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

Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

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.

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