“Hard Times Was the Name of the Game”: A Q&A with Rick Hall of FAME Studios

Have you ever been able to explain why this magic happened in isolation, in a town that small?

There’s a few theories, and one is because it was on the Tennessee River … Of course we’re only 120 miles south of Nashville and we’re 130 miles north of Birmingham, so we’re right on the Tennessee border, and most people don’t know that.

I was a country fiddle player and a country music fan and all those things, and wrote several country hits for George Jones, Brenda Lee and Roy Orbison. And I made a little money, so I built a recording studio and decided, well, you know, maybe my nature [leans toward] black music, so the first record I produced was a top 10 record – pop and R&B – and then the second record I produced was “Steal Away” for Jimmy Hughes, a big hit record also. I was batting a thousand … so I pursued the avenue that was most available to me, which was black music.

All the early artists that I [produced] were black artists. Consequently, that all happened during the time of Gov. George Wallace and the stand in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama … We had closed door sessions for years because … we were afraid of black people who were opposed to us doing black music, so that’s the reasoning for the “underground” so to speak.

All of the sudden we started cutting all these great acts. People started coming from all over the world. We had the Rolling Stones, Paul Anka, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Mac Davis, so we had a mixture of everything that was available in the music business. We made our mark and nobody knew about it. A considerable amount of time had passed and consequently we had a catalog of hit songs and hit records, and the world suddenly discovered that there is a Muscle Shoals and it is a place of recognition, and particularly the fact that it was done during the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The documentary cut off in’ 72 and [after that] was when I had my biggest paydays, because I [produced] The Osmonds, Aretha Franklin, and Mac Davis.

Did coming from a country music background help with your production of “black music”? I’ve always felt they’re more closely related than people give them credit for being.

Absolutely. My experience has been over the years that the hardships and trying times that I went through were similar to black peoples, so consequently I recorded what I knew and what I liked. So my involvement in the country music field gave me horn lines that I used later in records that I was producing. I took fill lines out of country licks I learned playing with country bands and transformed them into horn lines.

… But hard times was the name of the game back then. I grew up without a mother and my dad raised me. They separated when I was very small, like 5 or 6. My dad was a sawmiller, and we would pick cotton and I became infatuated with black music. Playing in bands back then, if you didn’t play fraternities and things of this nature or didn’t play Fats Domino or Little Richard or whatever, you would probably get thrown off the stage. We grew up playing that kind of music, so I was pulled this way, that way, and so forth.

People have called you a “genius.” What is your response to that label?

It makes me feel like it’s not the real thing, and it’s not the real Rick Hall. I don’t consider myself a genius and I never have. I did have a tremendous work ethic that mimicked my father.

… My theory has always been if you work eight hours a day and I work 16, and we’ve got the same mental capacity, then I’m going to eat your lunch in a year’s time. My theory was also anybody can be a millionaire by the time they’re 40, but I want to be one by the time I’m 30.

I had a tremendous work ethic and I had a God-given music talent. I knew hit records when I heard them and I knew hit songs when I heard them. So I took advantage of that and I had a lot of success. I’ve had so much success that I can’t even believe it myself, and that these things happened to me. When I was producing records, I always felt mine were terribly inferior to New York’s, Los Angeles,’ or London, England’s, or Nashville, Tennessee’s records. I just thought my records didn’t come up to par, but consequently they did. But whatever I am, I’m not a genius [laughs]

Have your tactics in the studio changed through the years? Do you still use a lot of the same equipment, or have you gone digital?  

We’ve gone completely digital now, but we do have the old-fashioned 24 track recorders. If someone wants to come in and use one and mix it down to two tracks, we have that. But most of the things we do now are digital, and we have ProTools.

Do you ever come across new young artists that make you think, “This is someone I’d like to work with.”

Very seldom. I made up my mind a long time ago to keep the riff raff and naysayers away and keep people from influencing me. I made up my mind that I was going to hate every song that I heard, and in spite of myself if I could not hate it, it was probably a big hit record. So that’s my theory and I’ve always stuck to that. 

People often say the ‘60s produced the best music, at least as far as rock and roll goes. Do you feel like a certain time period yielded better results than others?

Yes. Of course I’m in love with anything blues-sounding and that starts with Muddy Waters up until today. With most of my work, if it’s not black, it sounds black. And if it’s not blues, it sounds blues.

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