In 1961, the producer Rick Hall recorded “You Better Move On”—a loping, indignant song about a dude stuck in love with a woman who’s already promised herself to another—in a converted tobacco warehouse in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The song was written and sung by Arthur Alexander, a bellhop from nearby Sheffield, and was later covered by the Rolling Stones, the Hollies, George Jones and Johnny Paycheck, and others. Alexander’s vocal sounds tired, as if he’s chosen to go on arguing but knows, in some awful and instinctive way, that he’s already lost the fight: “Can’t you understand, man, she’s my girl?” he sings. The words drift and disappear. His performance is defiant, but lonesome. It’s a soul song, but it’s country, too.
“You Better Move On” was enough of a hit for Hall and Alexander—it made it to No. 24 on the pop chart—that Hall was able to purchase a proper recording space: a boxy brown-and-beige building on Avalon Avenue, just a couple miles south of the Tennessee River, in an otherwise unremarkable stretch of town. fame Studios would eventually become known and coveted, globally, for its lush and tender sound. Hall, who died on Tuesday, at eighty-five, was its engineer and its keeper.
“At different points in time on this planet, there are certain places where there is a feel of energy,” Jimmy Cliff, the Jamaican ska and reggae musician, says in “Muscle Shoals,” a 2013 documentary about the studio. “At this certain point in time, for a number of years, this was Muscle Shoals.” I don’t know how to explain what was going on there, either—why so many remarkable records were cut in that room. The history of American music is punctuated by stories about places like this—strange, sacred spots, where certain metaphysical tensions briefly manifest and align. Clarksdale, Bakersfield, Macon. Muscle Shoals.
Hall turned the studio’s bathroom into a makeshift echo chamber. “If you had to take a crap or something in the bathroom, we had to stop the session until you got through,” he says in a taped interview from 2015. “We had to modify things back then. We had to improvise.” He breaks into a dry cackle, recalling the wildness of it all. The Swampers, the studio’s house band, played in a funky and particular way—loose-limbed and groove-oriented. Aretha Franklin later described their sound as “greasy.” (She also credited the studio with shifting the trajectory of her career: Hall helped her uncover a different, chunkier part of her voice.) Everything made there felt soft at the edges, mildewed, as if it had been left out in the rain for a couple of days. Pilgrims flocked to Alabama, hungry for some of that heavy air: Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Bobbie Gentry. In 1966, Percy Sledge recorded “When A Man Loves A Woman” there. It might be the best song we have about the devastations and capitulations of deep love—about the way we all string ourselves up for just a little more rapture. Duane Allman supposedly set up a pup tent in the parking lot of fame, just to be closer to whatever was happening inside. Even then, all that anybody knew for sure about fame’s odd and singular alchemy was that Hall was its principal. “My records were me, they were Rick Hall,” he said.
Hall was born on January 31, 1932, in Forest Grove, Mississippi. His father was a sharecropper, and Hall grew up sleeping on a straw bed, in a house with a dirt floor and no plumbing. His mother split when he was four. “We grew up like animals. That made me a little bitter, somewhat driven. I wanted to be special. I wanted to be somebody,” he explains in “Muscle Shoals.” He eventually got a job as an apprentice to a toolmaker, in Rockford, Illinois, and started playing in local bands. Later, he returned to the South—to Florence, Alabama—to work in an aluminum factory. After both his first wife and his father died within a two-week period, he suffered a kind of spiritual breakdown. “I freaked out. I became a drunk, a vagabond, a tramp,” he admitted. But Hall ultimately figured out a way to redirect his grief—to transform it into ambition.
In 1969, after a split with Hall, the Swampers—who were now working with Jerry Wexler, a partner in Atlantic Records—opened the rival Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where the Staple Singers, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and many others later recorded. But Hall kept going at fame. In 1970, he produced the Osmonds’ “One Bad Apple,” which went to No. 1 and earned him a Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year. He was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, in 1985, and received the Grammy Trustees Award, in 2014.
Muscle Shoals remains remarkable not just for the music made there but for its unlikeliness as an epicenter of anything; that a tiny town in a quiet corner of Alabama became a hotbed of progressive, integrated rhythm and blues still feels inexplicable. Whatever Hall conjured there—whatever he dreamt, and made real—is essential to any recounting of American ingenuity. It is a testament to a certain kind of hope.
Post a Comment