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Just Imagine…the Unifying Power of Music

Rick Hall at FAME Recording Studios

Rick Hall was the son of a sharecropper and grew up knowing poverty. At the age of 6, he started learning to play music. As a teenager, he worked in a factory in the daytime and played in a bar band at night.

Hall became a songwriter and producer and had some early successes. In 1959, Hall used the royalties from his songs to create a recording studio in Florence, Alabama (later relocating to nearby Muscle Shoals). Growing up in an environment where country music and gospel dominated, Hall took a bold step in focusing on what was then called “race music” and later “rhythm and blues”–music by Black artists. This was not well accepted in Alabama.

By the mid 60’s, Hall’s studio became well known for recording songs of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, and Aretha Franklin. Aretha Franklin credits Rick Hall with helping her become the “Queen of Soul.”

As the fame of his studio grew, White singers also came to him. These included the Osmonds, Paul Anka, Tom Jones, Bobbi Gentry, the Gatlin Brothers, and the Allman Brothers. In segregated Alabama, Black and White artists came together because they accepted the talent of Rick Hall to produce winning records.

Rick Hall created a place where the focus was on the music and the talent of the musicians rather than their race. One publication referred to Rick Hall as the “white fiddler who became an unlikely force in soul music.” Rick Hall helped America accept all types of music. As Amanda Petrusisch wrote in the New Yorker:

“Muscle Shoals remains remarkable not just for the music made there but for its unlikeliness as an epicenter of anything; that a tiny town in a quiet corner of Alabama became a hotbed of progressive, integrated rhythm and blues still feels inexplicable. Whatever Hall conjured there—whatever he dreamt, and made real—is essential to any recounting of American ingenuity. It is a testament to a certain kind of hope.”

Our nation has long struggled with race. It wasn’t that long ago that Black artists could not have their music played on most radio stations in the US. Many universities’ athletic programs did not integrate until the 1960’s. Today, especially through music and sports, we may be more likely to value and accept the talents of individuals not because of their race, but because of their abilities.

Full acceptance, however remains a struggle in many areas of our society. Racial bias still exists. Socio-economic bias also remains. Acceptance into elite universities is greatly influenced by privilege. Some businesses only hire from certain schools. Those, whose backgrounds are outside of the traditional, still must fight for acceptance, for others to see their talents.

Why is acceptance so difficult? That’s a question that remains unanswered. But just imagine the value that universal acceptance in all its dimensions would have on society worldwide. Just imagine a society where the only barrier to success is the ability and ambition of the individual. Just imagine a society where acceptance is a given, not prejudged by a person’s race, class, or gender. How could we build on the power of music to bring people together in openness toward one another?

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“Music is the universal language … it brings people closer together.”—Ella Fitzgerald

This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.