Muscle Shoals - Rick Hall interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
MUSIC legend Rick Hall talks about Muscle Shoals and why a new documentary chronicling his life and the sound he helped to create means so much to him.
He also talks about cutting When A Man Loves A Woman and being told that it wasn’t a hit, what he believes his own greatest achievement to be and why he fears for the music industry and its continued ability to produce great records and artists.
Q. Muscle Shoals is a terrific film. How much does it mean to you?
Rick Hall: It means everything in my life to me. I’ve waited 50 years for it, so it’s obviously one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me. It’s history making, it’s happening world-wide and it tells people what we accomplished in Muscle Shoals regarding the music business and its effect around the world. It took four years to make the documentary and so I was involved during that whole period. They tell me they filmed me for 1,500 hours in order to get 15 minutes of worthwhile documentary footage to show [laughs]. So, I guess I was pretty slow in giving them what they wanted. But I think it’s great and, of course, I had one of the leading parts. I want to thank you and all the people in Europe for all the support you’ve shown me – both in terms of making people aware of this documentary and also for all the support they have shown to myself and Muscle Shoals over the years. I love Europe. The last time I went with my wife, I was really taken with it. I love England, I love Germany and France and everything over there. My wife and I stayed 21 days and we were so impressed.
Q. How was working with the film’s director, Greg Carmalier?
Rick Hall: Well, it was wonderful working with him. He and his producer, Stephen Badger, lived in Alabama, in Muscle Shoals, or at least stayed off and on for four years, so he’s like a brother to me. I love him and he’s a good man. It’s his first film but as you can tell, he’s a perfectionist. He’s all about perfection. I like that about him… in fact I like that about anyone because I’m the same way. I’ve accomplished whatever I’ve accomplished in my life because of a determination to get everything exactly right and to make great music that will last 100 years.
Q. Was it hard opening up about some of the tougher times in your life?
Rick Hall: It wasn’t hard at all because my whole life has been, as you saw, about rejection and hard times and poverty and all the bad things that you’d expect from someone, I guess, who has made it big in life. Most of us started from the bottom. But my work ethics have always been very strong – it’s all about determination and willpower and I have a very, very powerful willpower. I don’t take no for an answer. I guess you could say I’m pretty much a roustabout when the going gets tough.
Q. When did you know you had something special with the sound you were creating in Muscle Shoals?
Rick Hall: I knew from the beginning. I always knew. When I cut the first hit record, You Better Move On with Arthur Alexander in 1961, I knew… It was also recorded by the Rolling Stones and became a massive hit. And then the second record was also a big hit by another black artist, Jimmy Hughes, called Steal Away, so that was two out of two, which isn’t bad [laughs]. So, I knew from the start. But I was all about the music business. I had been playing music all my life, since I was five or six-years-old… playing music, singing and writing songs, so I was prepared for it. I believed in myself. And I knew that if I got the shot, if I got that opportunity, I was going to kick some ass and take some names, and that’s exactly what I did. I never had any thought about failure, or not being able to make it because I was so poverty stricken and had so many bad things happen in my life that I became very tough skinned and felt I could take on any project and make it happen. It didn’t bother me if I suffered setbacks a little bit. I’d just dig in and go back at it. And I never had any concerns about money. I had no concept of making money because I’d never had any – at that time anything was better than what I had. So, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I hope that doesn’t sound conceited…
Q. It takes a can do attitude to succeed…
Rick Hall: It does take an attitude… l’ve always felt very strong about myself. I feel I’m the best in the business. I’ve always felt that way. But I know that this is a hard gig that requires work and perseverance, just as I know nobody wants to work all their life in a factory. Hell, I tried that and I didn’t like it, so I was a hard nut to crack.
Q. Does that tough attitude help when dealing with ego within the industry, or bureaucrats?
Rick Hall: Absolutely! There’s no doubt about it. The hard part for me wasn’t cutting great records or working with the musicians, or the songwriters and engineers; the hard part was selling a record to the record company and making them believe that you had a No.1 record. But I had no trouble doing that. I was full of piss and vinegar and they knew it, they saw it in me, and [they] saw I was this guy that just might make it because he was so strong-willed. So, I didn’t have any trouble selling songs and records to Atlantic or Jerry Wexler or Joe Smith or anybody else. I was able to take on all-comers and I have no regrets. I really believed I could do it and I have done it. I don’t want to sound to abrasive about it, because I’m really not an ass-kicker. It’s important to say at this point that I also had a lot of help. I worked with a lot of great musicians and a lot of great song-writers. I didn’t do it on my own.
Q. What would you consider your own greatest achievement to be?
Rick Hall: I think my greatest achievement was to become the father of the Muscle Shoals sound and all the records that were cut there. I had a major role in that because I taught all the musicians, all the engineers and producers… all the studios in Muscle Shoals – and at one time there were 12 of them – were spin-offs of my organisation. So, they all worked for me at one time or another. I was their teacher and the guy they believed could make it happen. They believed in me very strongly, so I owe a lot to them for their belief in me and their hard work. As I said, I didn’t do it all by myself. I had a lot of great help… a lot of great professional people that worked with me very hard.
Q. How did you feel when you’d cut a track like When A Man Loves A Woman? What kind of feeling did that leave you with?
Rick Hall: I thought it was a No.1 worldwide hit. And that’s what I told Jerry Wexler and he said: “Well, send it to me and I’ll see what I think.” He was the owner and head of all black music at Atlantic Records at the time, so he was the biggest music guru that ever lived. But he said to me: “Well, I don’t like it, Rick. I don’t think it’s a hit.” So, I said: “Have you lost your hearing?” And he said: “I hope not.” But he insisted: “I just don’t think it’s a big hit.” But then he said to me: “Do you really think it’s a big hit?” And I said: “I’m telling you Jerry, it’s not a No.2 or a No.3, it’s a No.1 worldwide smash.” Of course, I wasn’t bashful and I was a pretty good salesman, so I made the point with him, and he eventually said: “If you think it’s going to be that big I’ll make a deal on the record.” So, that’s how it went down. He was trying to back me off… he was testing me to see if I’d back off. But I was insistent.
Q. Did he apologise afterwards?
Rick Hall: Well, let’s just say after that record came out, along with Wilson Pickett’s and Aretha Franklin’s and Clarence Carter’s, my stock went sky high with him and from then on when I said something, he listened [laughs].
Q. How was working with The Rolling Stones? In the documentary, they credit you with creating their best sound…
Rick Hall: Yes, I think it’s awfully big of them to credit me with the Muscle Shoals sound. But listen, the big questions over here are always, “what is the Muscle Shoals sound and why Muscle Shoals?” It’s a small town of 8,000 people. So, why did you pick that town? And I always answer by saying that I did it for two reasons. The first was because I wanted to make some money because I was starving to death, so I needed some money desperately. And the second was because nobody else wanted me – Nashville didn’t want me, nor did Memphis, or New York or Los Angeles or New Orleans. I tried to make it in all those places but none of them wanted me. So, I decided I’d just build me a studio and do it on my own, without any help. It’s a tough gig. It was taking on the world but gradually, like I said, I had a lot of confidence and I worked hard. I worked 18 hours a day, 7 days a week… there was no time off, no girls in my life, and no drinking. I just wrote songs around the clock and cut records and worked with musicians and had my own band. It was all about the music.
Q. Finally, as time has beaten us, what do you think of the state of the music industry today?
Rick Hall: Well, I have to be honest. I think computerisation and modern technology has just about ended the music industry in America. I can’t speak for the UK right now but unless we do something about it and pass some laws and stop it, this thing of people cutting a record with one guy playing all the instruments in their basement is killing the industry. It just isn’t what I grew up with. You just can’t have the human element missing. Any time you don’t have the human element involved I don’t think you can be great. Don’t get me wrong, I think computers are great for a lot of things, but they do not replace human beings in the recording studio… being there with 15 musicians playing off each other. When we were in the studio we worked like a team of people… it was like a basketball team or a football team, each man played off the other guy. And if the bass player sometimes couldn’t come up with the right lick or the piano player couldn’t, the guitar player might have it, so I’d be there to say “let’s work around him and put it all together and make it work”. We did it with Land Of A Thousand Dances [Wilson Pickett] and we did it with Mustang Sally and I Aint Never Loved A Man The Way That I Love You. We did it with Paul Anka and Tom Jones.
Now, it’s one guy who is going in his basement with a little recording studio, or something that he calls a recording studio, and playing all the parts himself on a machine… and instead of using a banjo for a banjo sound he might use a harmonica and convert it with a pro-tool. Those things are killing the music industry and killing the world of music unless someone stands up and says “enough of this”. In 10 years time, there won’t be any music as we know it today. There won’t be any great songs or singers or musicians – everything will be done on a machine. It sounds sad and it is sad, but unless we do something about it, and you can help us there in the UK, we’re going to have to face up to these things.
Muscle Shoals is released in UK cinemas on October 25, 2013