Muscle Shoals Has Got the Swampers, Part One
The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section – also known as the Swampers – were important players in the development of American popular music in the 1960s and beyond. Their collectively seamless, almost telepathic musical quality helped create some of the most enduring music in rock, soul, country and other genres. Working first at northern Alabama’s FAME Studio (co-founded and run by Rick Hall, who passed away in January) and later at their own Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the Swampers lent their skills to literally hundreds of recordings, dozens of which would become gold- or platinum-selling hits.
Malaco Records – run by Tommy Couch, the man who bought the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio from the Swampers in the late 1970s – recently released a new compilation CD, Muscle Shoals Has Got the Swampers. The disc takes its title from the lyrics of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and features previously-unheard recordings the group made in its own studio. While those 14 songs are recordings from the 1970s and later, the Swampers’ history goes back much farther.
The founding members of the Swampers – keyboardist Barry Beckett, drummer Roger Hawkins, David Hood on bass, and guitarist Jimmy Johnson – were largely self-taught musicians. “When I started,” says David Hood, “I didn’t know about song construction. I didn’t know that there was a verse, and a chorus, and a bridge, and things like that. I learned all that stuff while I was learning my instrument and playing sessions.”
Hood learned fast because he had to. He had played trombone in his high school band (“that gave me a little familiarity with the bass clef,” he says) and by his late teens had learned a few songs on guitar. But he soon discovered that many of his friends – future Swamper Jimmy Johnson among them – were far more skilled on guitar than he was. “I thought, ‘Wow. Since these guys are ahead of me on the guitar, I’ll play the bass,” Hood recalls. At that time, the town of Muscle Shoals was home to only one or two other electric bassists, and one of them was willing to lend his instrument to Hood.
Meanwhile, Hood was already married and working at his father’s tire store. Once he developed his bass-playing skills enough, he started hanging around Hall’s FAME Studio. “Since I was one of the few people in town that played the bass guitar, I started picking up a little extra work,” he says. Times were good; By age 20, Hood was able to leave his job at the tire shop. “I could do two sessions and make what I was making at the tire store in a whole week,” he says. “I was in high cotton!”
But Rick Hall was one who wouldn’t suffer mistakes, Hood says. “I had to really kick it up a notch and learn quickly.” He notes that the sessions were recorded in monaural, often with all the musicians and singers playing live in the studio. “If you messed up, they had to do the whole thing again. And the wrath of Rick was pretty terrible.”
Looking back, Hood is amazed that he got to play on so many important recordings so early in his own musical career. While noting that his partners Hawkins and Johnson had both been playing awhile, Hood readily concedes he was pretty green when he started out. He says that the same was true for Beckett. “Barry had played at a club down in Pensacola [Florida], but we had to tell him, ‘Go [listen to] a Ray Charles record; you need to sound more black!’ We all had to learn how to do that, and we did it by listening to records.”
The Swampers never considered limiting themselves to a particular style of music. But it wasn’t so much that Hood and his band mates were musical omnivores; there was a much more practical reason. “There weren’t anybody else to do it,” he admits with a good-natured laugh. “We had to at least act like we knew what we were doing, and we were pretty good actors,” he says. “We learned to emulate what we heard quickly.”
In very short order, the Swampers found themselves playing on hit after hit record. And while Hood is quite modest, he does admit that he and his fellow Muscle Shoals players quickly developed a sense of what songs would succeed. Even before Hood got in on the session work, Arthur Alexander and Pickett had both scored hits with tracks cut at FAME.
In 1966, Percy Sledge had just topped the charts with “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and Hood played on sessions for the follow-up single, “Warm and Tender Love” (#17 pop, #5 R&B). He admits, “When you’re following a hit record like ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,‘ you know the next ones are gonna be hits. But hit singles are one thing; songs that endure are something else entirely. “Here I am, 50-some-odd years later,” Hood says. “And who would’ve known that those songs would be classics?”
Occasionally, though, the Swampers would play on a song and then later be surprised when it topped the charts. One example is R.B. Greaves’ 1969 single, “Take a Letter Maria” (#2 pop, #10 R&B). “That was the first big hit we recorded after we left FAME and started our own studio,” Hood recalls. “We did a session with Ahmet [Ertegun], and he brought R.B. in. But hat one just didn’t stand out to us. Of course, it was a great song; it told a story. And then he added those mariachi sounds and horns to it after they got back to New York.”