64 Parishes

René Hall

René Hall was an arranger and studio musician who made invaluable contributions to scores of hit recordings from the 1950s through the 1970s.

René Hall

Jasmine Records

Album cover of the 2020 release of "René Hall: My Kind of Rocking" by Jasmine Records.

From novelty hits to masterpieces, René Hall’s recording studio work can be heard in rhythm-and-blues (R&B) and rock-and-roll classics by Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Larry Williams, Billy Ward and the Dominoes, Ritchie Valens, and many more recordings. Hall’s collaborations with Cooke are among the most important in his more than sixty-year career as a musical arranger, conductor, and guitarist. They include the civil rights anthem, 1964’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and Cooke’s number-one pop and R&B hit from 1957, “You Send Me.”

Guided by the principle that featured vocalists were the most important element in a recording, Hall’s musical arrangements complemented singers. Arrangers create a musical score that includes instruments, tempo, and the other musical elements that complement and enhance songwriters’ and composers’ original songs and instrumentals. “A lot of cats try to show off their arrangements,” he said. “They think they’re singing lead. But there’s only one lead guy. What you put around him is what makes it really happen.”

Early Life and Musical Beginnings

Born September 26, 1912, in Morgan City, St. Mary Parish, René Joseph Hall grew up in New Orleans. His 1920s peers in the city included guitarist and banjo player Danny Barker. Three years older than Hall, Barker recalled in his autobiography that Hall studied violin “early and seriously” before turning to the banjo. Barker noted that Hall soon “surpassed all banjo players with his fast, correct finger technique. . . . He was at one time in the thirties just about the greatest banjo player anywhere.”

In the 1920s and 1930s Hall played banjo with jazz pioneers Oscar “Papa” Celestin and Sam Morgan. He would later transition from traditional jazz to swing, performing on Mississippi riverboats with Sidney Desvigne’s Southern Syncopators. In the early 1940s Hall started playing guitar and joined Ernie Fields and his orchestra in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He then moved to the nightclub scene in St. Louis, Missouri, and began making musical arrangements, which led to arranging, conducting, and playing trombone for jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines’s big band.

Moving to New York in 1945, Hall made arrangements for the touring acts that played at the Apollo Theater, such as Louis Jordan and Roy Milton. He also performed and arranged for recording sessions. In the early 1950s he recorded under his own name for the Jubilee, Decca, and RCA labels. He also scouted talent for Syd Nathan’s King Records in Cincinnati and discovered Billy Ward and the Dominoes, who soon released hits on Nathan’s Federal label (“Sixty Minute Man,” “Do Something for Me”). From 1950 to the mid-1950s, Hall was an arranger and guitarist for the popular R&B vocal group that featured Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson. He moved to Las Vegas with the Dominoes, performing there for two and a half years, first at the Dunes Hotel and later at a succession of newer hotels that opened in Las Vegas.

Collaborations with Cooke

Creatively restless in Las Vegas, Hall moved to Los Angeles, where his guitar, arranging, and conducting skills kept him busy in recording studios for decades. From 1957 to 1964 he arranged, conducted, and played guitar for Sam Cooke’s recordings. His other L.A. studio work included Ritchie Valens (“La Bamba,” “Donna”), Ed Townsend (“For Your Love”), Ray Charles (“Hit the Road Jack”), Hank Ballard and the Midnighters (“The Twist”), and Larry Williams (“Boney Maronie,” “Short Fat Fannie,” “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy,” “Bad Boy”).

Hall’s recording sessions often found him working with two fellow Louisianans, saxophonist Plas Johnson and drummer Earl Palmer. In 1959 Hall, Palmer, and Johnson released their own top-five pop hit, crediting their rock-and-roll remake of Glenn Miller’s swing classic “In the Mood” to the inactive Ernie Fields Orchestra. Other novelty hits by studio-only groups featuring Hall and/or Palmer and Johnson include the Mar-kets’ “Surfer’s Stomp” and B. Bumble and the Stingers’ “Nut Rocker.” The latter instrumental, an adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite,” reached twenty-three on pop charts in the United States and number one in the United Kingdom.

Peter Guralinick’s biography of Cooke mentions Hall nearly sixty times. Forty-six years old when he began working with Cooke, Hall stayed with the singer from 1957 until Cooke’s death in late 1964. Earlier that year Hall wrote perhaps the most important arrangement of his career for “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the song Cooke wrote after his angry reaction to being denied a hotel room in Shreveport led to his arrest.

“A Change Is Gonna Come”

Hall’s haunting orchestration for “A Change Is Gonna Come” features an eleven-piece string section, kettledrum, and French horn. He told Cooke’s business partner J. W. Alexander that the French horn gave the production a mournful sound, while the strings matched the dignity of the song’s lyrics and melody. “I wanted it to be the greatest thing in my [life],” Hall said. “I spent a lot of time, put out a lot of ideas, and then changed them and rearranged them, because he [Cooke] was an artist for whom I’d never done anything with my own concepts. This was the only tune that I can ever recall where he said, ‘I’m going to leave that up to you.’ ”

When Hall conducted the “A Change Is Gonna Come” recording session, the musicians included two fellow Louisianans, keyboardist Harold Battiste and drummer Earl Palmer. In 2006 the Library of Congress added “A Change Is Gonna Come” to the National Recording Registry; the Songwriters Hall of Fame gave the composition a Towering Song Award in 2013; and in 2021 Rolling Stone ranked “A Change Is Gonna Come” at number three among its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

Later Years

Hall’s 1970s projects included Marvin Gaye’s 1973 soul music masterpiece, Let’s Get It On. He arranged four of the album’s eight songs, including the title track, a number-one R&B and pop hit. “There were other acts from Motown (Records) that I did various projects with, but Marvin’s was the most successful and enjoyable,” Hall said in a rare interview published in 1980. Let’s Get It On peaked at the number-two spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart and stayed at number one on Billboard’s R&B albums chart for eleven weeks. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004.

Hall kept an office on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles into the 1980s. He died from heart disease on February 11, 1988. The British label Jasmine released a retrospective of his recordings in 2020, My Kind of Rocking: The Unsung Rock ’n’ Roll, R&B Guitarist and Arranger, 1950–1960.