The opening chapters of Rick Hall’s autobiography, The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame, focuses squarely on the tumultuous story of Hall’s childhood in rural Mississippi and Alabama during the Great Depression. For nearly one-third of the book there is nary a mention of the soul music that Hall built his astounding career upon as a ground-breaking record producer. This is not a comprehensive history of the “Muscle Shoals Sound,” in other words, but Hall’s idiosyncratic story offers its own rewards.
As the founder and owner of the FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Hall produced scores of Southern soul, rock’n’roll, pop, and country classics. His long career in the music business has been marked by his robust ego and an iconoclastic and dictatorial style, so it should come as no surprise that Hall would choose to tell his story his way. Hall and his “as told to” co-writer, Terry Pace, tell that story through a string of personal anecdotes captured in simple, straightforward prose—a down-home, front-porch-story-telling voice that sets a driving beat for the narrative.
It’s almost possible to hear Hall’s determined Southern drawl when he turns his attention to the origins of his contrarian musical tastes: “As far back as I can remember, Dad loved to strum the guitar and sing gospel and country songs,” he writes. “He always sang high tenor in a quartet and could rattle the shingles in a church building when he hit those high notes…. Dad loved it, but I hated it! I wanted to hear some hot fiddle licks by Bob Wills or listen to the voice of some pretty chick crooning to me.”
When Hall’s narrative reaches the early years of the Muscle Shoals music scene, he continues to focus on his own personal experiences and memories. His recollections of events are often spiced with emotions as extreme as those captured in the grooves of the classic soul records he produced. Here’s his account of the recording of the Jimmy Hughes’s single, “Steal Away,” which in 1963 became the first hit record produced at the FAME studio:
When Jimmy’s velvety high tenor voice kicked in and cried the pleading lyrics “Pleassee, please, steal away…,” big chill bumps rose up on my arms and the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up. I felt like I had died and gone straight to heaven…I sat in spellbound silence at the console of my new studio, completely overwhelmed with emotion, and wept with quiet joy as the great “Muscle Shoals Sound” was born.
Hall continues with anecdotes from his own music career: his production of such soul classics as “Land of a Thousand Dances” and “Mustang Sally” with Wilson Pickett, the aborted 1967 sessions with soul queen Aretha Franklin that ended in a fist fight between Hall and Franklin’s husband, and his work with such varied artists as Etta James, Candi Staton, the Osmonds, Bobbie Gentry, Mac Davis, Paul Anka, and the country group Shenandoah. All these stories contain a mixture of facts and hyperbole that favor entertaining storytelling over absolute historical accuracy.
Unbiased history, of course, isn’t really Hall’s point. For example, he spends virtually no time discussing the background, formation, and personalities of the “Swampers”—the renowned session men who worked with FAME on most of Hall’s mid-to-late sixties hits. But he goes into great detail about the anger and betrayal he felt when the four musicians left his employ in 1969 to found the rival Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
Hall later reconciles with the Swampers, and with many others with whom he had personal differences, but he uses the power of memoir to tell his side of the story with most of the associated personal prejudice intact. Fortunately for music fans interested in a more balanced and wider-ranging history, the hardcover edition of The Man from Muscle Shoals includes a DVD of the excellent 2013 documentary, Muscle Shoals, which features extensive interviews with Hall and other movers and shakers from the North Alabama music scene. The overarching history of the documentary combined with Hall’s personal take creates a satisfying combination.
Despite some flaws, Hall’s memoir is an engaging and entertaining tale. In his forward to the book, celebrated music historian Peter Guralnick notes that Hall’s memoir mixes the hillbilly operatics of Erskine Caldwell with the grit-lit rawness of Harry Crews. While The Man from Muscle Shoals does not match either of those Southern scribes in lyrical flair, it does deliver elements of both combined to create a uniquely personal tale from one of the most talented and vital personalities in twentieth-century American popular music.
Randy Fox is a freelance writer whose writing on music and pop culture has appeared in Vintage Rock, Record Collector, East Nashvillian, Nashville Scene, Jack Kirby Collector, Hardboiled, and many other publications. He lives in Nashville.