MUSCLE SHOALS’ WATERS are potent. For generations, they have poured out hit records, a multitude of which have flowed from Alabama’s FAME Studios. The name stands for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises. In 1959, record producer/songwriter/ guitarist Rick Hall founded the music hub as a place where race played no role. What mattered was serving the region’s native musical stew, which featured the participation of artists ranging from Duane Allman and Otis Redding to Aretha Franklin and Etta James. Hall’s son Rodney discloses the recipe in Shoals vernacular. “It’s a swampy kind of music,” he says. “Funky. A lot of bass, and a lot of kick drum. More than that, it’s an amalgamation of country, rock and soul, put together in a gumbo that’s been cooking in the Shoals for over 100 years.”
FAME’s past has been celebrated in the remarkable music made within its rooms. They include Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” and “Hey Jude” (the latter featuring Duane Allman on guitar), Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away,” James’s “Tell Mama” and Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You).” Today, the studio anticipates a vibrant future through an extensive renovation, set in motion when producer Glenn Rosenstein was in the Shoals and urgently in need of a studio. Having collaborated with Rodney Hall at FAME’s premiere Studio A, he hoped to use it again. However, only Studio B, built-in 1967, was available. Rosenstein didn’t dismay. Indeed, he had an epiphany. “I said, ‘Rodney, B has tremendous acoustics,’” Rosenstein recalls. “Imagine installing better gear, making alterations, and revitalizing it.’ Rodney, always plain-spoken, said, ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’ By December 2019, we were rebuilding B.”
“That’s when we put the first crowbar into the wall,” Halls adds. “Studio B’s equipment was A’s hand-me-downs. We envisioned taking a great-sounding underutilized studio and turning it into a world-class facility like A. We’ve surpassed that goal.”
Rosenstein approached the endeavor pragmatically as well as reverentially. After all, Studio B is where Duane Allman held auditions for what would become the Allman Brothers Band. He jammed there with drummer Jaimoe and bassist Barry Oakley, and, later, brother Gregg turned up to join the proceedings. “The room’s pedigree was never lost on us, knowing the Allmans’ accomplishments there,” Rosenstein says. “B’s sonics are ideal for vocals, tracking and much more. We avoided changing that vibe. However, we didn’t want a museum but rather a working studio for people who appreciate outstanding acoustics. Standing on the shoulders of the greats is one thing; being able to create is another. We did the archeology carefully. We repurposed the control room with inherited equipment enhancing its functionality. As we removed things from walls and widened the room to accommodate modern equipment, we incorporated various iterations into the room’s design and the wall coverings.”
Musically, the room contains many treasured pieces from the past. “A favorite historic guitar available at B is a Cherry Sunburst 1972 Gibson Les Paul Custom that Keith Richards and Lou Reed have played,” Rosenstein says. “We’ve added a Fairchild replica that producer/guitarist Eric Valentine created.” Most impressive is Studio B’s console: a beautifully restored, vintage Solid State Logic 6056E 56-channel console initially used in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s studio to record three of his albums. In addition, FAME is restoring the studio’s original handmade console. “The Allmans’ band was the first to run a signal through it,” Hall says.
In bringing the studio up to the present, Rosenstein carefully balanced vintage with state-of-the-art equipment. “We’ve got a lot of tube-based recording gear, the latest plug-ins, the latest versions of Pro Tools and other digital/audio work stations, high-end digital IO and analog 24-track,” he says. “We’re not limited to one tonality or style.” Hall emphasizes FAME’s analog capabilities. “We recorded Gregg Allman’s last album to tape,” he says, referring to the 2017 effort Southern Blood. “For remixes, we pull up sound from old multitrack recordings.”
Although business dropped off during the Covid-19 pandemic, FAME adapted. “We remotely recorded Demi Lovato while her producers were in London,” Hall says. Bookings are now strong again. The artists who have played at the revived B include guitarist/producer Tom Bukovac, country singer-songwriter Margo Price, the Raconteurs (featuring Jack White and Brendan Benson), gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the War and Treaty. Rosenstein just mixed an album for Bob Marley’s guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith. “We’re stepping outside the box,” he says.
For Hall, the refurbishment was extremely personal. “My dad died in 2018,” he said. “Among his last wishes was to safeguard FAME’s heritage by ensuring it remains a studio with two world-class facilities. Jimmy Johnson, who died in December 2019, was among the first people we invited upon finishing B. Jimmy was our studio guitarist and my dad’s sound engineer. We think he put his blessing on it. In many ways, this is a tribute to Jimmy.”
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