FAME StudiosFAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios is a recording studio located at 603 East Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, an area of northern Alabama known as the Shoals. Though small and distant from the main recording locations of the American music industry, FAME has produced many hit records and was instrumental in what came to be known as the Muscle Shoals sound. It was started in the 1950s by Rick Hall, known as the Founder of Muscle Shoals Music. The studio, owned by Hall until his death in 2018, is still actively operating. It was added to the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage on December 15, 1997, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2016. The 2013 award-winning documentary Muscle Shoals features Rick Hall, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (also called The Swampers), and the Muscle Shoals sound originally popularized by FAME.
Early historyFAME (standing for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) was founded by Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill, and Tom Stafford in the late 1950s. It was first located above the City Drug Store in Florence, Alabama. Two doors down was a pawn shop - "Uncle Sams" - where aspiring artists would buy or pawn their instruments, depending on the trajectory of their careers. The studio was moved to a former tobacco warehouse on Wilson Dam Road in Muscle Shoals in the early 1960s, when Hall split from Sherrill and Stafford. Hall soon recorded the first hit record from the Muscle Shoals area, Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On" in 1961. Hall took the proceeds from that recording to build the current facility, on Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals. In 1963, he recorded the first hit produced in that building, Jimmy Hughes' "Steal Away".
FAME studio prospered. "By the mid-’60s it had become a hotbed for pop musicians of various stripes, including the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Solomon Burke," according to the Los Angeles Times. Singer Aretha Franklin credited Hall for the "turning point" in her career in the mid 1960s, taking her from a struggling artist to the "Queen of Soul". According to Hall, one of the reasons for FAME's success at a time of stiff competition from studios in other cities was that he overlooked the issue of race, a perspective he called "colorblind". "It was a dangerous time, but the studio was a safe haven where blacks and whites could work together in musical harmony," Hall wrote in his autobiography. Decades later, a publication in Malaysia referred to Hall as a "white fiddler who became an unlikely force in soul music".
As the word about Muscle Shoals began to spread other artists began coming there to record. The Nashville producer Felton Jarvis brought Tommy Roe and recorded Roe's song "Everybody" in 1963. The Atlanta music publisher Bill Lowery, who had mentored Hall in his early days, sent the Tams. The Nashville publisher and producer Buddy Killen brought Joe Tex. Leonard Chess encouraged Etta James to record there, and she made her 1967 hit "Tell Mama" and the Tell Mama album at FAME. Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records brought both Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin to record. The recording session with Franklin brought unexpected conflict: one of the horn players sexually harassed the singer, and her husband had him fired from the session. Later that evening Hall went over to make up with Franklin and her husband, but a fight ensued, and the recording session was canceled. Wexler swore to Hall he would never work with him again.
Duane Allman, later of the Allman Brothers Band, pitched a tent and camped out in the parking lot of FAME Studios in 1968 in order to be near the recording sessions occurring there. He soon befriended Rick Hall and Wilson Pickett, who was recording there. While on lunch break, Allman taught Pickett "Hey Jude"; their version of the song was recorded with Allman playing lead guitar. On hearing the session, people at Atlantic began asking who had played the guitar solos, and Hall responded with a hand-written note that read "some hippie cat who's been living in our parking lot". Shortly afterward, Allman was offered a recording contract; auditions for the Allman Brothers Band were later held at FAME Studios. Allman loved the area, and frequently returned to the Shoals for session work throughout his short life.
The session musicians who worked at the studio became known as the Muscle Shoals Horns and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (or the Swampers). In 1969, just after Hall had signed a deal with Capitol Records, the four primary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section members (Barry Beckett (keyboards), Jimmy Johnson (guitar), Roger Hawkins (drums), and David Hood (bass), left to found a competing business, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, originally at 3614 Jackson Highway in nearby Sheffield, Alabama. Subsequently, Hall hired the Fame Gang as the new studio band. Also called the Third FAME Rhythm Section, consisted of eight musicians plus arranger-producer Mickey Buckins. This group backed up singers such as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Bobbie Gentry, Etta James, and Candi Staton during recording sessions at FAME Studios.
1970s to 1990sThe studio continued to do well through the 1970s. Hall was able to convince Capitol Records to distribute FAME recordings. In 1971, Rick Hall was named Producer of the Year by Billboard magazine, a year after having been nominated for a Grammy Award in the same category.
As the hits kept coming, Hall expanded into the area of teen pop hits with the Osmonds, a vocal group from Utah, featuring the younger brother Donny Osmond. The collaboration resulted in the hit "One Bad Apple" in 1970, among others, and helped Hall to become named "Producer of the Year" in 1971. As the decade of the 70s rolled in, FAME moved back towards country music, producing hits for Mac Davis, Bobbie Gentry, Jerry Reed, and the Gatlin Brothers. He also worked with the songwriter and producer Robert Byrne to help a local bar band, Shenandoah, top the national Hot Country Songs chart several times in the 1980s and 1990s. Hall's publishing staff of in-house songwriters wrote some of the biggest country hits in those decades. His publishing catalog included many significant items. In 1985, Rick Hall was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, his citation referring to him as the "Father of Muscle Shoals Music."
Successful singers working at FAME included Bobbie Gentry, who recorded the album Fancy (1970), and then with the singer-songwriter Mac Davis, who topped both the Pop and Country charts with "Baby, Don't Get Hooked on Me" (1972). Davis recorded four gold albums at FAME, with the singles "Texas in My Rear View Mirror" and "Hooked on Music" becoming hits on both the country and pop charts. Many artists recorded with The Fame Gang such as Joe Tex, Bobby Blue Bland, Eddie Floyd, Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, Little Milton, Sawyer Brown, Tony Joe White, Duane Allman, Boz Scaggs, Elkie Brooks, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Cocker, Jim Capaldi, Julian Lennon, Delbert McClinton, J. J. Cale, John Prine, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Rolling Stones.
Hall continued producing country hits in the 1980s, including Jerry Reed's number 1 records "She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)" and "The Bird" in 1982. He also started Gus Hardin's career with the popular "After the Last Good-bye" and had a hit album with Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, Houston to Denver (1984). Hall's productions on T.G. Sheppard's LPs include Livin' on the Edge (1985), It Still Rains in Memphis (1986), and One for the Money (1987). Top 20 singles included "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" by the Elvin Bishop Group in 1975. Top 10 singles included "In Over My Heart" and "Doncha?" by T.G. Sheppard in 1985. Top 5 singles include "Strong Heart" (1985), "One for the Money" (1987), and a number 1 single, "You're My First Lady" (1987) by T.G. Sheppard also.
Hall then returned to the way he had begun, developing new artists. A local country band that was playing in a club down the street from FAME Studios came to his attention, and he and Robert Byrne co-produced an LP with the group Shenandoah. Hall made a record deal with CBS Records and the group thereafter had top 10 singles with "She Doesn't Cry Anymore" (1988) and "See If I Care" (1990), top 5 singles with "Mama Knows" (1988) and "The Moon Over Georgia" (1991), and six number 1 singles with "The Church on Cumberland Road" (1989), "Sunday in the South" (1989), "Two Dozen Roses" (1989), "Next to You, Next to Me" (1990), "Ghost in This House" (1990), and "I Got You" (1991).
In addition to FAME studios, Hall operated FAME Records, whose original roster included Clarence Carter, Candi Staton, Jimmy Hughes, Willie Hightower and the Fame Gang. The original run of the label was between 1964 and 1974, with distribution handled by Vee-Jay Records from 1964 to 1966, Atco Records from 1966 to 1967, Capitol Records from 1969 to 1972, and United Artists Records from 1972 through early 1974. In 2007, Hall reactivated the FAME Records label through a distribution deal with EMI.
21st centuryIn 2007, Bettye LaVette's Grammy-nominated CD The Scene of the Crime, produced by Patterson Hood and Drive-By Truckers, was recorded at FAME Recording Studios. The Truckers also backed Lavette on the record, with contributions from David Hood and Spooner Oldham, from the original studio house band, the Swampers.
Fame Sessions, the second album by the Nightowls, was recorded at FAME Studios in September 2015 in collaboration with David Hood and Spooner Oldham.
Gregg Allman's final album, Southern Blood (2017), was recorded at FAME in March 2016. Other artists who recorded at FAME in recent years include the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell, Tim McGraw with his hit "I Like It, I Love It", The Dixie Chicks, George Strait, Martina McBride, Demi Lovato, Kenny Chesney, and The Blind Boys of Alabama. Third Day recorded their final album, Revival, at FAME in 2017. More recently, Roadside Glorious, Meg Williams and Australians Murray Cook, The Soul Movers, Misty Blue and Lucie Tiger recorded at FAME Recording Studio.
LegacyRick Hall died in early 2018. In its obituary, The New Yorker concluded its coverage of Hall's career with FAME by saying, "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." An Alabama publication commented that Hall is survived by his family "and a Muscle Shoals music legacy like no other".
An article in the Anniston Star (Alabama) concludes with this epitath, "If the world wants to know about Alabama — a state seldom publicized for anything but college football and embarrassing politics — the late Rick Hall and his legacy are worthy models to uphold".
In early 2018, Rolling Stone published this evaluation: "Hall's Grammy-winning production touched nearly every genre of popular music from country to R&B, and his Fame Studio and publishing company were a breeding ground for future legends in the worlds of songwriting and session work, as well as a recording home to some of the greatest musicians and recording artists of all time."