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Rick Hall, whose Alabama studio produced hits by Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, dies at 85

Mr. Hall attends the Grammy Awards ceremony in 2014.
Mr. Hall attends the Grammy Awards ceremony in 2014. (Todd Williamson/Todd Williamson/Invision/AP)

Rick Hall, a music producer and recording engineer who crafted hit recordings in the Southern soul style for singers such as Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Wilson Pickett and Clarence Carter at his FAME recording studios in Alabama, died Jan. 2 at his home in Muscle Shoals, Ala. He was 85.

The cause was complications from prostate cancer, said his wife, Linda Kay Hall.

When Mr. Hall, an itinerant country musician, co-founded his first recording studio and publishing concern, FAME, in 1959 in rural Florence, Ala., there were no major recording studios in Alabama. FAME, an acronym for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, moved to nearby Muscle Shoals in 1961.

In open defiance of the segregationist mores of the 1960s, black singers and white instrumentalists often collaborated at Mr. Hall's studios, synthesizing gospel, blues and country into something fresh and unique. Along with Stax Records in Memphis, music from the studio defined the genre known as Southern soul.

Mr. Hall recorded live with a full rhythm section in one room and encouraged jam sessions to inspire creativity, in contrast to the computerized drum tracks and sampling that dominates much of today's neo-soul and hip-hop genres. He focused on tight grooves and sparse arrangements to complement the emotional qualities of the singer. Above all, he had uncanny instincts for which songs would become hits.

The long list of enduring recordings from the FAME studio includes James's "Tell Mama," and "I'd Rather Go Blind" (both 1968), Clarence Carter's "Slip Away" (1968) and Jimmy Hughes's "Steal Away" (1964).

"The beauty of Muscle Shoals," music historian Peter Guralnick wrote in "Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues in the Southern Dream of Freedom," was that producers for major labels often sent their performers to FAME, "then turn over the [artists] to Rick, who would engineer, produce, most likely come up with the songs, while at the same time providing a tight working band."

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Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler brought singer Wilson Pickett to FAME for sessions that included "Mustang Sally" (1966) and a cover of the Beatles' "Hey Jude" (1968), which featured a memorable solo by guitarist Duane Allman, then a fledgling studio musician.

Wexler also produced two signature songs for Franklin at Mr. Hall's studio, "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)" and "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" (both 1967) — but the session ended in a fistfight between Mr. Hall and the singer's then-husband and manager, Ted White. Wexler later flew several Muscle Shoals musicians to New York to play on Franklin's "Respect."

The legacy created at FAME continues to influence today's musicians. Country singer Chris Stapleton's 2015 recording "Tennessee Whiskey" owed much of its arrangement to James's recording of "I'd Rather Go Blind."

During the 1960s, some black performers, including Pickett, an Alabama native who grew up in Detroit, were initially reluctant to record in the small Southern town, and Mr. Hall often found himself integrating local diners by eating with black performers.

"It was dangerous, and we had a hard time doing it, but it was that or nothing, " he told the New York Times in 2015.

Mr. Hall was known as a hard task master, whose musicians sometimes decamped to more lucrative studios in Nashville. His second and most famous studio band, informally known as the Swampers — Barry Beckett on keyboards, Jimmy Johnson on guitar, David Hood on bass and Roger Hawkins on drums — was persuaded by Wexler to open a rival studio across town, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, in 1969.

In the 1970s, Mr. Hall increasingly turned his attention to pop music, producing a No. 1 hit, "One Bad Apple," for the bubble gum sibling act The Osmonds in 1970. The song, written by George Jackson, had been intended for the Jackson Five but was turned down by Motown.

Later hits to come from Mr. Hall's studio included Mac Davis's "Baby, Don't Get Hooked on Me" (1972) and Paul Anka's 1974 duet with Odia Coates, "(You're) Having My Baby." In the 1980s, he returned to his first interest, country music and turned a local bar band, Shenandoah, into a steady presence on the country charts.

Roe Erister Hall was born Jan. 31, 1932, in Tishomingo County, Miss. He was raised by his father, a farmer and sawmill operator, after his mother left the family when Mr. Hall was 4. His first instrument was a mandolin, a gift from an uncle.

Mr. Hall was drafted in 1952 during the Korean War and applied for conscientious objector status, although he said it was not for religious reasons.

"I didn't have any more belief probably than any of the rest of them," he told Guralnick. "I just didn't want to die and I didn't want to kill anybody."

He totaled his car and broke his back just before he was about to ship out as a medic. He later served in an Army honor guard, played in country bands with singers Faron Young and Gordon Terry and worked as a machinist in Rockford, Ill.

His first wife, Faye Marie Stegall, died in a car accident in the 1950s.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, the former Linda Kay Cross, of Muscle Shoals; their three sons, G. Rick Hall of Littleville, Ala., Markus A. Hall of Nashville and Rodney Roe Hall of Florence; two brothers; a sister; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Hall returned to Alabama in the late 1950s and played in a country band before forming a group, the Fairlanes, with rockabilly singer Charles Senn. Other bandmates included saxophonist Billy Sherrill, who became a successful producer in Nashville. Senn's replacement, singer Dan Penn, became one of the most successful songwriters in Southern soul.

With Sherrill and a third partner, Tom Stafford, Mr. Hall started FAME in Florence as a demo studio and music publisher, with his eye on the rhythm-and-blues market. When the three partners had a falling out, Mr. Hall retained the brand name of FAME and moved operations to Muscle Shoals.

He discovered and recorded Arthur Alexander, an Alabama singer-songwriter who had pop successes with "You Better Move On," (1961), later covered by the Rolling Stones, and "Anna (Go To Him)," (1962), later covered by the Beatles.

The studio has remained active through the decades. As recently as 2016, Gregg Allman recorded his final album, "Southern Blood," at FAME.

Mr. Hall received a 2014 Grammy Trustees Award, a lifetime achievement honor for non-performers. A 2013 documentary film, "Muscle Shoals," brought renewed attention to Mr. Hall's career. His memoir, "The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame to Fame," followed two years later.

With no small amount of hubris, Mr. Hall often claimed that his musical instincts and guidance led to the success of the singers and musicians who recorded at his studios.

"I say that musicians are like basketball players," he once said. "They need a manager to tell them when to drop a play. My engineering ability and advice . . . contributed more than the individual musicians."

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