Music News & Reviews

Jimmy Johnson, studio musician who backed the Stones, Aretha Franklin and others, dies

Musician Jimmy Johnson, a founding member of the hard-working, hit-generating group of studio players in Muscle Shoals, Ala., nicknamed the "Swampers," who made indelible contributions to hits by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and dozens of other acts in the 1960s and '70s, has died. He was 76.

His death Sept. 5 was confirmed by his son, Jay Johnson, on Facebook.

Like his studio-pro peers at Motown Records known as the Funk Brothers and the collection of Los Angeles musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, rhythm guitarist Johnson and his colleagues in the Swampers – bassist David Hood, keyboardist Barry Beckett and drummer Roger Hawkins – often toiled in anonymity during an era when all attention was focused on singers, not the supporting musicians.

But those star performers became well aware of the Swampers' skills, often seeking them out from afar to infuse their records with their rich, funky Southern grooves.

They can be heard on Franklin's signature hit "Respect," which features Johnson's flavorful accents and fills, as well as Pickett's "Land of a Thousand Dances," Clarence Carter's "Patches," Etta James' "Tell Mama" and dozens of others recorded at Rick Hall's FAME Recording Studios.

After a 1969 split with Hall over money, the Swampers set up their own operation a few miles away, calling the new facility Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where the hits continued: Simon's "Kodachrome," the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses," the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There," Bob Seger's "Night Moves" and "Old Time Rock and Roll," Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody," Julian Lennon's "Valotte" and, more recently, the Black Keys' 2009 three-time Grammy-winning album "Brothers."

Such was their prowess in the region they were name-checked in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama": "Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers," the song's fourth verse begins, "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?"

Jimmy Ray Johnson was born Feb. 4, 1943 in in Sheffield, Ala. His father worked in an aluminum plant and played music on the side as an amateur, his mother was a homemaker who would later host dinners for visiting musicians who were working with her son.

Johnson was drawn to music as a boy, earned $10 at age 15 for his first gig playing guitar at a sock hop. Citing Chuck Berry as his primary influence, Johnson told an interviewer in 2015, "My parents always tried to get me to play country music and I just didn't like it that much. ... I heard Chuck Berry do 'Johnny B. Goode' and I knew that was what I wanted to do."

He landed a job in the early '60s working for Hall when he was getting FAME Recording Studio off the ground, first helping out with clerical tasks before moving into the studio as an engineer and then as a session player.

He was part of the backing group Hall assembled when Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler sent soul singer Wilson Pickett his way to try to score follow-up success to his early hits such as "In the Midnight Hour," recorded in Memphis, Tenn., for the Stax Records label. The Stax studio band was equally illustrious: organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jr., who achieved fame in their own right as Booker T. & the MG's.

With that in mind, "I hired a mix of Memphis and Muscle Shoals studio musicians, the cream of the crop" to back Pickett on his visit to FAME, Hall wrote in his 2015 autobiography "The Man From Muscle Shoals: His Journey From Shame to Fame."

That group included lead guitarist Chips Moman, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, drummer Roger Hawkins and rhythm guitarist Johnson. The result was another major Pickett hit, "Land of a Thousand Dances."

"As great as these musicians were, none of them could read a note of music," Hall wrote. "They all played by ear, or read number charts ....The musicians improvised licks as they played off each other and felt their way through the song. This system gave the musicians the freedom to create new licks and helped them become musical creators."

The Swampers moniker was bestowed on the combo after producer Denny Cordell heard pianist Leon Russell praise their outfit's soulful "swamp" grooves.

More than simply following written scores, as typically was the practice in the major recording studios in New York, studio musicians in Memphis and Muscle Shoals relied on "head charts," arrangements they invented on the spot.

It was a remarkably successful collaboration, until 1969, when Hall was on the verge of finalizing a contract with Capitol Records in L.A. for his own FAME Records label, with plans to put FAME in the center ring rather than continuing to act as a supplier of hits to existing record companies.

He and Capitol executive vice president Karl Engemann called a meeting to explain to the Swampers what the new deal would mean for them.

"Before Karl and I could even get into the particulars, the musicians waved us off and said they were not interested," Hall wrote. "Jimmy Johnson politely stood up and told us to please spare them the presentation."

That marked the birth of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

The split created considerable bad blood between the Swampers and Hall, who believed that the new studio took his considerable lineup – from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones – and even hired away his secretary.

Simon's experience working with Johnson and the other Swampers at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio on his 1973 album "There Goes Rhymin' Simon" was emblematic of the efficiency and creativity on which they prided themselves.

Like the Funk Brothers, the Wrecking Crew, and Booker T. & the MG's, the Swampers knew that time was money.

Simon was interested in doing something with a similar feel to what he heard on the Staple Singers' recent hit "I'll Take You There" on Stax Records in Memphis, and called the label's co-owner, Al Bell, to arrange to work with the same musicians. As it turned out, that group was the Swampers, which led Simon to Muscle Shoals.

"When Simon arrived at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, he figured the young white guys sitting around the studio console were employees or visitors," Simon biographer and former L.A. Times music critic Robert Hilburn wrote in "Paul Simon: The Life" (2018). But they were, in fact, the band.

"The musicians were, in turn, surprised when Simon told them he might need the studio for a few days to do a single track, 'Take Me to the Mardi Gras.' They prided themselves in finishing even the most challenging track in an hour," Hilburn wrote. "Despite no history with reggae, they picked up on the sound when Bell played them a Jamaican instrumental, 'Liquidator,' by the Harry J. All Stars, just moments before the session. And sure enough, the rhythm section finished the joyful, reggae-gumbo hybrid in what was fast even by their standards, a half hour."

"Simon," Hilburn added, "was so pleased with the result that he rewarded the band with a co-producer credit on the track, as well as the same credit on four other tracks."

That experience was also representative of the color-blind collaborations in the Deep South between black and white musicians in an era racked with civil strife, something that wasn't lost on a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker like Wexler.

"Jerry was totally taken by the way we cut records," Hall wrote. "(He) could never get over the fact that five or six white musicians and a white engineer and producer from this tiny little town of 5,000 people could sit down with four or five black horn players and cut these giant records that were selling like hotcakes across America."

In addition to his son Jay, Johnson is survived by his wife, Becky, daughter Kimberly Tidwell, stepdaughter Alana Parker and a grandson.

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