The life of Rick Hall, the Alabama R&B and country producer who died at the age of 85 on Jan. 2, stands as a testament that people often make culture against the grain of prevailing power structures.
The fact cannot be denied: The Southern soul sound — a funky amalgam of soul, country and gospel — came out of Fame Studio in northern Alabama, a product of white session players and songwriters paired with black singers, just over 100 miles northwest of Birmingham, where Bull Connor was turning firehoses and police dogs on civil rights protesters at roughly the same time. The music created by Hall and his associates came to be identified with Muscle Shoals, a small town across the Tennessee River from Florence, where the studio was headquartered.
The hits churned out of Rick Hall’s modest enterprise, beginning with Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” — soon covered by the Rolling Stones — in 1961, weren’t political. While Gov. George Wallace was declaring, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” Hall and his talented stable of session players, songwriters and singers were largely ignoring rather than defying the Southern apartheid system. A young, white player named Duane Allman recorded guitar tracks for Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin at Hall’s studio. Franklin transformed from a struggling artist to the undisputed queen of soul when Atlantic Records sent her down to Fame in 1967 to record “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”
Later, the complicated politics of liberal Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement would be captured by Lynyrd Skynrd, who recorded demos for their first album with session musicians cultivated by Rick Hall. “Sweet Home Alabama” made explicit reference to white liberal Alabamians’ embarrassment about Wallace with the line, “In Birmingham, they love the governor (boo boo boo),” and also paid tribute to the session musicians: “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers.” The Drive-By Truckers, co-led by Patterson Hood (whose father, David, played bass in many of those legendary Muscle Shoals sessions), would later explore the troubled racial dichotomy of Skynyrd and Wallace in their 2001 album Southern Rock Opera.
All of this rich and complicated history in many ways owes its genesis to the drive and vision of Rick Hall, a white man who overcame remarkable personal tragedy to fashion some of the most incredible popular music of the 20th Century. Having been abandoned by his mother at a young age, Hall later lost his wife and father within a two-week period while he was working at Reynolds Aluminum. Long afterwards, he would tell interviewers that he tried to drown his grief in alcohol, and then decided instead to throw himself into music and relentless hard work.