Etta James

“When I sing for myself, I probably sing for anyone who has any kind of hurt, any kind of bad feelings, good feelings, ups and downs, highs and lows, that kind of thing.” — Etta James

That voice.

Powerful. Assured. In control of every phrase and note. 

Etta James’s Tell Mama is a tour-de-force that showcases the swagger and poised sensuality that became the hallmarks of her Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame career. It has been said that you could hear her whole life in her voice.

And, yet, when Etta James first walked into FAME Recording Studios on a sultry August day in 1967, the 29-year-old singer — and those around her — had little reason to believe she was at the top of her game. Fighting a heroin addiction, the years prior to 1967 had found her forging prescriptions, bouncing checks, and stealing from friends to finance her habit. Jame’s career was suffering and something needed to change.

James had been brought down to Muscle Shoals at the encouragement of Leonard Chess, the co-founder of Chess Records, who had produced or co-produced five of her six previous albums for Chess subsidiary labels Argo and Cadet, beginning with 1960’s At Last!. Chess believed that recording at FAME would remove her from the big city temptations that had been plaguing her life. He also believed that working with acclaimed producer Rick Hall would inject the same hit-making, “Muscle Shoals Sound,” magic that he had previously delivered for artists such as Clarence Carter, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett. 

James would also be backed by one of the great rhythm sections of all-time: The Swampers, featuring Jimmy Ray Johnson and Albert “Junior” Lowe on guitars; Roger Hawkins on drums; Barry Beckett and Spooner Oldham on keyboards; and David Hood on bass. The sessions also included a brass section featuring Gene “Bowlegs” Miller on trumpet; James Mitchell and Aaron Varnell on sax; and Floyd Newman on baritone sax. 

The combination of Etta James and this once-in-a-lifetime collection of musicians was electric.

Tell Mama kicks off with the title track, a song Hall had recorded previously in 1966 with Clarence Carter (as “Tell Daddy”). Like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower,” Etta James makes the song her own and her raw, emotional performance sets a very high bar for an album that consistently raises the bar. “Tell Mama” was released as a single in October of 1967, and was a Billboard R&B Top 10 hit.

The album’s second track, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” is another instant blues/soul classic that has since been covered by an eclectic range of artists, including B.B. King, Paul Weller, Rod Stewart, and Beyoncé. Legend has it that when Leonard Chess heard the song for the first time, he had to leave the room in tears.

Speaking to in 2018, Grammy Award-winning, singer-songwriter Jason Isbell had this to say about Rick Hall’s production on the record: 

“He served the song. Rick understood that what really matters is: How good is this song? And what can we do to let everybody know how good this song is? But I think the heart of it, what really made “I’d Rather Go Blind” stand up and hold up and sound current was the fact that a great song never sounds dated. And Rick knew that.”

At just under thirty minutes, there isn’t a wasted moment in the 12 songs that make up Tell Mama. 

Sadly, James would continue to struggle with her addictions for years before finally overcoming them. In 1978, she opened for the Rolling Stones in support of the Stones’s Some Girls album. Keith Richards would later write about his love for James in his 2010 memoir “Life”:

“Another great singer and a girl after my own heart — as well as my bride in a rock-and-roll “marriage” — is Etta James. She’d been making records from the early ’50s, when she was a doo-wop singer. She’s expanded into every range since then … Now, Etta had been a junkie. So we found reciprocation almost immediately … It takes one look in the eye for one to know another. Incredibly strong, Etta, with a voice that could take you to hell or take you to heaven. And we hung in a dressing room, and like all ex-junkies, we talked about the junk. And why did we do this, the usual soul-searching. This culminated in a backstage wedding, which in show business terms is like, you get married but you’re not really married. You exchange vows and stuff, on the top of the backstage stairs. And she gave me a ring, I gave her a ring, and actually that’s where I decided her name’s Etta Richards. She’ll know what I mean.”

Etta James released more than 20 albums in the course of her five-decade career, won six Grammy awards, and was voted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. The FAME family will always feel blessed to be a part of her legend. To hear select tracks off Tell Mama and over six-and-a-half hours of FAME Recording Studios classics, go to our FAME Studios and Publishing early years playlist here on Spotify.

Bobbie Gentry

“To me, producing ‘Fancy’ was like producing a movie score. I had always wanted to produce a record that would paint a picture in your mind.”

— Rick Hall

There are times in history when things align perfectly and magic is produced from situations that seem less than conducive to the creation of genre-defining art. When Bobbie Gentry walked into FAME Recording Studios, in 1969, to work for the first time with FAME owner and producer Rick Hall, her career was seemingly at a precipice. Her debut album, Ode To Billie Joe, had rocketed to the top of the Billboard charts in 1967 (knocking The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the number one spot) on the back of the album’s eponymous single, which was the number one song on the Billboard charts for four weeks and ranked as the number three song of 1967 behind Lulu’s “To Sir With Love,” and The Box Tops’ “The Letter.” Gentry also garnered the 1967 Grammy Award for Most Promising Female Vocalist. 

Her second album, the avant-garde concept album centered around contemporary life in the Deep South, 1968’s The Delta Sweete, received positive reviews, but failed to crack the Billboard Top 100 — peaking at 132. Gentry released two more albums in 1968, Local Gentry and an album of duets with Glen Campbell, Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, which was certified Gold and earned Gentry and Campbell the Academy of Country Music award for Album of the Year.

In 1969, she released her fifth studio album, Touch ‘Em With Love, which included only two songs written by Gentry and only reached number 164 on the Billboard 200. 

Working with Rick Hall in Muscle Shoals offered Gentry a chance to recalibrate. Although Fancy includes only one track penned by Gentry (the title track), the songs on the album are a tour-de-force return to the assertive and powerful narrative songs that are the hallmark of her talent and the partnership with Hall seemed to be a match made in recording studio Heaven.

As Hall later recalled, “The first time I heard Ode to Billie Joe, I was driving past the studio, and I almost ran my car into a telephone pole! I was so amazed! Her story was my story. That’s how I grew up. “Bale the hay. Pass the biscuits,” you know? There were so many Southern things that she did. I felt in my heart that if I ever met her, we’d hit it off. I offered to produce her. We had dinner together, and we did hit it off. We had a great time together. She was one of my very favorites.”

One of the many things that set Bobbie Gentry apart was her insistence on success on her own terms, perhaps best put by writer Tara Murtha her book for the series “33 ⅓” from Bloomsbury Press, Ode to Billie Joe, wherein she describes Gentry as “…a remarkable businesswoman, and a talented multi-instrumentalist artist. She was ahead of her time in a male-dominated industry in an era when sex appeal helped move product, but could also be a liability for a woman who wanted to conduct her own business. Women wanted me to know that she went out of her way to help other women come up in the industry.”

Fancy is a feminist epic which has only grown in stature over the years. Gentry’s unmatched talent (she also painted the album’s cover) combined with Rick Hall’s production, and choice backing contributions from The FAME Gang, produced a seminal album that will continue to inspire multiple generations. FAME is honored to have worked with the one-and-only Bobbie Gentry and is proud to consider her family. We’re excited to put Fancy on heavy rotation and celebrate one of the true greats for May’s FAME Backstage Artist of the Month.

Duane Allman

There are millions of guitar players around the world; tens of millions. So, to be thought of as one of the greatest guitar players of all-time, you’ve got to be pretty special. Duane Allman was a special guitar player — and human — to say the least. In 2003, Duane was ranked number 2 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. 

There are some guitar players — maybe a handful — who transcend the boundaries of the instrument to a point where you hear a song and you know right away who is playing. Duane Allman was one of those players and his guitar tone was named one of the greatest of all time by Guitar Player.

In 1968, at the age of 22, Duane moved to Muscle Shoals to work as a session guitarist in a studio where he and his brother, Gregg, had recorded earlier that year with their band Hour Glass. Duane arrived in Muscle Shoals, pitched a tent and camped out in the parking lot of FAME Studios in order to be closer to the recording sessions. 

During his time at FAME, Duane Allman put his indelible mark on some of the most timeless recordings to come out of that — or any — era, including Wilson Pickett’s cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” Clarence Carter’s “The Dynamic Clarence Carter,” Arthur Conley’s “More Sweet Soul,” and King Curtis’ Grammy Award winning cover of The Band’s ‘The Weight,” which includes slide guitar work that still puts players jaws on the floor to this day. Auditions for what would become the Allman Brothers Band were later held in FAME’s historic Studio B with Gregg meeting and playing with Jaimoe and Berry Oakley for the first time.

Duane’s time in Muscle Shoals allowed him to let loose the kinetic energy he felt had been stifled by his time shuffling around the Los Angeles music scene:

“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.”

Allman’s work on Pickett’s “Hey Jude” album brought him to the attention of other musicians, including Eric Clapton who later said, “I remember hearing Wilson Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’ and just being astounded by the lead break at the end. I had to know who that was immediately — right now.”

Sadly, Duane Allman’s life was cut short when he was killed in a motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971, shortly after the release of The Allman Brothers’ ultra-successful “At Fillmore East.” 

It’s been 50 years since the death of Duane Allman, yet his stature has only grown over the years. Every guitar player who has walked through the famous doorway at FAME feels the spirit and sound that still echoes through the rooms and know they have big strings to fill. This month, FAME is humbled and proud to honor a true legend in the history of music: The Sky Dog, Duane Allman.

Clarence Carter

Clarence Carter’s time at Fame produced some of the most soulful grooves in the history of recorded music. “Patches,” “Slip Away”, and “Too Weak to Fight” alone would be enough to be placed in the conversation when talking about the great soul artists of all-time — and that’s before mentioning hits like “Backdoor Santa” (with its distinctive horn break, later sampled by Run DMC on their “Christmas in Hollis), “Snatching It Back” and “Making Love (At The Dark End Of The Street).”

Blind at birth, Clarence Carter was born in Montgomery, Ala., in 1936. His grandmother gave him his first guitar at the age of nine. Carter graduated with a bachelor of science degree in music at Alabama State University, where he teamed with another blind student Calvin Scott, recording under the name Clarence & Calvin — later changing to the CC Boys — and serving as back-up musicians for touring acts, such as Otis Redding and John Lee Hooker.

In 1965, Carter and Scott, looking for that elusive hit record, wandered into FAME Recording Studios to record the songs ”Step by Step” and “Rooster Knees and Rice”.  FAME owner Rick Hall immediately recognized their distinctive sound and talent. Later, the CC Boys recorded singles at FAME which found their way to famed producer Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. The Carter/Scott partnership was not long-lived and Carter embarked on a solo career in 1966, signing with the FAME label and co-writing and releasing the hit single “Tell Daddy” which hit #35 on the Billboard Charts in January, 1967. The reworked song would later be a monster hit for Etta James as “Tell Mama,” also recorded at FAME.

Carter released the “This Is Clarence Carter” album, in 1968, which earned him his first gold record with the million-selling hit “Slip Away,” which featured Spooner Oldham on keyboards. The following year, he continued his run of success with his second gold record, ”Too Weak to Fight,” from the album “The Dynamic Clarence Carter,” which also featured guitar work by a yet-unknown guitarist by the name of Duane Allman. 

In the early 1970s, Carter continued churning out hits with such songs as “The Feeling Is Right,” “Making Love (At The Dark End Of The Street),” and “Patches,” which reached number two on the U.S. R&B chart.  “Patches” won a Grammy Award for “Best R&B Song” in 1971.

In 2001, “Slip Away” also had the unique honor of appearing on the soundtracks for the best adapted screenplay nominee “Wonder Boys,” and the best original screenplay winner “Almost Famous” at the Academy Awards.

After more than six decades, Carter is still going strong, releasing new records and touring. FAME is honored to be a part of his legacy and to highlight his legendary career. To re-introduce yourself to one of the most dynamic and fruitful periods in the history of Southern Soul, check out Clarence Carter — The FAME Singles Volume One here:

Episode 4: Harvey Mason Jr.

Episode 4: Harvey Mason Jr.

On Episode Four of Through These Doors: A FAME Studios Podcast, Rodney Hall is honored to welcome Harvey Mason Jr., Recording Academy Chair and Interim President, CEO of Harvey Mason Media and Executive Music Producer, for a deeply engaging conversation that delves into their shared experiences growing up in the music industry, their favorite projects, and the making of the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” starring Jennifer Hudson — coming to theaters in 2021.

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Candi Staton

Between 1968 and 1974, Candi Staton released a trilogy of albums on FAME Records that rightfully places her in the pantheon of “greatest female vocalists of all time.” “I’m Just a Prisoner,” “Stand By Your Man,” and “Candi Staton” are genre-defining classics that cemented Southern Soul as a musical artform.

Candi Stanton’s first session at FAME Recording Studios took place on September 25, 1968, culminating in the single “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart” that reached #9 on the R&B charts. Candi is a beloved member of the FAME family, giving us a treasure trove of timeless R&B classics including the Grammy-nominated hits “Stand by Your Man” and “In the Ghetto.” To hear a comprehensive overview of Staton’s work at FAME, check out the Ace Records release “Evidence – The Complete Fame Records Masters” which contains every song she recorded for FAME between 1968 and 1974.

Throughout her career, Staton’s singular vocal ability has tamed any musical genre she has lent her talents to, and following her fruitful time at FAME, Candi went on to record the massive Disco generation hits “Young Hearts Run Free” and “Disco Hit “Victim.” Candi performed and recorded with a wide range of artists including Mac Davis, B.B. King, Al Green, Bobby Womack, Ashford and Simpson, Boz Scaggs, Little Richard, The Commodores, and Johnny Mathis.

In 2014, Candi was FINALLY inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in recognition of her nearly a half-century of contributions to Alabama’s music legacy.

We are honored to have Candi Staton in our family, and we are forever grateful for the kindness she has shown FAME over the years. The sign above the entryway to FAME’s studios reads “Through these doors walk the finest musicians, songwriters, artists and producers in the world.” This month, FAME is proud to celebrate the legacy of an artist that ranks among the best of whom that sign describes, the First Lady of Southern Soul, Candi Staton.

Episode 3: David Shaw

Episode 3: David Shaw

On Episode Three of Through These Doors: A FAME Studio Podcast, Rodney Hall welcomes David Shaw, lead singer of the hit rock group The Revivalists. Listen in as Hall and Shaw discuss Shaw’s new solo singles “Shaken” and “Promised Land,” recording the “Made in Muscle Shoals’ EP” at FAME with the Revivalists, and how they’ve been traversing the rocky waters of producing music during the COVID-19 pandemic. Get ready for a fun, illuminating, and deeply personal conversation captured during an unparalleled time for the music industry.

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Wilson Pickett

The word “pioneer” gets thrown around a lot these days to describe people that really aren’t all that pioneering. However, when talking about soul legend Wilson Pickett, the word barely does him justice. Wilson Pickett was an electric performer who oozed raw soul and helped define the sound of Southern Soul with hits that include — but aren’t limited to — “Mustang Sally,” “Land of 1000 Dances,” and “Funky Broadway.”

Born in Prattville, Alabama, in 1941, the youngest of 11 children, Pickett became forever etched in the Muscle Shoals firmament when, in 1966, famed record executive Jerry Wexler brought Pickett to FAME Studios. Initially skeptical about returning to his home state, and recording with FAME’s all-white Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Pickett fell into a remarkable creative groove, recording an embarrassingly rich collection of timeless hits during his stint at FAME, such as the aforementioned “Land of A Thousand Dances” and “Mustang Sally.”

Always the innovator, Pickett also recorded what many believe to be the first “Southern Rock” record when he used Duane Allman as a session guitarist on his hit cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” which appeared on the LP of the same name and also included a cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” and “Sit Down and Talk This Over,” co-written by Pickett and Bobby Womack.

Although Pickett recorded sporadically after the 1970s and produced fewer hit records, his live performances remained legendary. Wilson Pickett was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. In 2003, Pickett was featured in the documentary Only The Strong Survive, and continued to perform while battling numerous health issues, before succumbing to a heart attack in Ashburn, Virginia, on January 19, 2006.

The walls of FAME still echo with the sound of Wilson Pickett’s genius. His legacy and the songs he left us will forever be remembered and continue to give back well into the future. We feel blessed to have known Wilson Pickett and to have played a small part in helping deliver his vision and feel forever indebted for what he gave to Muscle Shoals.

Episode 2: Keith Stegall

Episode 2: Keith Stegall

On Episode Two of Through These Doors: A FAME Studios Podcast, Rodney Hall sits down with our special guest — ACM, CMA, and Grammy-winning songwriter/producer — and founder of DREAMLINED ENTERTAINMENT, Keith Stegall. Hall and Stegall share personal insights into the recording process, and we invite you through these doors to listen in as they discuss how Stegall navigated his career as a writer and a multi-million record selling producer. This episode digs deep into some of the songs and albums that have defined his career.

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Mac Davis

In September of 2020, we lost one of our closest and dearest members of the FAME family.

Mac Davis was not only one of the great musicians/songwriters/performers to ever grace the American music scene, he was also one of the most selfless and caring human beings that the world has ever known.

Mac was an inductee to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and received a BMI Icon Award for his decades-long contribution to the American songbook. He has a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame and a street named in his honor in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas: Mac Davis Lane.

Some will know Mac from his chart-topping solo hits, including “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” “Texas in My Rearview Mirror” and “It’s Hard to Be Humble.”

Some will know Mac from the songs he wrote that were performed and recorded by hundreds of artists, including Nancy Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire, Tom Jones, and many more, including his songs that became hits for Elvis Presley, including “In The Ghetto” and “A Little Less Conversation.”

Never a one-trick pony, Mac was one of those people who excelled at everything he put his mind to and along with his successful career in music, he also had a thriving career as an actor, starring in the films “North Dallas Forty,” “The Sting II,” and “Possums.” He also starred as Will Rogers in “The Will Rogers Follies” on Broadway, hosted an episode of “The Muppet Show,” and hosted his own variety show “The Mac Davis Show” on NBC.

Here at FAME, we will not only remember Mac as a world-class entertainer, but as a true friend who was always there whenever you needed him. Mac was never shy about using his celebrity status to bring about positive change in the world, and was a life-long supporter of the FAME Girls’ Ranch, generously donating his time and talents whenever we held a benefit or fundraiser.

Mac will be missed here at FAME, but he will always live on in the music he left us, his extensive charity work, and the stories of camaraderie and kindness that will forever echo in the walls of this studio and on the streets of Muscle Shoals.

Thank you for everything, Mac.