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Jimmy Johnson, Engineer, Producer and Swamper, Dead at 76

By Steve Harvey. Producer, engineer and guitarist Jimmy Johnson had a hand in some of the Sixties and Seventies’ most indelible hits, working with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Lynyrd Skynyrd to The Rolling Stones.

Sheffield, AL (September 6, 2019)—Guitarist, engineer and producer Jimmy Johnson, co-founder of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, died on September 5 after a long illness; he was 76.

“The mighty Jimmy Johnson has passed,” wrote Jason Isbell on Twitter. Isbell grew up in the Muscle Shoals area and was signed to his first publishing deal by FAME Studios. “A lot of my favorite music wouldn’t exist without him.”

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Johnson was reportedly the first paid employee at Rick Hall’s FAME Recording Studios, initially sweeping the floors and making coffee. But the musician, who played his first paying gig at age 15, soon made his mark as a session guitarist, playing on sessions by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Clarence Carter. Johnson and his trusty Gretsch 6120 guitar can also be heard on recordings by Wilson Pickett, Millie Jackson, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Dr. Hook, Leon Russell, The Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Z.Z. Hill, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Bob Seger, Lulu, R.B. Greaves, Luther Ingram, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson and many others.

Johnson also displayed an early talent for engineering and production. In 1966, he engineered the first Number 1 record to emerge from Muscle Shoals—Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman.”

In 1969, Johnson left FAME along with fellow session players Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett and David Hood and founded the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Officially known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, but more commonly referred to as the Swampers, a name given to them by pianist Leon Russell, the in-house musicians put their distinctive R&B brand on productions by artists including Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Cher and Jimmy Cliff. The Rhythm Section was nominated for a Grammy in the production category for Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.

One of the first hits out of Muscle Shoals Sound was “Take a Letter Maria” by R.B. Greaves, which was recorded in August 1969. Four months later, Johnson engineered three days of sessions by the Rolling Stones that produced “Brown Sugar,” “You Gotta Move” and “Wild Horses,” which were all included on 1971’s Sticky Fingers album. The sessions were filmed by Albert and David Maysles for their documentary film Gimme Shelter.

Johnson was the first person to record Lynyrd Skynyrd, in the early 1970s. Studio partner and fellow Swamper David Hood is quoted as saying, “When he first signed Lynyrd Skynyrd, nobody thought anybody would want to hear that. But he believed in them, fought for them and never gave up on them.” The Swampers were later immortalized in a verse in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 hit, “Sweet Home Alabama.”

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The Swampers relocated the studio in 1979 (Johnson’s Gretsch was stolen during the move) and sold the facility to Malaco Records in 1985. On the business side, Johnson served as president of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and Publishing companies. He was also president of the Muscle Shoals Music Association. He was vice president of A&R for Capitol/MSS Records, chairman of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame Board, a member of the Board of Governors for the 3M Scotty Awards, a member of the Colbert County Chamber of Commerce and president of MSS Records/Malaco.

Jimmy Johnson •