Muscle Shoals Rhythm SectionThe Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section is a group of American studio musicians based in the northern Alabama town of Muscle Shoals. One of the most prominent American studio house bands from the 1960s to the 1980s, these musicians, individually or as a group have been associated with more than 500 recordings, including 75 gold and platinum hits. They were masters at creating a southern combination of R&B, soul and country music known as the "Muscle Shoals sound" to back up black artists, who were often in disbelief to learn that the studio musicians were white. Over the years from 1962 to 1969, there have been two successive groups under the name "Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section" and the common factor in the two was an association with Rick Hall at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals.
The original group hired by Hall in the early 1960s was Norbert Putnam, David Briggs, and Jerry Carrigan who created hit records that brought recognition and stature to this unknown and out-of-the-way studio. This group was lured to Nashville studios for independent careers. The replacement musicians were Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood and Jimmy Johnson; initially called "the Second FAME Gang" but widely known by the nickname "The Swampers". The Swampers subsequently recorded, produced, or engineered classic hits by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Leon Russell, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger and The Staple Singers. The Swampers were the subject of the 2013 documentary film Muscle Shoals , winner of the 2013 Boulder International Film Festival Grand Prize. They were mentioned by name in the lyrics of "Sweet Home Alabama"(1974) by Lynyrd Skynyrd and appear on the cover of Cher's 1969 album 3614 Jackson Highway .
In 1969 the Swampers parted ways with Rick Hall and FAME Studios and founded their own competing business, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. They also copyrighted the name "The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section". New members were Freeman Brown (drums), Jesse Boyce (bass), Junior Lowe (guitar), Clayton Ivey (keyboard) and 4 men brass section. They were a blend of afroamerican and white, and sometimes they were called FAME Gang. Both the original FAME group and the second group (Swampers) have been inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and into the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2008.
HistoryIn 1958 Rick Hall, a local musician and songwriter in Florence, Alabama, befriended Tom Stafford whose father owned a pharmacy in downtown Florence. Above the pharmacy, up some rickety stairs, Stafford had some recording gear. He had partnered with Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill to create "SPAR" (an acronym for Stafford Publishing And Recording). He asked some 16 year-old members of a local band, Norbert Putnam, David Briggs and Jerry Carrigan, to make some song demos. It was here that these young musicians were first exposed to creating original parts on new songs and they became proficient at it. Also frequenting these rooms were future musical elites such as Donnie Fritts, Spooner Oldham, Terry Thompson and Dan Penn. Stafford and Sherrill later terminated Hall from the partnership, and Hall's humiliation fueled him to attempt to outdo them as their competitor.
Achieving recording industry stature
In 1961, Hall took out a loan to buy an abandoned brick warehouse in Muscle Shoals, Alabama to make a recording studio. Muscle Shoals is one of four towns in northwest Alabama clustered along the Tennessee River; the others are Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia. His rhythm section (piano, bass and drums) was Briggs, Putnam, and Carrigan.
One of Hall's first protégés was an African American bellhop at the Sheffield Hotel named Arthur Alexander who had written some songs. Hall was a demanding taskmaster and his recording session required 30 or 40 takes to get the rhythm tracks he wanted. The song, "You Better Move On" rose to number 24 on Billboard's Hot 100 in March, 1962, and two years later cover versions were recorded by both The Hollies and The Rolling Stones. Arthur Alexander was flown to Philadelphia to appear on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. The success stunned the big-city studios; the music industry quickly took notice of this unknown little studio called FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises).
Well-known producers began coming to Muscle Shoals to record with this house band to capture the perceived "Muscle Shoals sound". Atlanta producer Bill Lowery brought The Tams who recorded What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am), and Nashville's Felton Jarvis brought Tommy Roe to record Everybody. Percy Sledge's cousin, Jimmy Hughes recorded "Steal Away" with the same teenaged session players, and it rose to #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 It was followed by "Neighbor, Neighbor" and "Why Not Tonight"– both of which made the charts. Hall stated, "Those hits showed that FAME could be musically diverse, and they announced our open-door policy toward other labels". Rick Hall's financial success from "You Better Move On" gave him the capital to secure land in Muscle Shoals City where in 1962 he built a first-rate studio at 603 Avalon Avenue patterned after Owen Bradley's in Nashville. Some 50 years later the building would be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Before long, Nashville music moguls Ray Stevens, Bob Beckham and Felton Jarvis made overtures to lure away Hall's backing musicians, saying that in Nashville, they would make four times the money Rick Hall was paying them. They resigned as a group to pursue independent careers in Nashville, and Hall was without his hit-making rhythm section. The replacement musicians were initially called "the Second FAME Gang" but were later nicknamed "The Swampers".
Swampers' early days
The core group of Rick Hall's new rhythm section was:
Affectionately called "The Swampers", but later officially adopting the name "The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, this group achieved extraordinary success as one of the best-known group of session musicians of their era. The nickname "The Swampers" was coined by producer Denny Cordell during recording sessions for Leon Russell because of their "funky, soulful Southern "swamp" sound".
Guitarist Jimmy Johnson was the first FAME employee, and did many jobs there, including playing rhythm guitar, engineering, and sweeping the floors. In 1964, drummer Roger Hawkins was hired. When bass player David Hood first received the call that a job at FAME had opened up, he was working at his father's tire store.
Keyboard player Barry Beckett knew nothing about Muscle Shoals in 1967, but was hired on a session there, James and Bobby Purify's "I'm Your Puppet". He said, "Every night I would just sit there and listen to the tape [still without vocals] over and over again" and said "that was amazing". With no firm job offer, Beckett moved his family from Florida to Muscle Shoals and was eventually hired. On the many hit records out of Muscle Shoals, there were many incidences where other musicians would join or substitute, including Chips Moman (guitar), Junior Lowe (guitar) Dan Penn, Tommy Cogbill, Pete Carr (guitar), Spooner Oldham (organ and piano)
According to music writer Carla Jean Whitley, more than a few people were surprised to learn that the musicians backing many notable black artists were white. Whitley said, "There were many producers accused of lying [about it]...Rod Stewart was one of those who took his producer out and said, 'seriously?' " In the early 1960s, it was not a routine practice to have the same musicians as a "house band" for recording different artists; the exceptions being Motown and Stax Records. Hall wanted to obtain a consistent sound rather than have unfamiliar musicians on each session. The New York Times called the Muscle Shoals sound "indigenous American music, a distinctly Southern amalgamation of rhythm & blues, soul, and country music".
Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler became acquainted with Hall and brought artists such as Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin to record at FAME with the group of southern musicians based on their previous string of hit recordings.
1967 Aretha Franklin sessionIn January, 1967, Jerry Wexler brought Aretha Franklin, then in her mid-20s, to Muscle Shoals for her first session for Atlantic. During this first session with the Swampers, "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You", Franklin's husband at the time, Ted White, who had been cordial at first, became belligerent. White had secretly been sharing a bottle of vodka with the horn section during the session. White then demanded that Ken Laxton, the trumpet player who was white, be fired for making passes at Aretha. Hall and Wexler reluctantly agreed. About an hour later, White burst into the control room and demanded that the sax player be fired saying "He's flirting with my wife". The producers then fired the sax player. By this time everyone was exhausted and the rapidly-deteriorating session was terminated.
An hour later, Rick Hall, who had begun drinking after the session ended, went to Aretha and Ted's hotel room at the Downtowner Hotel in Florence "to try to smooth things over", but a fist fight erupted between Hall and White, with Aretha joining in to try to get Hall out. Hall then screamed, cursed and pounded the door, arousing Wexler whose room was nearby. Wexler was horrified. Hall went to the lobby, called Aretha's room, and told Ted he'd better get out of town. They left the following day.
The only song that had been finished, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" went on to number one on Billboard's R&B Selling chart and number nine on the Billboard Hot 100, so Atlantic Records wanted the Swampers, but without Hall and without Muscle Shoals. The solution was to fly the Swampers to New York to record at Atlantic Studios. Less than a month later, The Swampers were in New York recording "Respect", Aretha's first hit that held the number one R&B spot for eight weeks and was number one on the pop charts for two weeks. Rolling Stone named it as the fifth-best song of all time. Some other songs they did were Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, Think, Share Your Love With Me, and Call Me.
1969: independenceIn 1969, after a financial dispute, the Swampers broke away from Rick Hall and FAME to purchase a tiny studio with burlap-covered walls at 3614 Jackson Highway. They were aided in the process by Wexler, who arranged a loan from Atlantic Records to make much-needed equipment upgrades to 8-track recording machines that were compatible with Atlantic's equipment. The Swampers were to pay the loans back by providing studio time. At first Hawkins and Johnson had more ownership, but they subsequently they made Hood and Beckett equal partners at no cost. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section created more than 50 hits at this studio.
The studio's sole bathroom was often used as a sound booth. The musicians would listen out on the porch to make final judgement on finished songs. David Hood said, "The building was a crackerbox building. A loud truck driving down the street or a heavy rainstorm, you'd have to stop working, because it was not built as a studio. It was a just a commercial building that had been adapted for studio use."
They asked themselves, "What are we going to call this place?" David Hood suggested the name, "Muscle Shoals Sound" and they all laughed. The joke was that the new studio, technically was in Sheffield, not Muscle Shoals. Only locals would know that because the towns melded together. Since they had had a dispute with Rick Hall, Hood said "So I thought, let's call it ' Muscle Shoals Sound ' just to get at Rick." They also trademarked the name "The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section".
Things were lean the first year. Finally they had a hit single with "Take a Letter Maria" by R.B. Greaves. The song reached number two on the Hot 100 and was certified gold. In 1971, Atlantic Records moved their Muscle Shoals business to Criteria Studios in Miami and asked the Swampers move there. When the Swampers refused, Atlantic called their loan on the new equipment. About this time, Stax Records in Memphis was facing financial difficulties and began outsourcing work to Muscle Shoals.
More and more business from established artists then came to the Swampers, replacing the lost Atlantic business. From this point, the studio began turning out hits such as Leon Russell's "Tight Rope", the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There" and Paul Simon's "Kodachrome".
1969 Rolling Stones session
The Rolling Stones, newly signed to Atlantic Records, arrived in Sheffield, Alabama in December, 1969, two nights after a performance in West Palm Beach, Florida. They had been assured that the planned recording session could be kept secret. The little studio at 3614 Jackson Highway was still in its infancy with only one hit thus far plus a Cher album that was not a commercial success. Rick Hall sardonically said "The Rolling Stones thought they were cutting at FAME".
The Stones were there three days, spending most of their time in the studio engineered by Swamper Jimmy Johnson. The first night they recorded You Gotta Move; the second night, Brown Sugar, the third, Wild Horses. Mick Jagger wrote three verses on a stenographer's pad on the spot for "Brown Sugar" which made number 490 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 top songs ever recorded. Swamper David Hood's son who was there said "Their visit was kept a secret from most of the locals, and the world's biggest rock and roll band came, recorded and left (headed for infamy at Altamont, no less) without the conservative townsfolk even knowing they were there" On the documentary film, Muscle Shoals, Keith Richards said of the sessions,"I don't think we'd been quite so prolific ever".
Swampers session approach
When Atlantic Records recorded in New York, the typical procedure was to hire an arranger who would come up with the song style from a demo recording and write out the parts for all musicians. In the session, musicians would come in and just play what was written for them. If it was not successful, the arranger was to blame. In Muscle Shoals and other Southern studios, the process was quite different. The musicians rarely read music, and usually nothing was written in advance; it was called a "head session"
As an example, in the Muscle Shoals recording of Wilson Pickett's classic hit, "Land of 1000 Dances" Jerry Wexler chose the song– it was to be a cover version of a song by Chris Kenner. In its original state it was much too slow and had a honky-tonk piano sound. Wexler had faith that the Swampers could make something out of it.
When the session started, the Swampers began trying different rhythm patterns, dance beats and tempos for the song. After an hour of this, nothing was gelling. Then Chips Moman hit on a guitar lick that set the basic groove and everyone fell in. The arrangement built communally. They decided to break it up by putting a solo drum interlude. During this, Pickett started screaming over the drummer, "nah, nah nah nah nah" then said, "I need somebody to help me now". It was captured on tape, and the players were summoned to the control room, where Rick Hall shouted, "Guys, we are now cutting a smash record". Musicians Moman and Cogbill disagreed saying that there was no intro and no turnaround— the song was far from finished.
In Hall's autobiography, he said Pickett suggested singing the count off, "one, two, three". Wexler told a different story, and stated, "After dozens of abortive attempts, I came up with an idea. 'Sing the counts, Wilson', I suggested. 'Make the counts part of the intro' ". Hall said that was crazy— who ever heard of singing a count off? Pickett said "let me show you" and got the horn players (Wayne Jackson, Charlie Chalmers, Andrew Love and Floyd Newman) to hit a chord.
The now-famous bass lick that followed was actually a second count off, and took trials by three bass players to find something extraordinary. Moman suggested they allow Tommy Cogbill (guitar player) to switch to bass and give it a try. Cogbill put Vaseline on his fingertips and delivered the lick they had been hoping for.
Since they were recording in mono on one track, all had to now play it correctly from start to finish. If anyone missed his part, they all would have had to do the entire song from the beginning, and repetition often loses a song's excitement due to fatigue. Hall said, "everybody looked at each other like, 'If you miss this, man, you're dead'." When they succeeded there were high fives all around the studio. Hall said, "When you hear that record today, you can tell that everybody was feeding off the enthusiasm of everybody else in that room".
The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section closed the original on Jackson Highway in April, 1979, and moved to a new studio at 1000 Alabama Avenue in nearby Sheffield. The town leaders sold Sheffield's abandoned 31000 ft2 Armory to the Swampers at an unbeatable price, to counter a nearby city's offer to lure them away. That year the new studio recorded the Bob Dylan album Slow Train Coming co-produced by Barry Beckett who also performed on it. The new studio marked a new beginning for Beckett, Hawkins, Hood and Johnson allowing them to move toward production and publishing rather than performing. They continued to operate there until 1985 when they closed the business. They sold it to their longtime friend Tommy Couch, owner of Malaco Records, based in Jackson, Mississippi. At that time, three of the Swampers joined other session players, such as the keyboardist Carson Whitsett, backing Bobby "Blue" Bland and other artists recording for the Malaco label. They occasionally worked at other studios.
Beckett left Alabama in 1982 to move to Nashville where he became A&R man for Warner Music Group. He later worked independently with Alabama, Asleep at the Wheel, Kenny Chesney and others. He performed on recording sessions until 2005 when health problems forced him to retire. He died in 2009 at age 66.
During the 1990s and later, the group continued working as a studio band, often with Clayton Ivey on keyboards, for artists including Gregg Allman (All Night All Stars), T. Graham Brown, Jimmy Buffett, Melissa Etheridge, John Hiatt, the Oak Ridge Boys, Johnny Paycheck, Etta James, and Joe Louis Walker.
Honors and awards
Lynyrd Skynyrd referred to the musicians as "The Swampers" in the 1974 song "Sweet Home Alabama":
"Now, Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers And they've been known to pick a song or two Lord, they get me off so much They pick me up when I'm feeling blue Now, how 'bout you?"
The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, individually or as a group have been associated with more than 500 recordings, including 75 gold and platinum hits. They appeared on the cover of Cher's 1969 album 3614 Jackson Highway. Four members were inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1995 and also received a "Lifework Award for Non-Performing Achievement". In 2008, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was inducted into the Nashville-based Musicians Hall of Fame, along with Swampers musicians Pete Carr (guitar), Spooner Oldham (organ and piano), Albert S. Lowe Jr., Clayton Ivey, Randy McCormick, and Will McFarlane. In 2019, the original Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section including Norbert Putnam, David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan, Terry Thompson, Earl "Peanut" Montgomery, Joe South and Reggie Young was inducted; also The Muscle Shoals Horn Section: Aaron Brown, Harrison Calloway, Ronny Eades, Charles Rose, and Harvey Thompson.
The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section is featured in the 2013 documentary film Muscle Shoals which won the Grand Prize in the 2013 Boulder International Film Festival.