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  • Beth Hart (2013)

    Posted May, 2013

     

    Beth Hart. Haven’t heard of her? Okay, well, she’s not quite yet a household name but just wait, she will be. What makes me so sure? I’m glad you asked. There are several reasons. 

    First, for some people, it just seems to be a blinding glimpse of the obvious. The story is told that, when she was four years old, she saw a commercial advertising pianos that had as a musical backdrop Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. In the middle of the night, she got up and played a segment of the song on the family piano, which drew out all of the family in amazement. She says of that moment, “ . . . the ham in me knew right away that this was what I wanted to do. I just knew . . .”

    Second, she’s been in the music business for over twenty years, getting a big, early boost by winning the national title to Ed McMahon’s Star Search – long before there was an American Idol or The Voice. As her reputation grew, she garnered the attention of such guitar greats as Jeff Beck and Slash, working collaboratively with them on various projects. 

    What has apparently set Beth’s musical career on a whole new trajectory was the result of a serendipitous meeting with guitar great, Joe Bonamassa, in a hotel lobby. Beth was asked to join Bonamassa in 2011 on the Kevin Shirley produced CD,Don’t Explain – a great album of soul-rock covers. It was this CD that brought the classically trained Hart to the attention of Boomerocity and legions of other new fans-for-life.

    Adding to the growing fan basecame Jeff Beck’s invitation for Beth to join him on the2012 Kennedy Center Honors to pay tribute to blues legend Buddy Guy, performing the Etta James classic (and one of Boomerocity’s all-time-favorites) I’d Rather Go Blind. While viewers may have tuned in to see Led Zeppelin or David Letterman being honored, as the Baltimore Sun wrote, “Everyone was on their feet when {Beck and Hart’s} soul-searing performance ended.”

    I can second that “emotion” by saying that every time I post the video of that performance on my Facebook

    What a reintroduction to America!

    In March of this year, Ms. Hart followed up Don’t Explain with the critically acclaimedBang Bang Boom Boom. It was in support of this album that I was fortunate and privileged to speak with her about the album after her return from touring in Europe. Despite the extensive globetrotting, she sounded relaxed and well-rested. Obviously, she’s quite the seasoned tour veteran.

    As we started our conversation I asked Beth what the reaction to Bang Bang Boom Boomhas been so far both here and abroad.

    “Well, you know, I just love the CD so much. I’m so excited about it. But, you know, I know better – I’ve been around long enough to know not everyone is going to like it, right? So, when I started doing the press work, I can’t believe how amazingly supportive everyone has been and it just thrills me to pieces! 

    If I’ve counted correctly, in your twenty year career, Bang Bang Boom Boom is your ninth solo album (counting the ones with your bands), not counting your two duets with Joe Bonamassa, correct?

    “It counts the Don’t Explainrecord but not the See Saw record. The Seesawrecord will be the tenth. Also included in that is the Live at Paradiso DVD that we also made as a record. So, it would actually be the tenth if you include Seewaw.

    With that impressive body of work solidly under her belt, I asked Beth what was different in making this album compared with her other work.

    “Well, by far, the first record I ever made was a record called Ocean of Souls. I was twenty years old. I didn’t like it because I don’t think I was really confident in myself and the people I was working with. It was kind of all over the place. I was scared. But, then, once it was finished, I thought it was nice. But the actual process of it – you know, I’m kind of a neurotic, OCD type of personality and I’m used to being in the studio for years because my producer was also my manager for years – since I was fifteen. So, we spent a lot of time in the studio together but now we were actually making a real record. 

    “Then, when I signed over at Atlantic, I made a record called Immortal which was my first major record company album and I didn’t really enjoy that, either. Again, I loved the music. I loved my band. But it was the process. I was going, ‘I guess making records is just not for me. I’m really not enjoying the process.’

    “It wasn’t until I produced my third record, Screamin for My Supper, with a good buddy of mine, Tal Herzberg, who was my bass player. Then I started really enjoying making records! Maybe it was because I was more in control. Maybe that gave me more security. I could kind of do things the way I wanted. But, still, it never became my favorite thing to do until I did a record called 37 Days where we started recording everything live together as a band to tape with vocals. That’s when I found, “Okay! This is the way I’m supposed to make records! This is how I love it!” So, yeah, that’s the only way I like to do it now.”

    As for her latest record, “It was real fluid, easy and exciting. Ever since we started with Joe Bonamassa on the Don’t Explainrecord with Kevin Shirley producing – who’s an absolute genius! He’s my favorite person to work with! I hope to God I get to work with him on every record for the rest of my life! And, then, the second record I worked with Kevin Shirley was Bang Bang Boom Boom – this record that we’re talking about tonight. And, then the third record is the Seesawrecord, which has not come out yet. But all three records – the first one, Don’t Explain, four days to make the record. On Bang Bang Boom Boom,six days to make the record and Seesawwas six days. So Kevin works fast and we do everything simultaneous to tape and it’s just heaven that way! It’s really great!”

    As I’ve stated in other interviews, I know that artists refuse to pick a favorite song on their albums because it’s like picking your favorite child. However, I asked Beth if she were to pick only one song from the CD as THE song to play for someone to hopefully entice them to pick it up, which song would it be? Before I could even finish the question, she blurted out unequivocally, “Baddest Blues. That’s by far my fave. Yeah, I love that song so much and I think it embodies the colors of the whole record within that one.”

    Ms. Hart then shared the story behind that song.

    “Well, one of my favorite songs is the Billie Holiday song, Don’t Explain, and a song called Strange Fruit. Nina Simone does a phenomenalversion of Strange Fruit. I grew up as a kid just being a huge Billie fan because my mother was and my mother always had just the best taste in music. Anyway, I was thinking about those two songs. I started working on the music first, which is what I always do when I’m writing. I kind of got some music down for it and started working on arrangements for it. I had a bit of a melody that I was messing with, as well. And, then, when it came time for the lyrics - which is another thing I do, I let the music dictate to me what the lyric is going to be, what it makes me think of, whether it’s a memory or projection of some dream I may have of the future.

    “So, what it started speaking to me about was my mother and father’s divorce. My mother is such a strong, strong survivor of a woman but it broke her for a period and she ended up in bed for a few months. She just couldn’t get out. And to see such a powerful, strong woman broken like that was devastating to a little girl to see that happen to your mother. Also, Billie Holiday, the pain she suffered in her life. Billie and my mother remind me so much of each other. So, that was my muse for the song. I just love it even though it’s a painful topic, the truth is she did survive. She made it through it and better for it on the other side. She’s just an honorable, beautiful woman. She’s seventy-seven and she’s still strong and has more energy than I’ll ever have.”

    My research showed – as does Beth’s performances – that she’s a very intense person. I wondered if writing a song as personal and emotionally impactful to her, personally, does that drain her.

    “No! God no! Not at all! It’s just the opposite. You know what does drain me that I make sure I stay away from at all costs? Is trying to write something for radio or trying to write something that you think will be a hit. That is exhausting. Forget it. You can never do it. You never know what they’re going to play. It’s a waste of time. But what gives me energy is getting to the truth. The funny thing is for me to tell the truth. Even when I’m ready and I want to and I want to be able to divulge whatever things I’m dealing with or struggling with – or even excited about – to be about to articulate it in the most honest way possible is very, very hard. Not because I’m scared of anybody hearing it but I don’t know if I can get me to do it. Because I could be in denial or be in a protective place where I don’t want to admit to myself that’s how I feel. So that’s really what the struggle is. It’s not the music, it’s the lyric. Really, I work on it and I work on it and I try to get myself to feel as safe and secure as I can to just be able to be a real human being; to not have it together; to not try and convince myself that I’m okay. And when I finally let myself divulge that, yeah, I’m not okay. I’m still screwed up with stuff, there’s something so freeing about that, getting that load off and go, ‘Ah!’, you know? That’s my favorite part about writing. I love to get to that place.”

    I hate asking artists questions that I know have been asked them a million times. However, since I know that Ms. Hart is a new name to some Boomerocity readers, I had to ask (for your benefit, of course) who her musical influences were as she was growing up. 

    “I have so many, oh my god! Beethoven, Bach, Rachmoninoff, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, The Ramones, Carol King, James Taylor, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline. I could just go on and on and on. Every genre of music I’ve ever been turned on to – any Latin music, African music, Chinese music, any kind that I’ve ever heard in my life, I’ve just been dumbfounded by the miracle of it, the beauty of it. Human beings have so much to say in all forms of art and it’s all over the world. It’s so beautiful. So gorgeous. It really shows you how people really feel about what’s going on in the world. It’s just fantastic. There’s some good stuff out there.”

    Some in the industry have compared Beth to the late, great Janis Joplin. I asked her how she felt about that comparison.

    “Oh, I just absolutely adore her! You know, I never grew up listening to her. It wasn’t until I got into my early twenties that I kept hearing people say, ‘Hey, you remind me of Janis.’ So I said, ‘I’ve gotta go out and I gotta get this Janis person and see who this is.’ Well! When I got some of her records and when I got some video tapes back when they had video stores and I watched some of her stuff live, I just realized that I was really looking a real legend; someone who was a pioneer; someone who had unbelievable courage; such talent and huge range! I think she would’ve gone on to do so much more great and fabulous art. It’s an absolute tragedy to die so young but what she left behind was wonderful, I think, for men and absolutely for women. No matter who you are, if you get enough fight in you and gumption in you, you can do anything! She showed that a white woman could do heavy rock and roll and make it fabulous. She really delivered that. Every time someone mentions Janis to me, I’m so honored and happy to hear that! Of course!”

    In a gee-whiz moment, I mentioned that I thought it would be great if she did a gig or two with Janis’ old band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Ms. Hart said, “You know, I got to work quite a bit with Sam Andrew (original and surviving member of BBHC), who was there original guitar player. He’s fantastic! He worked with us when we did the off-Broadway Love Janis. He’s a lovely man. Such a warm and kind man. Highly intelligent. Oh yeah! I feel like an idiot when I’m talking to him but I love him anyway! Ha! Ha!”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

    With such great names having influenced her musical tastes as she was growing up, I asked her who was capturing her attention these days.

    “Oh god! So many people are grabbing my attention! I’m crazy in love with Vintage Trouble and, thankfully, I can say that I know the guys very, very well. They’re great guys! What AMAZINGperformers! Great music and so soulful! Ty Taylor is one of the best front men I’ve seen on stage. I’m a big fan! Aloe Blacc is so fantastic, the music he’s doing. Unbelievable talent! I was the hugest fan in the world of Amy Winehouse. I know we just lost her a few years back now but I just loved what she was doing. I thought she was right up there with Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. Her writing, her singing, her phrasing – just an extraordinary talent. I’m a big fan of Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine. She’s a great songwriter! Great, great music they’re coming up with over there. I’m into Gary Clark, Jr. right now. So, yeah, there’s some stuff out there that I really enjoy!”

    Beth Hart has had to deal with a few personal matters in her life. Those challenges have been thoroughly covered in other excellent interviews and I saw no need whatsoever to have her rehash them in this interview. However, I know that she’s learned a lot from her challenges and I asked her what encouraging advice would she like to give to women – and even men – who deal with the same matters as she has and does.

    “One in four people with mental illness will die of suicide. That’s a fact – a statistic. There’s no getting around that. If you have a bipolar disorder, it’s so dangerous. You absolutely, ABSOLUTELYhave to find a doctor you trust and will get you on proper medication and then you have to take that medication. Just like you have to eat to live, you have to take the medication to not kill yourself or go so manic, so crazy that you end up in a hospital several times a year or you may hurt someone else.

    “It’s a dangerous, dangerous disease. It’s not your fault. There’s no guilt or shame. That’s a big part of the illness – you feel very ashamed, very guilty. You don’t understand why you keep behaving this way. But it’s not because you’re bad at all – in any way. You’re sick. There really is help that can really make a difference in your life! Please! Get a good doctor and medicine and do whatever you can to learn how to take care of that brain! There’s a lot of wonderful, natural ways, also that help the brain but not without medication.”

    With our time winding up, I asked Beth the same final question I have asked many other artists: When she’s performed her last gig and she’s gone to that great stage in the sky, how does she want to be remembered?

    “I hope that I’ll be remembered that I really put it out there and loved being alive. How beautiful it is to be alive! And the gift – the gift of life, making music and having people you love; your family, your friends. Food! How wonderful food is and nature and God. And, if you don’t believe in God, that’s cool, too, you know. Being an atheist, maybe is into the forest or something. It doesn’t matter. Just enjoy life and, hopefully, that came through the music – the joy of making music and of being alive, more than anything!”

    Beth will undoubtedly be around for many years to come and will be delighting fans with her albums and performances. Check out her website (here) to stay in the loop about her latest tour schedule and upcoming CD releases.

  • Beth Hart Discusses Better Than Home

    Posted November, 2015

    Photo by Greg Watermann

         

    To say that Beth Hart is one of the most amazing new female singer/songwriters of the new millennia would be an understatement. 

    Literally discovered in the 90’s while performing on the streets of L.A. by David Wolf (who became her close friend and manager). He managed to land her a record deal with Atlantic in a matter of weeks.

    Her talent has landed her on TV (both performing as well as her songs being used on shows) and even in front of our current president (along with the iconic Jeff Beck). 

    Because of her openness about her battles with booze, drugs, bad relationships and being bi-polar, Beth Hart has inspired many to fight the good fight against their own personal demons.

    I was first turned on to her work four years ago by way of a duet album she recorded with guitar great, Joe Bonamassa, entitled “Don’t Explain”, in 2011. She won me over with her treatment of the Etta James hit, “I’d Rather Go Blind”, making permanent and me an instant fan. A couple of years later, I had the thrill of conducting my first interview with this incredible artist. 

    I was recently afforded yet another opportunity to chat with her about her latest CD, “Better Than Home” (an album I absolutely love, by the way), prefaced my first question about it by stating that I felt that it was quite an introspective album from her, then asking if that was an accurate observation.

    “Yes, I would say so. I mean, I typically tend to be pretty vulnerable and open in my writing, anyway. But this record, in particular, went a little deeper there. I turned in a lot of songs to Rob Mathes and Michael Stevens. A lot! These are the ones that they felt the strongest about recording.  I think that the chose a collection that just happened to be on a super personal level that they thought would work together for a record.”

    I shared with Beth that my favorite cut from the disc is “Tell Them To Hold On” and asked her to share her story behind it.

    “Thank you. I love that song! I started writing that a few years ago – several years ago, actually. What inspired me was that I went into the hospital and I really

         

    Photo by Greg Watermann

    wasn’t doing that well. As I started to come around and feel better, I saw a lot of people there with me that hadn’t started feeling better, yet. I felt so much compassion for them because I had just been through the same thing. So, I was kinda, in part, thinking, ‘I swear to God, it gets better, guys! Just hang on in there! No matter how bad or dark or scary it gets, it always gets better! It’s so worth holding on because it just gets better.’ I think that’s where that came from.”

    When I told Beth that I thought that God’s hand was on her when she wrote that song, she said:

    “Thank you. I’d like to think that because I really feel like it’s such a spiritual experience writing. It’s such a healing and wonderful experience. I’ve always felt like God and the angels kinda help me out there, you know? Kinda show me the way. I need to believe that, you know?”

    Realizing that artists don’t like to pick a favorite song from their albums because it’s like picking a favorite child, I asked Ms. Hart which song she would point people to as a calling card for “Better Than Home”.

    “It would be, ‘Tell Her You Belong To Me’.  It was by far the most challenging. It took the longest time to write it. I didn’t know what it was about in the beginning of writing it even though I had lyrics and I had all of the melody. I had all the music done first, which is what I usually do, anyway. But, I had a lot of lyrics and I couldn’t figure out what were the right lyrics. I pondered over it a couple of years. Then, finally, I realized why I was struggling with the lyric because I finally realized who it was about. It was about my dad. That’s why I was afraid to talk about those feelings. Once I figured out what it was about, then I said, ‘Okay, now let’s get this song done!’ I just love it. I love this song so much! I dedicate the album to my dad. I never dedicated a record to my dad before.”

    The title song is truly soul stirring. Beth shared with me the story behind it and how it impacted fans.

    “I’m close with a few of my fans and, when I say that, I mean that they’ve become really good friends of mine and they’re usually people who deal with similar things from difficulty in childhood or mental difficulties. So, yeah, they’re always a part because I know they’re my sounding board. I get to talk to them and say, ‘Hey, this is how I’m feeling,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been going through the same thing, lately! This is what I’m doing to get better and this is what I’m doing that’s making me feel better.’ It’s a fantastic thing – especially when I’m writing a song about that. 

    Photo by Greg Watermann

    “For me, ‘Better Than Home’ came from a childhood place of having dreams about things being better; things being different; me taking a different course in my life; the way that I looked at myself and the way that I looked at my own family and the way that I looked at life and creating a new family. I like to think that having a band and, then, also getting married and my manager, David, is like my father. He’s like a father figure to me. I like at that as my new family that I created later in life. 

    “But it’s really standing before God and what I see as spiritual healing and something that looks over me and guiding me and having the courage to say, ‘This is what I want for my life.’ I think it’s hard when you have such low self esteem to say, ‘This is what I really want for my life’ because you feel like you don’t deserve it.

    “So, ‘Better Than Home’ is getting to that place where you realize, despite my insecurities, despite my warped thinking, I absolutely deserve to have everything that I’ve ever wanted: love and health and being able to be responsible for myself and letting go of feeling sorry for myself. All those kinds of things. Music and experiencing life like when you wake up and you go outside and you’re, like, ‘Wow! I’m alive! I’m really lucky and I’m really thankful!’ Those kinds of things. 

    “What I did, though, when I wrote it, was I made it about the road so, that way, I wouldn’t have to explain that personal thing that I add to the song but I could use the road as an example. What the road means to me is just getting out of your house. It doesn’t necessarily have to be singing and doing a show. It just means getting out of where you’re hiding from and experiencing life again. And THAT is better than home – better than hiding.”

    I discovered Beth Hart from her first duet album with guitarist, Joe Bonamassa. She’s also worked with the legendary Jeff Beck and others. A Boomerocity reader who knew I was going to be chatting with Beth wanted to know whom else she would like to work with sometime.

    “You know? I would really, really love to do something with Tom Waits. I don’t know him and I’m sure he doesn’t know who the frick I am but I adore him! I adore his writing. I adore his whole vibe. He is so vulnerable and, then, the next minute he’s absolutely hysterical. He’s got such a broad sense of being able to find art in every form of emotion and the way he does it is so brilliant. I would love to even be a fly on the wall in his room when he’s working. That would be amazing. It’s always been him. Whenever I get that question, I always say Tom Waits.”

    In my interview with Joe Bonamassa last month, I told him that I was going to be chatting with Beth and asked him for a comment about her, to which he said, “I think Beth Hart is probably the most naturally talented singer and musician that I’ve ever been on stage with. She has such a wonderful sense of timing and phasing, vocally, and has an infinite capability, vocally. She commands attention. There’s some people who can really sing. They stand up there and sing. She stomps up there and she takes control of the stage. You can’t teach that kind of stage power and that presence. She’s a very, very, very special individual and I’m very proud of the records that I’ve made with her.”

    When I shared those comments with Ms. Hart, her response was bubbly and from deep within her heart.

    “Oh, my god! That is so amazing! Oh, my god! I love him! He’s so sweet! This is how I feel about Joe: I think that Joe is one of the most extraordinary people

         

    Photo by Greg Watermann

    because, like Jeff Beck, he really works at his craft. He doesn’t just assume that he has all this talent and that’s all he needs. He works at it. He’s on the road. He’s practicing at home. He’s making records. He’s writing songs. He’s covering songs in a brilliant way. And he’s got a HUGE vocabulary. 

    “I think it’s, obviously, a great talent there, but it’s like Jeff. Jeff’s got a great talent but he works his ass off at it. He doesn’t take it for granted in any way. He’s striving to always learn and takes on new challenges. I mean, you can see what he’s done with his career. He’s someone who’s never had Pop success; tons of radio play Pop stations and look at his career! It’s phenomenal and it’s because he works at it. He puts it out there. He never takes it for granted. That’s something that really inspired me when I met him was that I saw his work ethic and his total commitment – not only being an artist but really being someone that gets out there and works the shit out of it. That inspired me so much!

    “Also, he’s incredibly humble and the easiest person to work with. He really inspires the people around him by allowing them to be themselves and showing them that respect and that love. He focuses on his side of the street. I think what that does is you work with people and you let them see that they’re there because you believe in them and you love them and you’re focusing on your thing and you know that they’re going to focus on their thing. And, when you bring it together, it makes it this amazing chemistry. You get the best out of people. That’s another thing I really saw from him and made it a conscious effort to do that in my life, as well. I love his flavors and his styles on things. 

    “Obviously, as a player and as a singer - love him as a singer! I love his voice. I love how he doesn’t push and do that whole showboating bullshit thing. He really has faith in the material and he allows those songs to be played and to be sung for the sake of the song instead of for the sake of showboating and showboating is bullshit. We know that, you know? That only goes so far. After three or four songs, you’re done. You’ve seen the showboating. It’s over. With him, you don’t get that. You can watch him for two hours and it’s always special and it’s always something that is humble and comes from a real place of love for music instead of having to show you how amazing he is. His amazement is in how respects the music and at it from that place.”

    In addition to what she had shared earlier, Beth shared what else is on her radar for the next year.

    Photo by Greg Watermann

         

    “Well, you know, what I decided is doing nine months on the road a year is just too much. It’s getting in the way of my relationships with family, with friends, with being able to be a wife to my husband, and it’s getting in the way of writing. Even thought I work with my husband on the road, it’s still all about the Beth Hart Show. At home, I want to be able to cook for him and go to the beach and ride bikes with him. 

    “I was telling this to my manager recently. I was saying as a writer, I’m not going to write about airplanes and hotels. Who gives a shit about that? I gotta write about real life and in order to write about real life, I have to be connected to real life. 

    “So, I think what’s on the focus for me is, like, seven months out of the year on the road, living a real life and being able to write from that place. Being really healthy. Really balanced. I’m forty-three, now. This is the time where you’ve really got to take care of yourself if you want to live to be old and I want to live to be old! I want to have a long life. I want to be able to be there to take care of my husband when he gets really old the way he’s taken such amazing care of me through all my difficulties. So, I’m kinda reprioritizing things and I think it’s a good thing! I feel really good about that.”

    If Beth’s future is as full of life as she sounded during our call, then, happily, we should be hearing from this beautiful and amazingly talented woman for many years to come . . . and that’s a wonderful thing.

  • Billy Vera Discusses His Career and Little Richard

    Posted June, 2015

         

    The name, Billy Vera, may or may not ring a bell with you but you most certainly have heard his music, depending on when you became an avid listener.

    If you were glued to the radio in the sixties, you might be familiar with the he wrote “Storybook Children” and “Country Girl, City Man” that he recorded with Judy Clay and later covered by Nancy Sinatra. In the same era, he had a solo hit entitled, “With Pen In Hand”.

    He’s arguably most known for his huge hit, “At This Moment”, made famous on a couple of episodes of the hit TV show in the eighties, “Family Ties” and, more recently, enjoyed a resurgence in popularity when Canadian crooner, Michael Buble’, recorded it both in the studio and live.

    Still is admired by his fans and peers, alik, his songs have been recorded by such singers as Lou Rawls, Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, Etta James, Fats Domino, Tom Jones, George Benson, and Robert Plant.

    Okay, let’s say (just for kicks and grins) that you already knew all that stuff. Did you know that Billy Vera is also a rock music historian?

    I didn’t, either. 

    Vera has lent his historical prowess to writing annotations for some very important commemorative albums and box sets, most recently being the extensive 3 CD box set of Little Richard’s most prolific work entitled, “Directly From My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years”.

    When I received my review copy of the Little Richard box set, I also was given the golden opportunity to chat with Billy Vera – both about the box set as well as about his own career. I couldn’t pass up that chance.

    We started off with Billy sharing a brief background as to how he got involved with this project.

    “Some years ago, I was working for Specialty Records - the label that Richard recorded for. In fact, I did the first Little Richard box set back in 1989. Then I did a couple more single Little Richard Cds for Specialty. I produced and compiled them. I had written the notes for Concord’s Ray Charles box set - the complete ABC Paramount Singles and won a Grammy for that. I guess they came to the same well. I’m hoping for another Grammy. Ha! Ha!”

    When asked if he knew Little Richard, Vera said:

    “I met him years ago. When he got his star on Hollywood Boulevard, I was there representing Specialty Records. I think that was 1989 or ’90. The remarkable thing was that I was the only rock and roller who showed up. All the people that Little Richard influenced and all the fans that became musicians, I was the only one that was there!

    “I understood it. Guys are working. They’ve got their own jobs, their own gigs they’re playing or they’re on the road or whatever they’re doing.”

    I asked Vera what gems and surprises would he point people to in this box set and, in his mind, what is THE compelling reason to pick up this set.

    “It’s fairly complete so there’s not a lot of surprises. You’ve got all the hits from his Specialty years; from ‘Tutti Frutti’ right on through ‘Long, Tall Sally’ and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ and ‘Lucille’. They’re all there on CD One and CD Two. Then, on CD Three they put the best of his Vee Jay recordings from the early sixties - which his last, big chart hit was on Vee Jay, which was, “I Don’t What You Got But It’s Got Me”. That’s when Jimi Hendrix was in the band. A song written by Don Covay who had worked for Richard both as his chauffeur and as an opening act under the name, ‘Pretty Boy’. In fact, Don Covay recorded on Atlantic with The Upsetters, Richard’s band, as Pretty Boy; a song called, ‘Bip Bop Bip’. Ha! Ha! A very rare recording.”

    Circling back around to closing out his answer to my question, Billy concluded: 

    “It’s got all this stuff on the set that’s Specialty and some lesser known items - some of the early things he did for Specialty and more obscure items, as well. It’s a pretty good compilation, I would think!”

    When he boil it all down to Little Richard’s true core, as an historian as well as a fan, Billy describes him this way:

    “I was onto Little Richard early. I was eleven when I bought ‘Tutti Frutti’. The first hit. I heard it on the Alan Freed Show. I was hooked. I loved those horns. I guess that people who came

         

    to rock and roll late, they think of it as a guitar based medium. But, for me, between Richard, Fats Domino and so many of those records with those great saxophone players. To me, it’s always been about the saxophone and Richard had those four sax’s honking away, man! 

    “My mother took me to see, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ at the Roxy Theater in Manhattan, which is no longer there. A huge theater the size of Radio City Music Hall. It was a five thousand seater. We were up there. CinemaScope and TechniColor and there’s Little Richard, man, banging away on that piano with those saxophone players dancing and doing choreography. He puts his leg up on the piano and Jayne Mansfield walks by, shakin’ that thing. To me, that was the iconic visual of rock and roll.”

    And what does he think is the least known or underappreciated thing is about Little Richard?

    “Well, that’s two different items: least known and under appreciated. How many people know that when he got started, he was working a lot of frat houses in the south? In addition to the usual black theaters and black night clubs, he also had gigs playing for drunken college boys. Part of his act was, he would lift the tables and chairs with his teeth. I never saw him do that but I did see another guy do that out here in L.A. 

    “When I first moved here, I used to go to this club that had this good New Orleans band - Eddie Zip. In the middle Eddie Zip’s act, they would bring out a guy called, ‘Iron Jaws Wilson’. Iron Jaws would sing a blues or two and then, for the finale of his little fifteen minute act, he would pick up a chair with his teeth. Then, he would hook another chair onto that chair. The next thing you know, he had five chairs in his teeth! I couldn’t see how a human being could do that! Then I found out some time later that Little Richard did that in his act. 

    “You know, drunken college boys like strange things and Richard would often play in drag. He would do ‘dirty’ songs. If you’ve ever played a frat house party, they want dirty songs. In fact, ‘Tutti Frutti’ was a song that he did for those parties with different lyrics. He called it, ‘Tutti Frutti Good Booty’. Actually, that’s what excited the producer, Bumps Blackwell, into thinking that he knew that he had a hit. They had recorded in the morning, their first session in New Orleans. It was pretty disappointing. It was just run of the mill R&B. Nothing special. Bumps was afraid for his job. He said, ‘When I play what we did this morning for Art Rupe, he’s going to be mad at me and think that I wasted his money.’ 

    ‘So, they take a lunch break and go to the Dew Drop Inn. Richard was always a big ham - an attention whore. He jumps up on the piano and starts singing and entertaining people. He starts sing this dirty song, ‘Tutti Frutti Good Booty’. There was a spark to it that wasn’t in the songs that they had recorded in the morning. Bumps said, ‘Man! If I could get a clean lyric for this, something that they could play on the radio, maybe we could have a hit!’

    “He spotted a local New Orleans songwriter named Dorothy LaBosterie over there having a sandwich or some soup or whatever she was eating for lunch. He goes over to Dorothy and says, ‘Do you think you could clean up the lyric to that?’  She said, ‘Yeah, give me about ten minutes and I’ll knock something out.’ She did and they went back into the studio for the afternoon session and they recorded it. Bumps was happy. He knew his job was secure and, of course, that was one of the iconic songs of rock and roll. From the first moment when he says, ‘Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!’, you knew something new was happening.

    “You put that, you put ‘Maybelene’, you put ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, and, also, the Do Wop groups - all that was rock and roll. It wouldn’t be rock and roll without any of them. But, certainly, Richard was one of the triumvirate of mad me. I include him, Chuck and Jerry Lee. All psychotics and all great. I often wondered if there’s a connection. Do you have to be that nuts to be that great? That’s probably a question that will probably go unanswered forever.”

         

    As we discussed Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy shared this little tidbit:

    “I sang on one of Jerry Lee’s records. Steve Cropper was producing him in 1973. I had flown in because Cropper was going to record me. I had somebody to bring me over to the studio and there he was. He was recording The Killer. He said, ‘You know, this song could use a little harmony with Jerry Lee. Wanna sing it?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ The song is called ‘Jack Daniels Old No. 7’ 

    “Jerry Lee was playing the piano and on that piano he had a quart - not a fifth ,not a pint, a quart - of bourbon and the more he drank, the faster he played. He was out of his mind, man, but it was a great thrill to sing a song with The Killer!”

    In answering my question as to how Lewis was to work with, Vera said:

    “He was just ‘there,’ you know? He’s the kind of guy that he seemed like he was spaced; like he was in his own world. On one hand, when you meet him, he will shake your hand and really hard, like it’s a test and he’ll look you right in the eye like he’s testing you. So you know he knows you’re there. Yet, there’s something about him that he’s almost unaware of anything going on around him. It’s hard to explain. But, yeah, he’s nuts! Richard is nuts. Chuck Berry is . . . NUTS! 

    “I worked with Chuck more than any of them. I worked with him when he was a $1,300 a night act. I worked with him when he was a $15,000 a night act. I worked with him when he was a $50,000 a night act. Many times. The man is whacked! 

    “The only one of the big ones I think is sane - at least he’s calm; he may be quietly insane - is Fats. I always thought because he’s not crazy like the others, that he gets short shrift. Fats had more hits than all of them put together. The first time I ever walked into a record store with three dollars, one of the three records I bought was ‘Blueberry Hill”. So I love me some Fats!

    “He cut one of my songs when he made his comeback album on Reprise so that was a big thrill. Then, to meet him was a big thrill, as well.”

    In a ranking of rock and roll icons, where in the hierarchy is Little Richard’s place?

    “I think that he’s right up there in the top tier. Certainly with Chuck and Fats and Jerry Lee, you know? Elvis, of course, is off to the side on his own. He’s one of a kind. He’s THE man. Nobody equals Elvis because he had more going for him than the others. He was as handsome as a Greek god so he had that sex thing going with the girls.  

    “Then, there was those who were important, regionally. I grew up in New York. You ask any singer of my age group that grew up in New York and Frankie Lymon is right there as a major, major influence . . . even though we didn’t have a high, little voice that he had. He was like a little god to all of us but, yet, you go to Memphis - ‘Frankie who?”.  

    “I guess I”m neglecting Buddy Holly but Buddy, I think, was a different animal because of the songwriting and, also, how short his career was. Of course, in New York, Dion is another icon but underrated compared to the Richard’s and the Fats’s and the Chuck’s.”

    Obviously, most casual music listeners will know you from your hits, “At This Moment” and “I Can Take Care Of Myself.” You certainly haven’t been sitting still since those hits. What have you been up to since then? I understand that you’ve done some significant acting, voiceover work, producing and, if I’m not mistaken, you’re still a prolific songwriter, no?

    “I don’t write so much any more. But I also had some hits in the sixties, both as a writer and as a singer. I was on Atlantic Records with a girl named Judy Clay. We had two hits, ‘Storybook Children’ and ‘Country Girl, City Man”. And, then, I had a solo hit on Atlantic called, ‘With Pen In Hand”. Then the seventies came along and I couldn’t get arrested. Everything changed so radically at that point. We played the Apollo Theater a few times. I was the white guy in all these black venues. 

    “Then, things kinda changed. All the white guys were trying to be like the black guys. That changed with the advent of the Beatles and the Stones and the British acts. Everybody wanted to be British except those of us who had wanted to be black. Then we said, “well, what do we do now?” and I just couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t figure where to fit in. I couldn’t go be a heavy metal guy. I couldn’t be a disco guy. I couldn’t be a wimpy singer/songwriter. So I just didn’t know what to do in the seventies. I just did survival gigs. 

    “Then, in ’79, Dolly Parton recorded a song of mine called, ‘I Really Got The Feeling”. That went to number one on the country charts. Then I was back in show business, so to speak.’ That’s when I moved out to L.A. I ran into my old bass player who had moved out here a couple of years earlier and he said, ‘why don’t we start a band? We could meet some girls or something.’ That’s why we started the Beaters. 

    “Eventually, we became the hottest band in town because nobody was doing what we were doing. There was this band that was called The Knack that had a really great record called, ‘My Sharona’. So all the record labels were trying to sign acts like The Knack. Four guys, two guitars, bass and drums. Here we were, ten guys, fours saxophones, rhythm section, and a steel guitar. The people liked us but the record companies were afraid of us because they’re so short sighted. They only sign things that sound like what’s already on the charts. 

    “So it took us a year of sold out Monday nights at midnight at the Troubadour. I’d see all of these A&R guys out there in the audience, snapping their fingers after they’d hit all of the other clubs looking for who to sign. They’d come and have fun with us but they never reached for their wallets or their checkbooks! It wasn’t until after all of those sound alike flopped that they started looking for something different. Then we were as different as it gets. We had, like, three offers in one week after not getting any offers in over a year. 

    “We chose this company from Japan - Alpha Records - because I figured we’d get a better shot with them than we would with the major labels. We had, ‘I Can Take Care Of Myself’ and ‘At This Moment’ was the follow up. Their head of promotion had a fight with the boss and quit so we had nobody to promote ‘At This Moment’. The Japanese pulled the plug on the American operation. Soon, the company was out of business and we were without a record deal for another five years. 

    “I was making a living doing acting gigs which is unusual in Hollywood. Most actors don’t make a living at it. One day, I get a phone call from this guy. He goes, ‘my name is Michael Whitehorn. I produce and write for a show called, ‘Family Ties’. We were at the club the other night and we saw you sing a song that we think might be right for an episode we have coming up. I said, ‘what’s the name of it?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I figured it had to be ‘At This Moment’ because nobody ever gets the name of it right. 

    “I hum him a few bars and he said, ‘Yeah! That’s the one!’ I said, ‘well, call my publisher and we’ll license the song to the show. That would be great!’ I’d had songs on television shows before. You make a few bucks and that’s the end of it. But this time was a little different. I got mail. NBC sent me a bag full of mail ‘Who’s the singer?’ ‘What’s the name of that song?’ ‘Where can we get it?’

    “I said, ‘Wow! People really like this song. Maybe I can get a record company to let me record it again.’ Nobody was interested. Yeah, nobody.

    “I was having lunch one day. Richard Foos - the guy that ran Rhino Records; owned it - he and I would have a periodic lunch. We’d have mock arguments over whose version of ‘Mustang Sally’ was the best one. So, I mentioned at lunch, ‘you know, Richard, this is what happened. How many records do you need to sell to break even?’ He said, ‘oh, we have low overhead here at Rhino. I could break even on about two thousand albums. I said, ‘what if I guaranteed you two thousand. I could sell them in the clubs, if necessary. I had my lawyer help him license the songs from Alpha. I compiled an album of from the songs I did for Alpha that the fans liked best, including ‘At This Moment’. They put out a single of it, too.

    “Rhino never put out singles. They certainly didn’t know anything about payola or getting records on the radio. By the time we got the album out, we missed the reruns of ‘Family Ties’. 

    “So, as luck would have it, they used the song again in the following season - in September in an episode when a girl breaks up with Michael J. Fox. This time, the story in the song, boy loses girl, is the same as the story of the episode. America went berserk! NBC called us up and they said they had more phone calls than at any time in the history of the network. This time, they had answers for them. They knew who the singer was. They knew the title of the song. People started calling radio stations; and people started calling record stores. 

    “This time, Rhino had records out. People started buying it. A total grass roots phenomenon! There certainly was no promotion. They hired a promotion guy. I’d go over to Rhino every morning and I’d work the phones, calling up radio stations. ‘Hi! This is Billy Vera. When I’m in town, I listen to KRAP and the good guys at 9 a.m.’ Doing promos and doing interviews. I’d do these all morning long until lunch time. That was the little bit we could do to promote the record. That was about it!

    “The next thing you know, we’re jumping over Madonna. We’re jumping over Bon Jovi. We’re jumping over all these big stars. The next thing you know, we have the number one record

         

    in the country! A dead record!

    “The next thing you know, I’m on Johnny Carson. The next thing you know, I’m on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Forty-two years old and fifteen year old girls screaming for this bald headed guy! Ha! Ha!”

    One of my friends asked if “At This Moment” was written about anyone in particular. Vera shared that it was partially autobiographical. He had met a girl who had just broken up with her boyfriend and described to Billy what the boyfriend went through when they broke up. The story inspired Billy to go home and write the portion of the song based on his own imagination of what that guy must have gone through when the girl dumped him. However, he couldn’t come up with a good ending to the song. 

    Billy started dating the girl and a few months later, she dumped him, as well. The experience gave him the fodder to write the ending of the song – especially the line he says everyone remembers: “I’d subtract twenty years from my life . . .”

    Sometimes, the pain and challenges of life have a way of providing gold in our pockets while putting holes in our hearts. Billy’s signature song is a great example of how that sometimes can be.

    Billy Vera is still actively performing and recording. He performs both his historic hits as well as turning his fans on to his love of jazz and big band music. You can keep up with him and his career at www.billyverabigband.com. You can order the Little Richard box set by clicking on the widget, below.

  • Rick Hall Discusses The Man From Muscle Shoals

    Posted June, 2015

    Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall

         

    Unless you’re a music geek like me - and neck deep into the history and minutia of all things music - the name, Rick Hall, may not mean anything to you. To heavy music buffs and geeks, though, Rick Hall is a giant in the music business and it’s history.

    Founder of the now legendary FAME (“Florence Alabama Music Enterprises”) Studios (and FAME Publishing), Rick Hall first taste of success in the record business came in 1961. It was then that he produced Muscle Shoals’ first hit record with Arthur Alexander. The song, “You Better Move On”, was later covered by the Rolling Stones. That hit was followed by Jimmy Hughes’ hit, “Steal Away.” And, as they say, the rest is history.

    Talent such as The Tams, Buddy Killen, Etta James, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Osmonds (including Donnie and Marie for some of their solo work), Mac Davis, Jerry Reed, The Gatlin Brothers (as well as Larry Gatlin), and many, many other biggies in music, all recorded at FAME Studios. 

    Oh, and if you think FAME’s big name days are all in the past, they are still quite productive and finding their work on new albums every year – both big names and up-and-comers.

    These accomplishments made Rich Hall the poster child of rags to riches stories in America. In fact, it seems that many rags to riches stories – or stories of great accomplishments-have as their foundation the fact that the champions had poor or hard lives when they were young. 

    In his recent book, “The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame To Fame,” details Hall’s amazing story of his literally dirt-poor upbringing in the deep South to becoming a music mogul, thus supporting the theory of adversity breeding success.

    I recently called Rick at his home to discuss his book and started out by asking him why he thought this theory works as it does.

    “That’s a great question, Randy. It’s tough to say exactly, but I believe strongly that kids today just don’t have the work ethics that we had. When I was growing up, we had it so much tougher- farming with mules, plows, that kind of thing. Mine’s uniquely different than today’s kids who think, ‘Well, you get to college, get out of school, and get a job making $50,000 starting pay’. That’s just not the way it is. I tell people the difference. I don’t let them just go on thinking that, because it’s not true. 

    “Secondly, I think that my generation, our generation… if you were the oldest child, you had it a little tougher than the middle one or the others. In my case, I had three boys. With each one, I let up a little bit. I thought, ‘Well, dad wouldn’t have done that. He wouldn’t let them get by with that kind of thing’. I don’t know if it works better, because mamas are always there saying, ‘Well, he’s your child. You should give him the money he wants and let him do what he wants to do’. So you fight that battle. In my case, I’ve been married all my life almost. Well, I hope not all of it yet. 

    “I have been through the rough and tumbles. I really do believe that if you go through the rough and tumbles like I have with tragedies in the family… My first wife was killed in an automobile, and I was driving the car. It was a guilt trip I had for four or five years. I lost my dad a week later and buried him right beside. A lot of it was tragedy in my years. Of course, my dad meant everything to me, because my mother had left us and went to work in a red light district when I was five years old. My dad raised me and taught me how to work. Like all fathers, he preached at me constantly: ‘Do this. Don’t do that. Move when you move. Get the job over with, look back at it, and move on to something else’… that kind of thing. He was constantly criticizing and condemning me. He was right, and I was wrong. He was a stern dad, and he made me toe the mark. I’m not sure I did that so much with my kids as he did with me. I let up, because my kids had a mother. Me and my wife have lived together for almost fifty years now. They always had a good mother. 

    “Kids today say, ‘Well, dad had fun all of his life, and he was in the music business. He played the fiddle, had a lot of fun, had a lot of girls. I’m going to follow in his footsteps’.  I’m not sure they’re thinking, ‘When Dad passes on, I’ll get the ranch, 1600 acres of land, the recording studio, and publishing company. I’ll have it made!’ That is the down side with Rick Hall. I have fought to make that not true. I believe that God gives you a talent, but you have to work at it. You really have to work hard at it. You can’t take the attitude that the old man made it without working hard. He didn’t do common labor and dig ditches and that kind of thing. I’m going to do what he’s doing and reap the benefits. I think that’s part of the problem, but I could be wrong about that. I guess time will tell.”

    In reading Hall’s book, there are a series of events that lead to the launching of FAME. I asked him if there was one main, core event in his life that he felt that if it hadn’t have happened, FAME Studios would have never started.

    “Growing up was a tough gig for me. I had no mother. My father raised me and my little sister who was one year younger than me. My mother left us and left my dad to raise us. We never saw her again until we were fourteen or fifteen years old. Times were tough. 

    “My book is titled ‘The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame to Fame’. People ask me, ‘we know about the fame part. What about the shame? Where did that come from?’ And I

         

    Rick Hall With Clarence Carter

    Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall

    say, ‘Well, if your mother went to work for a red light district and left your father to raise you, it was kinda shameful in my book’. Going to school with long, uncut hair and living in a sawmill shack with your dad making thirty-five cents an hour was also shameful. I was intimidated to ask a girl from the right side of the tracks for a date. I just wouldn’t do it, because I was afraid I’d get turned down. I had somewhat of an inferiority complex when I was growing up, so I always made sure my boys had as good an education as I could afford. One is a lawyer. One is working here with me and has his Master’s degree. I wanted to make sure my kids had their education. I had a high school education, so it was tough for me. Not particularly with the songwriters, singers, and guitar players, but it was tough for me to compete with the New York society and people I had to butt heads with in the music business.

    “Looking back on that, I was partners with Billy Sherrill who grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Wound up finding the Silver Fox (the late Charlie Rich), George Jones, Tammy Wynette, all those people. He ran CBS Records. He was my partner and a band member with me. For several years, we were known as The Fairlanes. We were a country band of sorts. Of course, we were songwriters, and we wanted to write “that big song” like everybody else who wrote songs. We didn’t want to write just any number one record. We wanted to write a classic. 

    “Our philosophy was that anybody could be a millionaire by the time they’re forty years old. We wanted to be a millionaire by the time we were thirty. That drove us, and we always kept that in mind. He played saxophone and the piano as well as Floyd Cramer could play a piano. I played the fiddle, mandolin, and guitar as well as doing background singing with some groups I was with. When all was said and done, By the way, he was a Bible carrier. I was the town drunk. In the end, he turned out to be a heavy drinker, and I turned out to be a Christian boy. Well, I tried to be. With his upbringing, he played the saxophone and played tenor sax in our band. He was a great piano player and a great songwriter. He was a genius, I thought. He wound up producing some of the biggest country records in the business, and I wound up producing some of the biggest pop records in the business. Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter- all the people I was producing were black acts, and I was in Muscle Shoals. 

    “The point I’m trying to make was that I completely turned around and became a black record producer in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, when George Wallace was standing in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama saying, ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’. While he was making those speeches, we were in the FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals cutting ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’, ‘Mustang Sally’, and ‘Funky Broadway’ with Wilson Pickett. We were doing Aretha Franklin’s first hit record. We were going against the grain.”

    Because Rick is white, I asked if he found that, in working with those great black acts, they had distrust towards him as a white man in Alabama.

    “No, no, no. They trusted me to the umpth degree. All the black people I worked with- Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Candi Staton, Jimmy Hughes, all of them- put their complete trust in me and believed that I could perform miracles. I was able to do that with their lives. By the way, on every record I’ve ever produced, I was also engineer. I picked the songs. I was an independent record producer. I didn’t have any record label to go to, so I just played the field. 

    “It did break my heart when I went to Nashville, Tennessee, and took a record I’d made called ‘You Better Move On’ by Arthur Alexander. I played it to everybody I could play it to up there- Owen Bradley, Chet Atkins, Shelby Singleton. In fact, I played it to all the publishing companies, and they said, ‘Rick, it’s too white for black and too black for white’. I was stuck in the middle. Anyhow, I wound up getting a record out, because of a man by the name of Noel Ball. Noel was a disc jockey at WMAK in Nashville. He sent it to his boss, Randy Wood, who was just promoted and sent to Los Angeles. Randy called him back and said, ‘I want to pick this record up, because I think it’s a big hit’. That’s how it came to be. Of course, it was hit record, and I was suddenly the king of Muscle Shoals. 

    “Then I looked around and found Jimmy Hughes who was working for Robbins Rubber Company here in Muscle Shoals. I cut a record on him called ‘Steal Away’, and it became a smash hit, also. I was batting a thousand and feeling good about myself. I couldn’t have done that if I went to Nashville and tried to compete with the boys up there who were cutting all the great records. Nobody could cut better country records than Nashville, Tennessee, never. But I felt like I had to do something a little more unique, so I started producing black acts. That was my shtick.”

    Rick Hall and Gregg Allman

    Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall

         

    In book, Hall tells of his mom leaving her family and living a bit of a scandalous life. Being a church going boy, I asked if he found that church people were especially tough on him as a result of what she did, even though it had nothing to do with him, his sister, and dad.

    “They were in some cases. But I found more people receptive to us and our upbringing, because they felt sorry for us. They looked at our lives and how my dad struggled to raise us, and they would bring cakes and pies and things like that. They’d give us milk to drink. We didn’t have cows, livestock, hogs or anything like that. They were usually really nice to us, so we didn’t have that cross to bear. We had some great neighbors. They were church-goin’ people, and they loved us and felt sorry for us. They gave us whatever they could. For birthdays, they’d bring us birthday cakes. 

    “I never will forget the first birthday cake I ever got was from a lady who lived next door to us. She brought it over, and it was a banana cake. I’d never saw a banana cake before. It was a weird thing for me to see a banana cake with the little slices of bananas all over the top of it, you know? I thought, ‘my gosh, that looks great!’ I feasted on that.”

    The term, “Muscle Shoals sound” is thrown around a lot, so I asked Mr. Hall his definition of it and what he would point to as the best examples of it.

    “I believe that the Muscle Shoals sound came about when I started close-micing a kick drum during recording sessions. I coerced the bass player into playing the bass with the kick drum. A lot of other things entered into it. The piano had a lot to do with it, because I don’t recall any number one record that I produced where I didn’t use a Wurlitzer electric piano. It started with The Osmonds’ ‘One Bad Apple’, ‘Go Away Little Girl’ with Donny, Mac Davis’ ‘Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me’, and Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’. I became such a schizophrenic guy that I wanted a Wurlitzer electric piano on everything I recorded, or I wouldn’t record. I became so mindful of the fact that everything I’d cut had been with a Wurlitzer electric piano. My first taste of it was in the band. We tried to copy Ray Charles’ version of ‘What’d I Say’. That was the kind he used- the Wurlitzer piano. We fell in love with that. 

    “So many records I had that were hits, I credit to the Wurlitzer electric piano. That, to me, is part of the Muscle Shoals sound along with close-micing, which means that you put a mic on the kick drum. You put a mic on the snare drum and the cymbal. In my mind, you don’t need but three or four mics on a drum set. If you look back at records by The Everly Brothers and Don Gibson, most of them had maybe two or three mics. To me, it’s a waste of microphones to put more than four on a set of drums. I’d say save those microphones for the lead singer, because drums aren’t normally a musical instrument. All they do is keep time.”

    To the question of if her were to point to one song or one artist that symbolizes all that he’s done in the music business, what would it be, he replied:

    “That’s a tough question. I have a lot of favorite records: ‘(You’re) Having My Baby’ with Paul Anka, Aretha’s version of ‘I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’, ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’, Clarence Carter’s version of ‘Patches’. I always thought ‘Patches’ was a song about me, my father, and our livelihood. Bobbie Gentry was a classic, I thought. We did a record called ‘Fancy’ which was a follow-up to ‘Ode to Billie Joe’. It was one of my favorite records, but ‘Mustang Sally’ has given me probably the most mileage as a record producer of maybe any record I’ve ever produced. I never liked it when I was doing it. I thought ‘Mustang Sally’ is about a girl driving down the street in a convertible Mustang with the radio on and having a good time on Saturday night. I don’t hear anything more than that in the song. It’s not a great love song. It’s not a great heartbreaker or a funny song. The reason I think it had such a long life is because every little bar band in the world can play it. It’s so simple. Everybody can sing it, and everybody can play it.”

    Of all of the accomplishments that he’s known for, what is the one Rick Hall is most proud of?

    “I never rolled over and died. I’m a workaholic, and I believed with all my heart I could do it with God’s help. I’ve never been a quitter. Through all the tragedies and heartbreak, I never gave up. If you have a musical talent God gave you, and you don’t work at it, you can’t expect to be the best. In 1972 and 1973, according to Billboard magazine’s terminology, I was the number one record producer in the whole world. To be the best producer in the world, you’ve got to be more than just a good ‘ol boy who produces records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and that’s as far as you go. That can only take you so far. I’m proud of the fact that my father taught me how to work hard. To be the best at anything I wanted to do, I should give it my best. If I have to cut a record fourteen times and reproduce it for three different artists, I am going to do that if I like the song. I believe I know what people like, because I’m one of those people. 

    “I grew up hard and tough. I think we have the tendency to say, ‘Well, nobody ever made it in my business, so I’m not going to even try’. It’s called a ‘cop out’. We don’t have that kind of attitude in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We aren’t in it for the money. We are in it for the long term, and we want to be number one in the world. We’ve developed that attitude, and I’ve taught it to my people. They’ve passed it on to their people, and everybody in Muscle Shoals has worked for me at one time or another.”

    Hall has worked with a lot of great artists and bands and had a lot to do with some of the biggest recordings in music. Are there any musical fish that got away that he’s

         

    Wilson Pickett and Rick Hall

    Photo Courtesy of Rick Hall

    still kicking himself in the butt over?

    “Not an awful lot, because I’ve won a lot of them. I’ve had my part of the number one records. We’ve had over two hundred chart records and over one hundred gold or platinum records. I’m producer of all those hit records. There are others in Muscle Shoals who started out with me as musicians. They went on to own their own studios, and God bless them. They’ve had a lot of success, too. There was Percy Sledge, the Rolling Stones, and a lot of people who didn’t record with me but went on to have big hit records. It makes me feel pretty good to think that they started out with me and became bigger than me and bigger than themselves. Lo and behold, they had hit records, and maybe I had something to do with it.”

    Can a young Rick Hall start a FAME Studio today and meet with the same kind of success as you did back then?

    “I believe the answer is yes. I think today would be a perfect time for a young man or woman to start out and say, ‘I want to do what Rick Hall has done for Muscle Shoals. I want to be big worldwide rather than just to be big in Alabama or wherever’. I think they could, but they must be prepared to have a lot of losses. You’ve really got to believe with all your heart and soul that you can make it. If you believe that, you have to be willing to put your money where your mouth is. You have to be willing to go to the bank to borrow $20,000 and pay it back over time. You can do that. Anybody can build a FAME Recording Studio. I had nothing. I had no money, no guitar players, no engineers, no people qualified to build recording studios. I had to do it all myself. Everything in Muscle Shoals today started with Rick Hall. 

    “Later on, it began to spread, and now there are twelve or fourteen recording studios in Muscle Shoals. We’ve been an intricate part of the best music in the world. Now, I guess I can claim credit for having the Muscle Shoals sound. It’s a world-renowned thing now. We have people coming by the busloads that pay ten dollars to visit FAME Recording Studios. It’s the oldest studio in the world owned by the same group of people, which is me and my family, of course. It’s here to stay. This is the first time it’s happened in a million years, and it will probably never happen again in the next million years. That’s a pretty drastic statement to make, and it kinda turns people off to think, ‘Rick said it couldn’t be done, so I’ll never bother to try’. I’m reluctant to make that statement. It can be done, but you’ve got to make a lot of sacrifices. Be true to yourself, God, and the people around you. Always be good to people and pay them what they’re due.” 

    If Rick Hall was made Music Czar, what would he do to fix the music business or does he even think it needs fixing?

    “It is absolutely broken. I don’t know if I have all the answers, but I have a few. What’s broken is downloading from computers and not paying the musicians, studios, and people who write the songs. If something doesn’t take place in the next ten years, there will be no more music. Trust me. I’m speaking from the heart. I think something has to be done. I’ll tell you from experience that record producers don’t die; they just fade away. When I go in, I pick six or seven musicians for the rhythm tracks, then I go back and redo the vocal so I can spend adequate time getting the best vocal I can possibly get. I still believe that the vocalist in the song is where it all starts. If you don’t have the song, you will not cut a record. I don’t care how well you can produce it or which musicians you use. If you don’t have a hit song, you will not have a hit record. I can go in and produce a bad production on a great song and still have a number one record. It’s the song that captures the imagination. It tells people what they want to hear or what they want to be or what they decide to become one day. It has to be fun or danceable or one of those factors. 

    “Songwriters are the people who are quitting the business. They are walking away, because there’s no money for them. You can’t sell a million records anymore. I’ve worked with artists like the group Alabama that was selling five million albums, not five million singles, per release. That’s how big they were. Now, I think that’s gone forever. People have been forced out of the business, because they can’t make a living in the business. Thievery is the reason for that. Record companies can’t exist anymore, because the production of a record has become so costly that they have to sell a million records to break even. When you have to sell a million records, desperation sets in, and you start thinking, ‘Maybe if I put out ten different artists, I can make it’. You spend your money putting those ten acts out, and you never make it. 

    “Another factor is the fact that you have to pay musicians on the union scale. You think, ‘These guys are making too much money’. But let me tell you something, a musician has spent his life learning how to play his licks on the guitar, mandolin, or whatever. You pay him double scale on a record. You may think, ‘I don’t have the budget to hire so and so, because I can’t afford what they’re used to making’. He may make a lot of money in the studio today cutting Wilson Pickett, but he may not get another call for a recording session for four months. How are you going to feed your family when you don’t get a call for a recording session but every three months? I don’t care how good you are. You can’t make it on that. When you’re a songwriter, and you have one hit record in a lifetime, you get paid pretty good on the front. At the end, they quit paying you. They cut you off, and you don’t get your money. 

     

         

    “Thievery, Pro Tools, and computers have completely annihilated our business. If something is done about it in the next four to five years, there will be no music except old music. If you go into a record session as one man and say, ‘I want to sell my records out of the trunk of my car. I will put my records out on my own label, and I will sell them cheaper than RCA Victor can sell them’. If you play all the instruments, and go on Pro Tools to tune your voice and make a 5-string banjo sound like a harmonica- you can do that. But it ain’t like getting Rick Hall as producer and engineer, Chips Moman and Jimmy Johnson on guitar, Clayton Ivey on keyboards, etc. When you have eight people in the studio, it’s like a basketball game. You’ve got a team of players who know what to eliminate. It ain’t about the guitar lick or hot player. It’s about simple knowledge of what you play, don’t play, and deciding that you’re getting in the way of the piano lick here.”

    Hall then drilled into his book a bit more.

    “You’ll find most all of this in my book, and you’ll find things that I’m not talking about, obviously. I could go on for two weeks giving you all kinds of advice and telling you all the things that worked for me. What I want to tell you is the artist I recorded the first number one record on was Aretha Franklin, and I’m proud of that. Clarence Carter, Paul Anka’s ‘(You’re) Having My Baby’, Mac Davis’ ‘Stop And Smell The Roses’, Wilson Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’, Etta James, The Osmonds- I had a whole string of hit records. All these things are in my book: my philosophy about life in general, my hits and misses, and why the music business is on its knees. The way to do it is the old-fashioned way. Forget about computerization, and go back to classics. A 24-track recorder with a two inch piece of tape will pick up any signal from 30 or 40 cycles to 30,000 cycles. Digital may go from 100 cycles to 10,000 cycles. The range you lose will be the warmth and depth of the record. It won’t be funky and hard to listen to. It’s like you’re sitting in the room. Going into the studio with seven musicians- all of them the best players in the world- you will always do better than doing it by yourself. Each one of them will contribute something. The guitar player will play a different lick for you; the piano player will find his best lick. They will play off of each other. It’s like a basketball team. If they never practice together, even though they’re all superstars, they will not accomplish the mission of winning the game. If you are a musician and want to be part of the big guys, you have to go into the studio and cut your records live. You can’t put them together six months apart then in five years, you have a hit record. That don’t make it. You’ve gotta walk out of there with you tape or disc in your hand. 

    “Buy the book. It’s called ‘The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame To Fame’. It will tell you all these secrets. I spent ten years writing the book when we only spent three hours on a recording session. Things that happened over a fifty-year period that I can recall, I put in the book. Oh man, I had a ball. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life. Number one records, you get one, oh man. But you get one hundred… multiply that. When you read the book, you find out who Rick Hall is, what made him tick, and what he’s all about. You get the DVD inside the back cover of the book- two for the price of one. Watch the DVD first then read the book. You’ll watch the DVD five more times, I promise you.

    “I’ve had incredible feedback. Flying off the shelves like hotcakes- sales are phenomenal.”

    “The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame To Fame” is a must have/must read book for anyone who is even mildly interested in the back stories of some of the biggest hits in music. The DVD that’s included ain’t too shabby either.  You can order from the links below. 

Featured Photo

Jim Keltner.Broken Glass DW

Our Featured Photo by Boomerocity friend and famed rock photographer, Rob Shanahan (robshanahan.com), is is a bit different from past featured photos. 

 

 

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