Rick Hall, 85, record producer and engineer

Rick Hall helped develop the fabled “Muscle Shoals sound.”
James Dimmock/New York Times
Rick Hall helped develop the fabled “Muscle Shoals sound.”

WASHINGTON — 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. He was 85.

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

When Mr. Hall, an itinerant country musician, cofounded his first recording studio and publishing concern, FAME, in 1959 in rural Florence, Ala., there were no major recording studios in the state. 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.

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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’ ‘‘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.’’

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.’’

Performers including Jason Isbell took to social media to praise Mr. Hall and his legacy.

Isbell tweeted: ‘‘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.’’

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’ ‘‘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.

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 his career. His memoir, ‘‘The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame to Fame,’’ followed two years later.