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89 Things to Love About Alabama: The Muscle Shoals Swampers

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If you have a radio, you’ve probably heard the Swampers. You just didn’t know you were listening to them.

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two (yes they do)
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue, now how bout you?

Sweet Home Alabama, by Lynyrd Skynyrd

How many years have you been singing this song? Do you know what the above refrain means? The “Swampers”, also known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, are a group of studio musicians who have played on some of the biggest soul, R&B, Rock ‘N’ Roll and country hits in music history. If you have ever listened to a radio, you’ve probably heard the work of these Muscle Shoals, Alabama musicians.

The core of the group was made up of keyboardist Barry Beckett, drummer Roger Hawkins, bassist David Hood and guitarist Jimmy Johnson. According to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, they were nicknamed “The Swampers” because of their “funky, soulful Southern ‘swamp’ sound”.

The quartet started out as the house band for many early soul acts such as Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Etta James. The Swampers’ first No. 1 hit was the epic Percy Sledge song “When a Man Loves a Woman”. After that big break, word got around about these boys in North Alabama.

The Rolling Stones traveled to the north Alabama town in December 1969 and recorded three songs because they wanted to evoke the country, blues and R&B sound of the region. Over three days – from Dec. 2-4 – the Stones put down the basic tracks and live vocals on “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses” and “You Gotta Move”. These three songs debuted on the classic Stones’ album “Sticky Fingers”.

For his 6× Platinum album “Night Moves”, Bob Seger recorded the first four tracks of Side 2 with the aid of these musical magicians. The songs are “Sunspot Baby”, “Mainstreet”, “Come to Poppa”, and “Ship of Fools”. Seger would return to Muscle Shoals to record “We’ve Got Tonight” and “Old Time Rock & Roll” for his 1978 album Stranger in Town, as well as other songs.

Other songs recorded in the famed studio include the following:

  • Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally”
  • Aretha Franklin’s #1 hit “Respect”
  • The Staple Singers’ #1 “I’ll Take You There”
  • Paul Simon “Loves Me Like a Rock”
  • Paul Simon “Kodachrome”
  • Leon Russell “Tightrope”

Other artists who recorded with The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section include Bob Dylan, Elton John, Dr. Hook, Sawyer Brown, Rod Stewart, Duane Allman, Willie Nelson, Boz Scaggs, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Traffic, Joe Cocker, Glenn Frey, Julian Lennon, Delbert McClinton, J. J. Cale, John Prine, Cher, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the Oak Ridge Boys, Jimmy Cliff, and many more.

Cher’s 1969 album “3614 Jackson Highway”.

In 2013, a documentary simply called “Muscle Shoals” was released. It is a must see.

Muscle Shoals Sound eventually moved to a larger space on Alabama Avenue in the late ‘70s and closed in 2005. The original building at 3614 Jackson Highway has since been restored and is now operated as a museum by the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation.