©1996 Dave Kyle




Fame Studios Muscle Shoals, Alabama
(first published in 'Vintage Guitar Magazine', December 1996, Vol. 11 No. 3)

One place
that was definitely a large part of the Duane Allman legacy, along with that of may other well-known artists, is the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals,Alabama. Muscle Shoals is one of four small towns clustered in close proximity in northwestern Alabama, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Florence being the other three. It sits on a beautiful part of the Tennessee river and is home to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which built the many dams and locks that tamed that waterway years ago. Long known as one of the world class recording centers in the world, this small town has been host to the Rolling Stones, Clarence Carter, the Osmonds, Jerry Reed and many other acts equally as diverse. It is also the home of W.C. Handy, father of the blues. Bom as the dream of none other than Henry Ford, who along with Thomas Edison, came to this area in 1921 to transform it into .a “New Detroit,” those dreams faded into the easy going small town atmosphere that survives today. There are still original sidewalks that were laid for the new metropolis, some today run right through the middle of cotton fields.

There are a few theories as to how the town got its name, but it probably had to do with mussels, of which there are plenty in the river and the fact that before Wilson Dam was completed in that part of the stream, it was probably a shoal, or sandbar, that makes the water shallow. Regardless, it was the area that sparked the sounds heard around the world. Rick Hall, along with Tom Stafford and Billy Sherrill, formed a partnership, and his first studio and publishing company in downtown Florence. The business was named “Florence Alabama Music Enterprises.”

After two years of moderate success, the partnership dissolved and Hall moved the short distance to Muscle Shoals, carrying the name with him, which he shortened to
Fame. The studio, then set up in a tobacco warehouse, found its first success with bellhop Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On.” With the proceeds from that hit, Rick Hall moved his operation to 603E. Avalon, where it remains today.

Having limited resources, Hall was forced to use musicians who were not of the caliber that larger studios were capable of hiring.

“I just had to make a deal with the musicians because I had nothing to offer them,” he recalls. “I wasn’t making any money. It had to be time and dedication to the movement. A lot of times I had to put them together in the studio for weeks or months to get what I wanted.”

Engineering and producing all sessions at first, Hall had one objective; hit records.

“We were adamant about hit records,” he says. “Our lives depended on it, so we tried harder. We had to take the attitude of never say die.”

That has become the credo of Rick Hall and his staff today. With the success of hits like “Do Right Woman” by Aretha Franklin, “I’m Your Puppet” by James and Bobby Purify, and ”Mustang Sally” and “Land of 1,000 Dances” (which was included in the Forest
Gump soundtrack) by Wilson Pickett, he finally made his mark.

A few years back, Rick Hall decided to get into the artist development business and struck gold with country group, Shanandoah, who had top 10 singles with “She Doesn't Cry Anymore,” “See If I Care,” and the monster hit “Mama Knows.” But before all of that, in 1968, his attention was caught by an up-and-coming guitar player by the name of Duane Allman. Duane put his stamp on the Wilson Pickett cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” (Wilson Pickett, by the way gave him the nickname of “Skyman” because he was always up, always riding high. His other nickname, “Dog,”
because with his long strawberry blonde hair resembling an Afghan hound was mixed in and he became know in certain circles as “Skydog”) and Aretha Franklin’s cover of The Band’s ‘The Weight,” on which he captured the world’s attention with his stellar slide guitar work.

Hall had the foresight to sign Duane as an artist long before his foray into artist development with country acts. Selling Duane’s contract to Atlantic Records (whose Jerry Wexler had done a lot of work at Fame) proved to be the launching pad for what eventually became the Allman Brothers Band. Upon hearing Duane play on the “Hey Jude” session, Phil Walden purchased the contract for his new label, Capricorn Records, and gave Duane the freedom to pick and choose his own band, staying out of the creative process.

Duane moved to Muscle Shoals and began playing on sessions for Rick Hall while living in a small cabin on Wilson Lake (the dammed up portion of the Tennessee River that flows through the quad cities) and riding his motorcycle.

Glad to be away from the restricting L.A. music scene, where the band rarely got to play, he took to studio work like a frog to flies.

“I rented a cabin and lived alone
on this lake,” he said. “I just sat and played and got used to living without a bunch of jive Hollywood crap in my head. It’s like I brought myself back to earth and came back to life again through that, and the sessions with good R & B players.”

Still playing a Stratocaster through a Twin Reverb, Duane was putting his stamp on some very hot records. One was the 1969 Grammy-winning cover of Joe South’s “Games People Play” by sax great King Curtis, whose funeral Duane attended shortly before his own tragic demise.

Some of these don’t list Duane because, as Johnny Sandlin mentions in his memories of Duane, he would just stop by the studio and play on anything that was going down at the time. One of those sessions was with John Hammond Jr., who reportedly showed Duane the open tunings.

It has been reported that Duane used open “G” or even open “A” tunings, but my guess is that although he may have used these, his choice was the open “E” tuning. I have come to this conclusion from watching the few videos and studying his recordings for years. If anyone has further insight I would love to hear it. Regardless, Duane made a place for slide guitar in music as we know it today. His work at Fame, and later Capricorn, set the standards by which today’s slide players are judged.

In retrospect, the sign above the door at Fame studio says a lot.

“Through these doors walk the finest musicians, songwriters, artists and producers in the world,” it says. I would have to agree. Though Duane Allman has been gone for 25 years, his memory and playing still live on in the slide work of people like Bonnie Raitt and Jack Pearson, and the standards he set for guitar players of all styles.

Let’s stop and give tribute to one of the greatest musicians to ever grace this planet, Duane Allman.

A special thanks to Rick and Rodney Hall, at Fame Studios, for letting VG use their wonderful, rare photographs of Duane Allman, and for sharing information unselfishly.

Dave Kyle is a professional guitar player in Nashville. He has done several interviews with guitarists from that city and beyond. His stage, studio and television credits include working with Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Danny Gatton, Chet Atkins, Duane Eddy, Paulette Carlson, Charlie McCoy, Johnny Neal, Ray Flacke, Boots Randolph, Lonnie Mack, Johnny Lee, Jo El Sonier, James Burton, Kix Brooks, Billy Dean, The Drifters, and Wolfman Jack. He has also worked the Grand Ole Opry artists Johnny Russell, Del Reeves, Jack Green, Ferlin Huskey, Teddy Wilburn, and Billy Walker. Dave is also an instructor for the National Guitar Workshop.


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