Friday, 5 January 2018

RIP Rick Hall: "Land of 1000 Dances", the Muscle Shoals FAME studio and the great '60s music racial melting pot"

Despite its title, "Land of 1,000 Dances" started out as a fairly gentle-paced gospel call-and-response-style chugger written and recorded in New Orleans in 1962 by the talented black New Orleans singer-songwriter, Chris Kenner, whose career was destroyed by chronic alcoholism and a three-year prison spell for statutory rape in 1968. The song was a middle-rank hit:
Three years later... East Los Angeles Hispanic band, Cannibal & the Headhunters, turned up the volume , whomped up the bass, and turned it into a record white go-go dancers could frug to:
It took a flight across the Atlantic that same year, where it was recorded by a bunch of English Mods called The Action:
In 1966, the Jew and the Turk who owned New York-based Atlantic Records flew their soul singer Wilson Pickett - who was very definitely black - down to the FAME studio in sleepy Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record a bunch of songs (including a cover version of "Land of 1000 Dances") with a white producer/engineer and a house band composed of young white boys who, as Bono later put it, "looked like they worked at the local supermarket".  Despite Pickett's initial scepticism (not helped by being driven to the studio through fields where "darkies" were still pickin' cotton by hand), the first session produced this epic blast of sheer musical energy, on which every dial seems to have been cranked up to 11:
Rick Hall, the man who built and ran FAME, died earlier this week, aged 85. He and Wilson Pickett rapidly became soul mates - perhaps helped by the fact that they were both difficult, ornery men. When Atlantic's Jerry Wexler subsequently brought Aretha Franklin down to record at FAME, it took Hall just one day to get into a fist fight with the singer's appalling husband, which resulted in Wexler taking his revenge by poaching Hall's session players and funding them to set up the rival Muscle Shoals Sound Studio across town. Hall picked himself up, dusted himself down, assembled another brilliant group of musicians and went on to even greater commercial success - although nothing could match the glory of those early years, when he and his dweebie-looking supermarket clerks produced magical recordings that put FAME right up there with Sun, Motown, Stax, the Cosimo Recording Studio in New Orleans and Gold Star in Los Angeles: 
("Sweet Soul Music" was produced by Otis Redding. He and Arthur Conley co-wrote the song - but it was an out-and-out copy of Sam Cooke's posthumously-released "Yeah Man", and they were ordered by a court to give Cooke a writing credit. That doesn't alter the fact that "Sweet Soul Music" is a much better record.)
Tommy Roe's "Everybody" was one of my favourite records when I was a lad. I always wondered why it was so much cooler than the singer's other hits: now I know - it was recorded at FAME:
And here's the record that started it all:
BBC Four broadcast a 90 minute documentary about Rick Hall and FAME in 2014, which is one of the best programmes about pop music I've ever seen. It's available on YouTube: 


  1. Wonderful reminder of what a great record the Wilson Pickett version is. The Action’s drummer reminds you of the old joke “What’s the difference between Dr Scholl’s foot powder and a British drummer?” “One of them bucks up your feet, while the other....etc” If he had just stuck to locking into the beat and keeping track of the bass player it might have been a half-decent record.

    Also good to see the great Arthur Alexander getting a mention. He was so influential on the young Stones and Beatles but is largely overlooked these days.

    1. I think Keith Moon has a lot to answer for. I'm not a huge Who fan, but his drumming style just somehow worked - in filled in the spaces. In lesser hands, all that faffing around is a irritating distraction.

      As for Arthur Alexander, I wonder if one reason he doesn't get the recognition he undoubtedly deserves is that all his really great songs were written early in his career, and he seems to have lost the plot by the mid-'60s - he even became a bus driver at one stage! He later said he was suffering from a long illness, and there were drug rumours. Mind you, if you've written and recorded a song as great as "Go Home Girl", and it doesn't even crack the Top 100, that has to leave scars.

  2. Arthur Conley's version was indeed much much better,and remains a Soul Classic. When the dust had cleared after the Bar-Kays "soul finger" had customarily declared Walton Playhouse open for business of a Saturday night, "Sweet Soul Music" was right up there with Sam and Dave's "Soul Man."
    And not a Jonathan King type to be seen thank heavens.
    That all came much later.