charge $500,000 for producing an album with $50,000 going to making the album and spending the rest on dope," he says.
Hall had a reputation for being a stubborn and strong-willed perfectionist, which led to The Swampers breaking away from FAME to open Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The undistinguished looking building on Jackson Highway became a recording haven for rock acts including the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and Traffic. The Swampers were more in demand than ever. But Hall continued to thrive, having his greatest financial success in the 1970s, recording with mostly white pop acts and country artists including The Osmonds, Bobby Gentry and Paul Anka. He still has a stable of songwriters working for him today. "The money in music is in the publishing," says Hall, who was recently honored with a Grammy Trustee Award. "You don't have to beat up anybody to get paid."