Some of the most subversive characters to exist in this country could be found in the Deep South, beginning in the late 1950s. They were regular people doing what regular people weren’t supposed to do somehow: Black people and White people working together and hanging out together and carving out an exception to the system of Jim Crow.
Florence, Alabama – located in the northwestern corner of Alabama – was the original locus of this activity.
These untoward doings were centered right above the City Drug Store in Florence. Tom Stafford, who was directing it, was the son of the drugstore pharmacist. He loved music and enjoyed hanging out with some of the local young musicians, when he wasn’t managing a movie theater in town.
Some of the aspiring musicians he knew were Dan Penn, Billy Sherrill, Rick Hall, and Spooner Oldham.
Rick Hall had been trying to get into the music business in Nashville. He began his career playing fiddle for a local Alabama country group, but he soon found success as a songwriter in Nashville; he wrote “Aching Breaking Heart,” which became a hit for George Jones.
Later he became a songwriting partner with Billy Sherrill, who had played blues as a teenager in Alabama. As a songwriting team they had some success with a song they wrote for Roy Orbison.
The two formed a band that played rock and rhythm-and-blues; they called themselves The Fairlanes. They liked this music called rhythm-and-blues and knew that White people enjoyed it as much as Black people did. It gave Rick Hall the impetus to say good-bye to Nashville. That, along with his dissatisfaction with songwriting royalties.
He and Sherrill left Nashville and started pitching songs to James Joiner, the owner of Tune Records and Publishing Company in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. They were going to stick with rhythm-and-blues.
Muscle Shoals had been a local gateway of sorts to Nashville; anyone who could make an impression there stood a better chance of impressing people elsewhere in the music industry. Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill were ready to stake it all on Muscle Shoals instead.
It was James Joiner who put them in touch with Tom Stafford.
The three men – Stafford, Hall, and Sherrill – shared enthusiasm for the music and became business partners. It was their new publishing company – the Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME) – that was located over the drug store.
The partnership was short-lived, though. Rick Hall separated from Sherrill and Stafford and opened his own recording studio – keeping the old name – on Wilson Dam Road in Muscle Shoals. Not long afterward he recorded the first hit record from the area, a song called “You Better Move On” by a local Black singer named Arthur Alexander.
With money he made from that record, Hall was able to move his studios to a new building on Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals. The second hit he recorded was also by a Black singer, Jimmy Hughes. Other Black singers were soon coming to FAME Studios, singers like Etta James and Joe Tex. Rick Hall was getting attention from Blacks and Whites alike. As his wife Linda tells it:
They’d just come by and see what was going on because this was the early sixties and that wasn’t the thing to do, Black people working with White people. But Rick did it anyway, and enjoyed it, and has always been able to relate well with Black people. It’s always been a good marriage.
It doesn’t surprise me that Rick Hall could relate well to Black people. His beginnings hadn’t been that different from those of many Blacks in Alabama during the same time.
Born in 1932, he grew up dirt poor with a single father after his mother left the family. His father moved to Ohio to take a job in a defense plant, with the intention of making enough money to buy land in Alabama. After the war, Rick and his family returned to Alabama where his father became a sharecropper.
If you were poor and living in rural Alabama during the period leading up to the Depression, you didn’t have that many options for survival. Sharecropping and tenant farming were life, whether you were White or Black.
Sharecropping was the system whereby you worked on someone else’s land and paid them with a portion of the crop. Generally, if all you brought to this deal was your labor and you depended on the landowner for the rest, you would get a third. If you had your own draft animals, equipment, and supplies, you could get half.
Typically, though, you were impoverished and perennially in debt. You had substandard housing (to put it mildly), poor sanitation, a lousy diet, and susceptibility to the kinds of health problems created by the aforementioned conditions. You were also socially isolated.
People usually associate tenant farming with the postbellum period in the South, but it had existed in Alabama prior to the Civil War – and all of the farmers had been White. After the war, there was a serious disruption in the agricultural system, since most labor had been performed by slaves. Many of the former slaves left the farms and plantations and moved into cities. Fields went uncultivated and land values depreciated.
The people who owned the land knew something had to be done. They saw newly freed Blacks as the best source of labor, so they encouraged Blacks to return to the plantations for wages.
The deal they had in mind was for Blacks to live in the old slave quarters and work in gangs as they had during slavery. Well, it didn’t go over that well. Freed Blacks didn’t really care to return to the old slave quarters. And they weren’t too crazy about working in gangs, either. So much for all that fondness Black people had for slavery.
Another problem, perhaps the main one, was that landowners had little money to pay laborers.
A system of cooperation had to exist in order for agriculture to work. So landowners, freed Blacks, and poor Whites all coexisted in this system. The White landowners dominated both the poor Blacks and the poor Whites.
In time, White sharecroppers in Alabama outnumbered Black, except in the Alabama “Black Belt.”
Poverty is one hell of an equalizer.
These were some of the ties that bound Whites and Blacks in Alabama when guys like Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill, and Tom Stafford were growing up there. And music created a significant bond. That’s what music seems to do; it penetrates all kinds of barriers people put up between one another. When it touches you, you can’t be untouched. The music producer Sam Phillips, who grew up near Florence the son of a cotton farmer, called this area a “melting pot of musical influences”:
When I was growing up, we heard it all. In the fields we heard the Black man’s blues, in the churches we heard Black spirituals and White gospel, and on the radio we heard the Grand Ole Opry and those glorious songs from Tin Pan Alley. Out of that we created a sound that’s hard to define, hard to pigeonhole…
All of these influences were a part of the background from which the music of Muscle Shoals emerged.
What brought Muscle Shoals to national prominence was the song known as its musical anthem:”When A Man Loves a Woman,” recorded by Percy Sledge. It was a different producer, Quin Ivy, who recorded Percy Sledge, but he sent the song to Rick Hall, who loved it. Hall then contacted Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records in New York; Atlantic recognized a hit and released it. It was the first song recorded in Muscle Shoals that became an international success.
Jerry Wexler liked the idea of recording in Muscle Shoals. As he told it:
Rigor mortis had set in up north. I had spent a decade recording with written arrangements. The arrangers were out of ideas, the musicians were out of licks and we were out of our minds. I was reinvigorated by this Southern method of recording. Once I had a taste of it, I loved it. It was like a religious retreat.
Of the session musicians in Muscle Shoals, he said:
These were country boys. They weren’t hicks by any means, but they were good old boys who loved country music but hated playing it. They had taken a turn toward a little more sophisticated type of music, which was rhythm-and-blues. They shared common experiences with the Black artists they played with – they all walked with the same mud between their toes.
Jerry Wexler brought other talent to record in Muscle Shoals. (He also brought his own engineer, Tom Dowd, a move that didn’t really appeal to Rick Hall.) An artist who had a similar background to Rick Hall’s – sharecropping, dysfunction, a certain rebelliousness – was Wilson Pickett, who had had success at Stax. He recorded some of his biggest hits at FAME Studios.
Wexler also brought Aretha Franklin. The song that established her in the music industry, “I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Loved You),” came out of Muscle Shoals.
The truth is, by the time Rick Hall began recording Black artists at FAME Studios, the slow dismantling of segregation was already underway in the South. The Civil Rights movement coincided with some of his greatest success.
But music was common ground for Black Americans and White Americans in the South before civil rights was expected or fashionable. Some things just seem to be stronger than Race.
- Fuqua, Christopher S. 2005. Music Fell on Alabama: The Muscle Shoals Sound That Shook the World. Montgomery, AL: NewSouth Books.