DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
The world of 1960s soul music revolved around some pretty predictable places: Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, New York, Los Angeles. But there was one other capital of soul that was less predictable: Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a fly speck on the map. Rock historian Ed Ward tells us the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEARCHING FOR MY LOVE")
BOBBY MOORE: (Singing) Searching, searching for my baby. Yes, I am. Searching, searching for my baby. Yes, I am. Searching, searching for my baby. I'm searching, searching for my love. I'm searching for the one I adore. If I find her, you know I will, I'll never, never let her go.
ED WARD: Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill were a couple of Alabama boys in their teens when they started writing songs. At first, the only place they had to record was in a room in the back of the Trailways bus station in Florence, Alabama. But one of the songs they recorded there, "Sweet and Innocent," became a small local hit, and a guy named Tom Stafford read about it in the local paper.
He built a recording studio above City Drugs in Florence and went into business with the two young men. It didn't last long. Sherrill was hugely ambitious and was soon off to Nashville. At that point, Stafford brought a bellhop from the local hotel to Hall and played him a song. They gathered up some local musicians and cut it, and it became a hit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU BETTER MOVE ON")
ARTHUR ALEXANDER: (Singing) You ask me to give up the hand of the girl I love. You tell me I'm not the man she's worthy of. But who are you to tell her who to love? That's up to her, yes, and the Lord above. You better move on.
WARD: Arthur Alexander was black, but everyone else involved in his 1961 smash, "You Better Move On," was white. That's the way it continued for years. It continued without Stafford, who fired Hall - a huge mistake. Undaunted, Hall rented a former tobacco warehouse and then found a building at 603 East Avalon in the nearby town of Muscle Shoals and started FAME Recording Studios, the name standing for Florence, Alabama Musical Enterprises.
But for a lot of the people who came to use its facilities, it also stood for fame itself.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEAL AWAY")
JIMMIE HUGHES: (Singing) I've got to see you somehow - not tomorrow, right now. I know it's late. Whoa, I can't wait. So come on and steal away. Please steal away. Now, don't stop me...
WARD: "Steal Away" was Hall's second huge hit, and Jimmie Hughes was just a guy who came in off the street with a song he wanted to record. Rick Hall wasn't sure it was a hit, so he didn't do what he usually did and try to find another label to put it out. Instead, he released it on the Fame label and watched it take off.
Soon, artists in search of a hit started booking studio time at Fame and getting results: Joe Tex, Joe Simon, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Arthur Conley - who'd been discovered by Otis Redding - and, with Redding producing, cut what could have been the anthem for Fame.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SOUL MUSIC")
ARTHUR CONLEY: (Singing) Do you like good music? That sweet soul music. Just long as it's swinging. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. We out here on the floor, y'all. We're going to a go-go. Dancing with the music. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Spotlight on...
WARD: Redding also recorded a demo for a song Dan Penn - one of Fame's best songwriters - had written with Rick Hall before leaving on the tour that ended with his death in a plane wreck.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU LEFT THE WATER RUNNING")
OTIS REDDING: (Singing) Two. One, Two, ready, play. You left all the water running when you left me behind. Baby, now, you left all the water running. It's running from these eyes of mine. Baby, now that you turned on the light of love, you left with another guy, honey that me, you turned off all your love for me, but you forgot to turn off the cry. Ooh, you forgot to turn off the cry. Baby, now...
WARD: The same week "Sweet Soul Music" was recorded, one of the biggest players in soul, Atlantic Records, booked the studio for their new signing, who'd been singing jazz on Columbia Records for a couple of years. It was a session marked with violence and acrimony, and Atlantic had to fly the Fame band to New York to finish the song, but it was worth it in the end.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEVER LOVED A MAN")
ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) You're no good, heartbreaker. You're a liar and you're a cheat. And I don't know why I let you do these things to me. My friends keep telling me that you ain't no good. Oh, but they don't know that I'd leave you if I could. I guess I'm uptight. And I'm stuck like glue 'cause I ain't never, I ain't never, I ain't never, oh, no, loved a man the way that I, I love you.
WARD: Aretha Franklin never returned to Fame to record, but the studio, now anchored by a band that consisted of guitarists Junior Lowe and Jimmy Johnson, bassist David Hood, keyboardist Barry Beckett and drummer Roger Hawkins, had cemented its place in soul music history.
These guys - sometimes augmented by a third guitarist, a kid from Florida named Duane Allman - played on countless sessions for artists who came from as far away as Jamaica to get that unique Fame studio sound. Finally, in 1968, Capitol Records announced they'd distribute Fame, and the label had access to more record-buyers than ever.
It was at just this time that the whole band walked out and collectively opened their own studio at 3614 Jackson Highway in Muscle Shoals, called Muscle Shoals Sound. By now, Fame was so well-established that a new band - biracial, for the first time in the company's history - was quickly rounded up, named the Fame Gang, and the sessions continued.
Clarence Carter, a long-time client, brought in his new girlfriend to audition. She did quite well.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE THANKS I GET FOR LOVING YOU")
CANDI STANTON: (Singing) I heard you've been running around, and I know your old flame is back in town. Now you said your love for her was gone, but every chance you get, boy, you're trying to see her alone. Oh, baby. Is this the thanks I get for loving you? Oh, yeah. When I think...
WARD: Candi Staton was the last great artist developed by Fame, but the studio has kept going. Rick Hall is 79 years old, and his ears and engineering chops are as good as ever, although he's turned most of the day-to-day stuff over to his son Rodney. An autobiography is supposed to be in the works, too. But a whole lot of the story is in the grooves.
BIANCULLI: Ed Ward reviewed "The Fame Studios Story 1961-1973."