Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section

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The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section is a group of American studio musicians playing soul, R&B, rock and roll and country, based in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Widely regarded as 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. The players were White Southern men who embraced and excelled at creating the R&B and Soul music of many African American artists. The personnel who make up the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section have changed since recording their first hit record.

The original group at Rick Hall's FAME studios in the early 1960s was Norbert Putnam, David Briggs, and Jerry Carrigan. This rhythm section was responsible for the tracks on the first chart hits to come out of Muscle Shoals in 1962 which gave recognition and stature to this unknown and out-of-the-way studio. They later departed simultaneously to pursue independent careers as studio musicians in Nashville. The replacement musicians were initially called "the Second FAME Gang" but were later nicknamed "The Swampers" and included keyboardist Barry Beckett, drummer Roger Hawkins, bassist David Hood and guitarist Jimmy Johnson. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section has produced, engineered, or recorded enduring classic hits by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge Paul Simon, Leon Russell, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger, and The Staple Singers.

The Swampers 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 Hall's FAME Studios and founded their own competing business, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and copyrighted the name "The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section". Both the original FAME group and the Swampers have been inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. The Swampers were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2008 and received the Lifework Award in 2008. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section is featured in the 2013 documentary film Muscle Shoals , winner of the 2013 Boulder International Film Festival Grand Prize.


In 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.[1] 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.[1] 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.[1] Stafford and Sherrill later terminated Hall from the partnership, and Hall's humiliation fueled him to attempt to outdo them as their competitor.[2]

Muscle Shoals achieves stature[edit]

In 1961, Hall took out a loan to buy an abandoned brick warehouse in Muscle Shoals, Alabama to make a recording studio.[2] 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.[1] 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.[3] Arthur Alexander was flown to Philadelphia to appear on Dick Clark's American Bandstand.[1] 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. 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[4] 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".[2] Rick Hall's financial success from "You Better Move On" gave him the capital to secure land in Muscle Shoals City where he built a first-rate studio patterned after Owen Bradley's in Nashville.[1]

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.[1] 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".[5]

The Swampers' early days[edit]

The core group of Rick Hall's new rhythm section was keyboardist Barry Beckett; drummer Roger Hawkins; bassist David Hood and guitarist Jimmy Johnson. 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.[5] The nickname "The Swampers" was coined by producer Denny Cordell during recording sessions for Leon Russell because of their "funky, soulful Southern "swamp" sound".[6][7]

Guitarist Jimmy Johnson was the first FAME employee, and did many jobs there, including playing rhythm guitar, engineering, and sweeping the floors.[8] 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.[9] 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".[9] 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 substitute, including Chips Moman (guitar), Junior Lowe (guitar) Dan Penn, Tommy Cogbill, Pete Carr (guitar), Spooner Oldham (organ and piano)[2]

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.[9]

Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler became acquainted with Hall and brought artists like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin to record with the all-white group of Southern musicians based on their previous success.[10]

The Aretha Franklin session at Muscle Shoals[edit]

In January, 1967, Jerry Wexler brought Aretha Franklin to Muscle Shoals to record. During her first session with the Swampers, "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You", Franklin's husband, Ted White, who had been cordial at first, became belligerent. White had secretly been sharing a bottle of vodka with the horn section and during the session.[11][2] He demanded that the trumpet player, Ken Laxton, who was white, be fired for making passes at Aretha.[12] 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".[2] The producers then fired the sax player. By this time the basic tracks were done and everyone was exhausted and the rapidly-deteriorating session was terminated.

An hour or so later, Rick Hall, who himself had begun drinking after the session ended, went over to Aretha and Ted's hotel room at the Downtowner Hotel in Florence "to try to smooth things over", but their hotel room became the scene of a fist fight between Hall and White with Aretha joining in to try to get Hall out the door.[2] Hall then screamed, cursed and pounded the door, arousing Wexler whose room was nearby.[13] Wexler was horrified. Hall went to the lobby, called Aretha's room on the house phone and told Ted he'd better get out of town.[2] They left the following day.

The Swampers become independent[edit]

In 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.[9] 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 Alantic'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.[9] 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."[12]

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."[12] They also copyrighted 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.[12] 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.

The Rolling Stones[edit]

The Rolling Stones, newly signed to Atlantic Records, arrived at Sheffield Alabama in December, 1969, two nights after a performance in West Palm Beach, Florida.[13] They had been assured that the visit 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".[11]

The Stones were there three days, spending most of their time in the studio engineered by Swamper Jimmy Johnson.[13] The first night they recorded You Gotta Move; the second night, Brown Sugar, then Wild Horses on the third. 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"[13] On the documentary film, Muscle Shoals, Keith Richards said of the sessions,"I don't think we'd been quite so prolific ever".[14]

How a Swampers session was conducted[edit]

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.[2] In Muscle Shoals and other Southern studios, the process was quite different. The musicians rarely read music, and usually nothing was written in advance.

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.[2]

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.[2] Then Chips Moman hit on a guitar lick that set the basic groove and everyone fell in. 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".[2] Musicians Moman and Cogbill countered saying that there was no intro and no turnaround— the song was far from finished.

Pickett suggested singing the countoff, "one, two, three".[2] Hall said that was crazy--who ever heard of singing a countoff? Pickett said "let me show you" and got the horn players to hit a chord. The now-famous bass lick that followed (and set the song's tempo) took trials by three bass players to try to find something extraordinary.[2] 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.[2] 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 it from the beginning, and repeating too much often loses the song's excitement due to fatigue. Hall said, "everybody looked at each other like, 'If you miss this, man, you're dead'."[2] 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".[2]

Later years[edit]

The Swampers closed the original on Jackson Highway in April, 1979, and moved to a new studio at 1000 Alabama Avenue in nearby Sheffield.The Swampers continued to operate at their new location at 1000 Alabama Avenue 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 rhythm section joined other session players, such as the keyboardist Carson Whitsett, backing Bobby "Blue" Bland and other notable artists recorded for the Malaco label, and occasionally working at other studios. Becket, however, left Alabama at that time, moving to Nashville to work as a producer.[15]

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.[5]

Honors and awards[edit]

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 Swampers appeared on the cover of Cher's 1969 album 3614 Jackson Highway.[5] The four founding members of the Swampers were inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1995[16] with a "Lifework Award for Non-Performing Achievement." In 2008, the founders were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, along with Swampers musicians Pete Carr (guitar), Spooner Oldham (organ and piano), Albert S. Lowe Jr., Clayton Ivey, Randy McCormick, and Will McFarlane.[17] The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section is featured in the 2013 documentary film[18] Muscle Shoals which won the Grand Prize in the 2013 Boulder International Film Festival.[19]

Selected recordings[edit]

Song Artist Date Charting on
US Pop chart [20][21]
"Mustang Sally" Wilson Pickett recorded November 4, 1966 #9
"I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" Aretha Franklin recorded January 24, 1967 #9
"Respect" Aretha Franklin recorded February 14, 1967 #1
"Tell Mama" Etta James October 1967 #23
"Take Time to Know Her" Percy Sledge recorded February 1, 1968 #11
"Hey Jude" Wilson Pickett recorded November 27, 1968 #23 featuring Duane Allman on guitar[22]
"Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)" Clarence Carter recorded January 6, 1969
"Take a Letter, Maria" R. B. Greaves recorded August 19, 1969 #2
"I'll Take You There" The Staple Singers September 1971 #1
"Kodachrome" Paul Simon recorded 1973 #2
"Mainstreet" Bob Seger recorded 1976 #24

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Putnam, Norbert (2017). Music lessons : a musical memoir. Vol. 1. Nashville: Thimbleton House Media. ISBN 978-1-61850-090-8.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Hall, Rick; Pace, Terry (2015). Rick Hall : my journey from shame to fame (first ed.). Clovis, Monterey California: Heritage Builders. ISBN 978-1941437-52-0.
  3. ^ Whitburn, Joel. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits: Revised and Enlarged, Billboard Books, New York, 1992.
  4. ^ "Fame Records to reissue Jimmy Hughes collection". Retrieved July 6, 2019.
  5. ^ a b c d Westergaard, Sean. "The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section: Artist Biography". AllMusic, member of the RhythmOne group. Retrieved July 7, 2019.
  6. ^ "Alabama Music Hall of Fame :: Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section". Retrieved 2016-08-07.
  7. ^ "Alabama Music Hall of Fame: Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section". Retrieved 2016-08-07.
  8. ^ "Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section: Jimmy Johnson". Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Retrieved July 8, 2019.
  9. ^ a b c d e Pousner, Howard (January 6, 1980). "Music with Muscle". Atlanta, Georgia: The Atlanta Journal & Constitution Magazine. p. 19–21. Retrieved July 7, 2019.
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b Brown, Mick (August 17, 2018). "Inside Muscle Shoals, the legendary studio that gave Aretha Franklin her breakthrough hit". Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved July 14, 2019.
  12. ^ a b c d Wiser, Carl. "Aretha to The Black Keys: The Muscle Shoals Story". Retrieved July 9, 2019.
  13. ^ a b c d Whitley, Carla Jean (2014). Muscle Shoals Sound Studios : how the Swampers changed American music. Charleston: History Press. ISBN 978-1-62619-239-3. Retrieved 14 July 2019.
  14. ^ "Muscle Shoals". Muscle Shoals the Movie. Ear Goggles Productions Ltd. 2012. Retrieved January 17, 2017.
  15. ^ "Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section - 1995 Induction (Lifework Award) 2008". Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Alabama Music Hall of Fame. 2008. Retrieved January 18, 2017.
  16. ^ "Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section". Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Retrieved 22 October 2013.
  17. ^ Kreps, Daniel (29 October 2008). "Kid Rock, Keith Richards Help Induct Crickets, Muscle Shoals into Musicians Hall of Fame". Rolling Stone.
  18. ^ "Muscle Shoals". Muscle Shoals the Movie. Ear Goggles Productions Ltd. 2012. Retrieved January 17, 2017.
  19. ^ Gutman, Marc (February 29, 2016). "History Lesson: Boulder International Film Festival". Boulder Lifestyle Magazine. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  20. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1992). The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. Billboard Books. ISBN 978-0823082803.
  21. ^ Muscle Shoals Sound (liner notes). Various artists. Rhino Records. 1993. R2-71517.CS1 maint: others (link)
  22. ^ The Muscle Shoals Sound: 3614 Jackson Highway (liner notes). CD. Rhino Records. 1993.

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