Ramblin’ with The Swampers of Muscle Shoals

“Our sound was built around the drum and bass. We just had to find the groove and we didn’t put ourselves above the artist.” – Jimmy Johnson, guitarist, engineer and producer.

“Music isn’t in the water in Muscle Shoals. It is in the people who gather there.” David Hood, bassist for the Swampers

“I just emulated what it would sound like for a Harley to go through the studio in ‘Mustang Sally.'”-  Spooner Oldham in remarking about his famous organ parts in ‘Mustang Sally.’

“We didn’t know we were making history. Black or white, we had the same goal: to cut a hit record.” – Jimmy Johnson

The Swampers speaking at High Tide Southern Music Showcase at Bayside Academy in Daphne, Ala., on March 9

Jimmy Hall, David Hood, Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson and Dick Cooper at the High Tide music panel at Bayside Academy. (Lynn Oldshue)

The Swampers are musicians from Muscle Shoals who created some of the greatest licks, riffs and baselines in American music. While the South was ripped apart by Civil Rights, the Swampers were adding funk, groove and soul to Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Percy Sledge. They played in the moment, not from charts, and created hit songs as they played.

They were nicknamed “The Swampers” by Lynyrd Skynyrd in “Sweet Home Alabama” and three of the Swampers — David Hood, Jimmy Johnson and Spooner Oldham, along with Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie — told about their music and played some of their hits during the High Tide Southern Music Showcase at Bayside Academy in Daphne, Ala., on March 9 and 10.

High Tide Southern Music Showcase with the Swampers and Jimmy Hall and Donna Hall at Bayside Academy on March 10

Before they were Swampers, they were young kids playing at parties and bars, but their lives changed when they became the session musicians for Rick Hall in his new FAME studio in Muscle Shoals. Producer Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records brought his artists to FAME and took the musicians under his wing. Together they recorded some of the biggest songs of the 60s and 70s.

They helped Aretha Franklin find her groove and took Percy Sledge from singing in cotton fields to “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the first gold record released by Atlantic. They created the licks and rhythms for “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “I’m Your Puppet,” “Mustang Sally,” “Wild Horses,” “Brown Sugar,” “Kodachrome” and many more.

Set list for High Tide Southern Music Showcase. All of the songs were recorded by the Swampers or Wet Willie.

Music eventually shifted away from the soul of the Shoals to disco, pop and hip-hop, but the world rediscovered the Swampers in the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals. The Swampers began to play a few shows together including South by Southwest in Austin in 2013, The Porretta Soul Festival in Italy in 2014 and Lincoln Center in New York in July 2015.

Music has returned to Southern soul and the heartbeat still pumps from Muscle Shoals. From The Drive by Truckers, Alabama Shakes, Dylan LeBlanc and the Secret Sisters to Jason Isbell, Anderson East and John Paul White, some of the best music in the country again comes from the corner of northwest Alabama.

“The Swampers are the finest people on earth and we are all standing on their shoulders,” says John Paul White, who was part of the duo The Civil Wars. He now has a solo career and is a partner in Single Lock Records. “They are our heroes and mentors and almost like our parents. They never left and taught us through example what we should do. My generation emerged when we could no longer rest on the laurels of their accomplishments.”

The philosophy of leaving room in songs and not overplaying passed down to the next generation of Shoals musicians, too.

“The difference between Muscle Shoals and Nashville musicians is that people who grew up and learned how to play in Muscle Shoals play to the song and just give it what it needs.  What makes records good and different in Muscle Shoals is the space in the songs.”

The Southern Rambler talked with Spooner Oldham and Jimmy Johnson before their show at Bayside Academy about making hit records and giving a song what it needs.

TSR: Do you consider yourselves pioneers of Southern soul?

Spooner: Music in Alabama started a long time before us with Nat King Cole and W.C. Handy, but it has been a long time since that revolution. We are the later version.

Jimmy: The first songs we worked on were “Respect” and “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Before Percy Sledge and “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Muscle Shoals was not on the map. After Percy, we were on the map. Atlantic Records, as big as it was, had never had a number one, million-selling song before. “When A Man Loves a Woman” was their first one.

Jerry Wexler had been working with Stax records in Memphis and they had a falling out. After that, he called Rick and said he wanted to bring Wilson Pickett down to cut some records. When Wilson got to Muscle Shoals, he called Rick a cracker and Rick called him a dangerous man. Pickett was called the Wicked Pickett because he had shot at people. He killed a guy in England and got away with it.  

Wexler took us under his wing and was like a second dad to us until he died. He kept a bag of clothes at my house and I would drop them off at the laundromat. He was the biggest record executive in the world and signed Ray Charles and Aretha.

We had never heard of Aretha when Jerry brought her to FAME. We didn’t think anything would come from it, but it turned out everything would happen because of it. I was 19 or 20 and there was so much pressure on us and we were afraid he would ask us to play something we couldn’t play. He put Aretha at the piano and that made all of the difference. She found her sound. We were trying so hard to make something happen that I guess we did. We had our first flights from Memphis to LaGuardia on American Airlines when he flew us to New York to record more songs with Aretha.

TSR: What was different about recording in Muscle Shoals instead of New York?

Jimmy: The records in New York were set by arrangers who wrote all of the parts down. It was out of the mind of one guy. In Muscle Shoals we did head sessions where everyone contributed. It was one mind versus everyone’s mind.

There are no Jerry Wexlers around now. He had a vocabulary that was so big that I had to carry around a dictionary — he had long words and knew how to use them. In those days the black records were called “race records” and he changed that to “rhythm and blues.”

TSR: At Muscle Shoals Sound, you recorded a new artist each week for 50 weeks a year. How did you keep that going?

Jimmy: Every Monday morning we had a new act and we averaged recording three or four songs a day.

Spooner: That was fun. New artists with new songs kept us going.

Jimmy: We had to come up with a new fresh lick for each song.

Jimmy Johnson and Kelvin Holly at High Tide Southern Music Showcase

TSR: How do you continually come up with fresh licks for so many artists and songs?

Jimmy: Playing together came naturally to all of us. We knew what part to play and we produced ourselves. Very few people came up to Spooner and said, “Give me this lick.” They said, “Spooner, give me a lick.”

Spooner: They liked what we were doing and wanted us to do our thing, and that helped us.

Very few people came up to Spooner and said, “Give me this lick.” They said, “Spooner, give me a lick.” David Hood and Spooner Oldham (Michelle Stancil)

Jimmy: They came to us for ideas and most of the time the ideas flowed. I don’t know why. We started running a song down and the ideas would fly and we got off on what each other did. We all work better under pressure and when you have to, you come through. We also had each other and were used to working together. We worked together every day and trusted each other. We were doing 14 hours a day, seven days week. I went seven years without a day off but I couldn’t wait to get to work the next day. I don’t know how we did it.

TSR: How did you put artists at ease and help them feel comfortable recording in the middle of nowhere in Alabama?

Jimmy: We just smiled at them and let them know we were glad they were there and looking forward to working with them. They wanted us to be interested in their music and we were.

TSR: Tell about recording with the Rolling Stones. They came to you in December 1969 to record three songs, “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses” and “You Gotta Move.”

Jimmy: I was only supposed to assist Jimmy Miller, the producer/engineer for the Rolling Stones, but he didn’t show. They flew in on the largest plane that ever landed at our airport and only three people got off. They had rented a plane the size of an airliner and somehow they all didn’t get on the plane at the last stop.

I found out eight hours before the session that I was going to be the producer. It was our studio and I knew where all of the bodies were buried. It took someone with that capability to assist someone and that is all that I was supposed to do, assist. Instead, I got to cut them.

The session started at 6p.m. for three nights. During the day I was playing on the R.B. Greaves’ Take a Letter Maria album, we had already cut the single and were cutting the album for that. I would take a break at 5:30 to eat and go straight into the studio with the Stones. The first day was “Brown Sugar.” They wrote part of “Wild Horses” in the studio. Keith came up with the guitar riffs and Mick wrote the lyrics. We cut those songs in about six to seven hours each.

A year and a half later they were finishing the album Sticky Fingers and I had almost forgotten about it. Glyn Johns was a renowned recording engineer who worked with the Stones and the Beatles. He called me from England and said, “I have something to tell you,” and I thought something was wrong with the tape. He said, “That rough mix you made, I didn’t beat it.” He let me know that, in his opinion, I beat his mix.

“Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” are two of the biggest songs the Stones ever recorded and I still can’t even imagine working with them, it doesn’t seem like I am worth it. I had no idea what we made there. I didn’t even like the Rolling Stones, but I am so glad Jimmy Miller didn’t make it to Muscle Shoals.

Interview with Spooner Oldham and Jimmy Johnson (Photo by Kate Mercer)

TSR: Most of the stories are about the good times. Was there a dip or down time?

Jimmy: The only time I worried was when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and it appeared that we wouldn’t play on any more black records. The black artists were rebelling against white players because of his death. We were an integral part of Atlantic and Stax and thought that might be it for about a year. We were told we wouldn’t be cutting any more black records and those were our favorite records. We were doing Aretha and the Staple Singers. A lot of the companies did stop for a time. It was a terrible thing, and King was such a great man.

We haven’t had a slack period in our career. Why is that? I don’t know. I just finished about three different projects and will start more. I have a thumb drive that has ten hours of singles we recorded. I am 74 years old. I never thought I would still be alive, much less playing at this age. Playing together helps us keep things alive.

Spooner: I am on several new albums and touring with Peggy Young. The phone still rings, hallelujah, and I still answer it. I am as busy as I have ever been.


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