Producer Rick Hall, 'Father of Muscle Shoals Music,' Dead at 85

Fame Studios founder launched career of Aretha Franklin, published and recorded numerous R&B, pop and country songs

Producer Rick Hall, famous for his contribution to the Muscle Shoals sound, has died at 85. Credit: House Of Fame LLC/Michael Ochs Archives

Legendary record producer and Fame studio owner Rick Hall, the man regarded as the "Father of Muscle Shoals Music," died early Tuesday morning, according to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Reportedly in declining health in recent months, Hall was 85. 

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, including Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Wilson Pickett and many more. To date, the studio and its publishing company have been responsible for an estimated 350 million record sales, with songs by everyone from the Beatles to George Strait.

Raised by his father after his mother abandoned Hall and his younger sister, Hall played several instruments including guitar, fiddle and mandolin, and performed in a number of musical groups. After helping to license the Percy Sledge tune "When a Man Loves a Woman" in 1966, Hall co-founded Fame Publishing in 1959 with Tom Stafford and future Tammy Wynette and George Jones producer-songwriter Billy Sherrill. The company scored early cuts with tunes by Brenda Lee, Roy Orbison and pop star Tommy Roe, and Hall soon took sole ownership of Fame, which was an acronym for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises. In 1961, he produced the first gold record in Muscle Shoals history with Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On," later cut by the Rolling Stones and an influence on the early work of the Beatles. "We were trying to get that bass sound Arthur Alexander was getting in Muscle Shoals, we love his records," John Lennon would say, according to the official Fame website. The studio's first rhythm section, in fact, included bass player Norbert Putnam, an Alabama native who would go on to become one of Nashville's most respected producers in his own right.

Muscle Shoals' "Swampers," the studio's second house rhythm section who were immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," would leave Fame to form their own studio in 1969, but the ensuing decade would see Hall inking a deal with Capitol Records to distribute Fame Records, as well as working with producer Mike Curb, who brought future teen idols the Osmonds and their teenaged sister, Marie, to the studio to record. Others who scored major hits throughout the decade included country-pop crossover artist Mac Davis and songwriter Paul Anka. Terri Gibbs, the CMA's first-ever Horizon Award (now Best New Artist) winner, recorded at Fame and, in 1981, the publishing company scored a major hit with Ronnie Milsap's pop-country smash "(There's) No Getting' Over Me." 

Earl Thomas Conley, T. Graham Brown, Ricky Van Shelton and Alabama all scored hits with songs generated at Fame Publishing, and Hall would produce Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers' Top 10 Houston to Denver LP in 1984. Following several years without a hit, guitar icon Jerry Reed would return to the top of the country charts with "She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)" and "The Bird," both cut at Fame. In 1987, Hall was responsible for signing a local bar band playing just down the street from Fame –  Shenandoah. Later Fame tunes that became huge hits included "I Swear," a country hit for John Michael Montgomery that was also a pop smash for All-4-One in 1994. Tim McGraw's "I Like It, I Love It" also originated at Fame, co-penned by Mark Hall. The Dixie Chicks, George Strait, Martina McBride, Kenny Chesney and many others logged country hits with songs from the vast Fame catalog.

Other artists who more recently recorded at Fame include Gregg Allman, who cut his final album, Southern Blood, at the studio, Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell. In a Twitter post, Isbell wrote: "Rick Hall and his family gave me my first job in the music business, and nobody in the industry ever worked harder than Rick. Nobody. American music wouldn’t be the same without his contributions. His death is a huge loss to those of us who knew him and those who didn’t."

Rick Hall was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1985. In 2013, he was featured in the acclaimed documentary Muscle Shoals, and in 2014 received a Grammy Trustees Award for his "significant contribution to the field of recording." In 2015, he published the memoir The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame. He is survived by his wife, Linda, and three sons, Rick Jr., Mark and Rodney.