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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

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.

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