Tom Stafford

Born: June 19, 1926 Irondale, AL

One of the original shapers of the Muscle Shoals music scene. Partners with Billy Sherrill and Rick Hall forming Spar Music - Publishing & Recording.

Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame


...Founded by Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford in Florence, Alabama, in the late 1950s, the studio was first located above the City Drug Store in Florence, AL. In ‘63, after buying out Sherrill and Stafford, Hall recorded Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away,” in one take. The song proved to be the first hit cut at the studio’s second — and current — location at 603 East Avalon in Muscle Shoals....

Source: Memphis Music Confidential » Blog Archive » Muscle Shoals’ FAME studio still rocking, label rolling again



....James Joiner was at his Florence home one fateful day in 1959, considering his next musical move.  The phone rang, and the voice on the other end of the line presented a proposition that planted the seed for a musical revolution.  Fresh off successes with singer Bobby Denton, Joiner was looking for new ideas and talent for his 3-year-old Tune Records company. Denton was giving up the music business, and Joiner's partner, Kelso Herston, had left Florence recently to become a Nashville publisher and session guitarist.  The caller that day, Tom Stafford, asked Joiner to invest in a new musical enterprise that would include a publishing company and small recording studio above the City Drug Store, at the intersection of Tennessee and Seminary streets in downtown Florence.  Joiner agreed, put down his money, and Spar Music was born.

That moment proved to be pivotal in the development of the Muscle Shoals recording industry.  "Tom's dad was the pharmacist, and he was giving him that space above the drug store for a little studio," Joiner said. "Tom wanted me to invest $300."  Stafford's influence on the early Muscle Shoals music scene cannot be overstated.

A tall, lanky, hunchbacked man, Stafford managed Florence's Princess movie theater and was an engaging conversationalist who had struck up friendships with a group of young, aspiring musicians.  "We were just kids who hung out at the theater and the drug store," said David Briggs, who became one of Spar's early keyboardists and songwriters. "We'd go to the drug store, buy a hot dog, see a pretty girl, get horny, then go upstairs and write a song about it."  Musicians Briggs, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts, Billy Sherrill, Rick Hall, Bill Blackburn, Earl Montgomery and Arthur Alexander all spent their spare time "upstairs" at Spar, writing songs and recording demos.  "Tom was the kind of guy who encouraged you to continue writing," said Oldham, who was in high school at the time. "And he brought you together with all these wonderful people."

Fritts, a Florence songwriter and musician, said Stafford sensed that something big was about to happen in Muscle Shoals music.  "Tom was the guy who had this great vision," he said. "He was a weird guy in a lot of ways, but he cared about people and about music, and he could see it happening here."  The studio above Stafford's family drug store was crude by most standards, with egg cartons stapled to the walls to baffle sound.  "I remember the first time I walked into that room," Oldham said. "There was a tape recorder and a piano. It was the first 15-speed recorder I had ever seen."

Old sofas and chairs were scattered around the room, where musicians and songwriters often found Stafford "folded up like a bat" on the corner of one of the sofas or reclining at a seemingly impossible angle on a two-by-four.  "I feel lucky to have hung out with Tom," said Penn, a songwriter, singer and producer from Vernon who later oversaw some of soul music's brightest moments. "He just made this exciting place for us. When others would fall short, Tom would always be there with a good word: 'Keep on singing and you can do it.' "  Within a year, Joiner sold his Spar interest to Stafford for $900, devoting more time to his own Tune projects. In 1962 he published "Six Days on the Road." Dave Dudley's 1963 cut of the classic trucker's anthem — which has been covered more than 300 times --- hit No. 2 on the country charts and crossed over to the pop market.  Stafford took on two new partners in 1959 -- Phil Campbell natives Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill, a pair of musician-songwriters who had earned regional renown touring in a rock 'n' roll band called The Fairlanes.

The following year, young singer and hotel bellhop Arthur "June" Alexander became the first black artist to arrive on the Muscle Shoals music scene. His first single, "Sally Sue Brown," was quickly released on Jud Phillips' Florence label, Judd Records.  "When we first heard Arthur sing, we knew he was the guy — he had his great voice," Fritts said. "He could make it happen."  Throughout that era, dozens of local musicians were performing in bands, playing clubs, dances and college fraternity parties. Their music of choice — and the sound demanded by audiences — was rhythm-and-blues.

A center of Muscle Shoals musical inspiration proved to be the Sheffield Community Center.  Headliners ranged from Hank Williams to Louis Armstrong.  Florence native Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records in Memphis, brought Elvis Presley to the Sheffield stage in 1954 and '55.  "Every artist I had of note played the Sheffield Community Center," Phillips said. "In fact, the feeling was that you hadn't made it until you'd played there."  One of Presley's dynamic performances inspired young Shoals musician Hollis Dixon to open a new chapter in local music history.  "I saw Elvis there in 1955, and that kind of excited me," Dixon said. "I knew some boys who had a band out at Spring Valley. They'd just get together and play. So we put together a band, just to see what it would sound like."  The musicians liked what they heard, and so did their audiences.

The fledgling band — Hollis Dixon and the Keynotes — performed across the Southeast from 1956 to 1982. Early on, Dixon provided training and exposure for up-and-coming session players.  "Hollis always had a great band — everybody wanted to play with Hollis," said Fritts, who worked as a drummer for the Keynotes. "Whenever anybody left his band, you always had a lot of great musicians waiting in line to take their place."  Other bands quickly emerged — The Del Rays, The Mystics and Dan Penn and the Pallbearers, who traveled the circuit in an old hearse.  Between gigs, those musicians found their way to Stafford's studio, where things were not going well with Stafford and his new partners.  Hall was determined to make it in Nashville, and he made no secret that he wanted to become rich and successful as quickly as possible. His approach was to outwork everyone.  "When you're young, you're eat up with ego," Hall said. "You think there's nothing you can't do."

Hall's work ethic began to grate on Stafford and Sherrill, who took luxurious breaks for movies and long, philosophical discussions.  "They would sit and talk for hours about any subject in the world," Hall said. "I was constantly kicking butt and taking names, trying to get the business going. I was a man on a mission."  One thing led to another, and Hall was invited to leave. He took with him the name they created for their business — Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME).  "It was thought that Billy was the talent, the genius," Hall said. "In people's eyes, I was the country bumpkin who was riding on Billy's coattails. That just served to fire me up more and make me want to dig in my heels and prove myself."  That same year, Sherrill left for Nashville, where Sam Phillips hired him to work as the engineer in his new Nashville studio. By the late '60s, Sherrill had become Music City's top producer, helming hits for George Jones and Tammy Wynette (including "Stand By Your Man," which he co-wrote) and reviving the career of former Sun artist Charlie Rich.  "I've always had the same approach," Sherrill said. "Find a good idea, good lyrics and a good melody, then find the right artist who can bring it to life. That's why what we did worked in those early days."  In the summer of 1961, Hall leased a tobacco warehouse on Wilson Dam Highway in Muscle Shoals, recruited musicians from Penn's band, and cut "You Better Move On." The song was written and sung by Alexander.  "I always wrote from experience — right from the heart," Alexander said. "When I cut that song, everybody here knew who I was talking about."  The track, issued by Dot Records, reached No. 24 on the Billboard pop charts in January 1962.  "Rick Hall lived with that song like a hermit," Alexander said. "He wouldn't quit until he knew it was right."  Alexander's music had a profound impact on '60s music. He remains the only artist-songwriter covered by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Otis Redding.  By 1963, Hall's astonishing success was attracting even more attention. The Tams and Tommy Roe came in from Atlanta to record Top 10 hits at FAME. Then, in 1964, Hall produced his second R&B smash, Jimmy Hughes' "Steal Away."  "I was batting a thousand," Hall said. "I had cut two records and both of them were hits. That had a big bearing on my psyche. I was thinking, 'Hey, man, I'm a white man, but I'm a black record producer.' My confidence level went up — way up."

The Golden Era of Soul Singles Brings International Acclaim-1964-65

When a man

loves a woman

Down deep in his soul,

She can bring him

such misery.

— "When a Man Loves a Woman" (1966)

By the end of 1965, business was brisk at Rick Hall's FAME Recording Studios, where the fuse had been ignited for an explosion of musical creativity....

Source: Shoals Chamber of Commerce



....However, it wasn't long before Hall's authoritative personality rubbed Sherrill and Stafford the wrong way, and in 1960 they gave Rick the boot, allowing him to keep the name and some of the publishing.

After a period of heavy drinking and depression, Hall had set up another studio in the Muscle Shoals area in 1961 when Tom Stafford approached him with an artist and a song he thought had a chance to hit big. The artist was Arthur Alexander and the song was the 1961 Top 30 single "You Better Move On," which was later successfully covered by the Rolling Stones....

Source:  Rick Hall Biography - ARTISTdirect Music


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