Paul Fitzpatrick: March 2022
Fresh from exiting The Faces and the UK with its 83% income tax rate in 1975, Rod Stewart made a pilgrimage to a sleepy little town in Alabama with producer Tom Dowd to record his new Album, Atlantic Crossing.
A legendary engineer and producer for Atlantic records, Dowd had worked with Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin and Rod wanted to capture the same gritty, authentic sound by recording at Muscle Shoals studios utilising the same rhythm section as the queen of soul.
On arrival, soul-fan Rod was keen to be introduced to the musicians who had played on all the big hits by Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and The Staple Singers, but he got a shock.
Instead of high-fiving a crew of super cool, soul-brothers, he was introduced instead to four pale dudes with short hair who looked like they worked in the local supermarket.
According to bassist David Hood, Stewart was so thrown by this that he took Dowd to one side and said “Really? Is this a joke Tom?” but Dowd confirmed that the four men affectionately known as the Swampers, were the real deal.
The Swampers were originally recruited to be part of Rick Hall’s FAME studio in 1964 learning their craft on countless sessions, but in 1969 they took the decision to set up their own studio across town when Hall refused to give them a stake in the business.
Encouraged by Jerry Wexler of Atlantic records, the Swampers had eventually come to realise their worth, why else would iconic artists be shunning fancy studios in New York and Los Angeles to travel south to record their platinum albums in a sleepy one-horse town.
One of the first bands to visit the Swampers new studio was the Rolling Stones who flew in for three days, just prior to the infamous Altamont concert.
The sessions produced “Brown Sugar”, “Wild Horses” and “You Gotta Move”.
Keith Richard would later say that it was the Stones most productive recording session and that it’s likely they would have recorded Exile on Main Street at Muscle Shoals if he’d been allowed to enter the US at the time.
One of the unique things about the Swampers was their ability to shape-shift seamlessly between any genre; they’re aim was always to blend with the artists sound whether it be soul, country, bubblegum pop or rock.
This way the Stones still sounded like the Stones, Etta James still sounded like Etta James and Paul Simon still sounded like Paul Simon, but to the trained ear there was always a Muscle Shoals feel.
As an example within weeks of the Stones recording “Brown Sugar” the Osmonds rolled up to Muscle Shoals with a bubblegum pop song called “One Bad Apple”. Looking for a Motown sound they requested a Jackson Five vibe, and that’s exactly what they got.
If you listen to the song you’ll see what I mean…
Once Rod got over his initial shock he would record some of his biggest hits with the Swampers, including “Sailing”, Tonight’s The Night”, “I Don’t Want To Talk About It” and “The Killing of Georgie”.
Perhaps the best example of the sound Rod was after is on his version of the Isley Brothers “This Old Heart of Mine”, where you can hear the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section laying down the type of authentic southern-soul groove that you’d hear on any Staple Singers album.
Paul Simon who had his pick of session musicians and state of the art studios in the 70s also cut some memorable tracks with the Swampers at Muscle Shoals, including – “Loves Me Like a Rock”, “Take Me to The Mardi Gras” and “Still Crazy After All These Years”. The latter showcasing Swamper Barry Beckett’s keyboard skills on the Fender Rhodes.
The kings of Southern Rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd who made their early recordings at Muscle Shoals, would go on to immortalise The Swampers by name-checking them in their 1974 hit, “Sweet Home Alabama”
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 feelin’ blue
Now how about you?
Sadly only one of the original Swampers is with us today, the bassist David Hood. However, before Hawkins & Johnson left us they took part in a great documentary about the Muscles Shoals scene made by film maker Greg Camalie in 2013.
It is well worth a watch, last time I looked it was available to rent on Amazon Prime for £3.99.
Over the years everyone from Bob Dylan to James Brown and Doctor Hook to Dire Straits has travelled to Alabama to capture the magic of Muscle Shoals and it’s amazing to think that it is the same studio, mixing desk and in a lot of cases, musicians, that have created such a diverse catalogue of music.
To help illustrate the point here’s a playlist with a few of the artists that graced the old studio….