Jimmy Johnson, Muscle Shoals Guitarist, Dead at 76
Jimmy Johnson, the guitarist for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, has died at the age of 76. The musician contributed to work by a wide array of artists, including the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Johnson grew up in Alabama, discovering blues and rock music at an early age. “I guess you’d say my inspiration was Chuck Berry,” he admitted in an interview with AL.com. “My parents always tried to get me to play country music and I just didn’t like it that much.”
After several years performing in various Alabama-based bands, the guitarist found himself working at Rick Hall’s FAME studios, located in the town of Muscle Shoals, AL. While there, he contributed to music by the likes of Franklin, Etta James, and Clarence Carter.
In 1969, Johnson joined forces with fellow FAME musicians Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett, and David Hood. Together the friends founded Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, building their new workplace inside a former coffin showroom. Muscle Shoals became one of the best-known recording studios in the country, in large part due to Johnson and his fellow rhythm section members, nicknamed “The Swampers.”
In 1969, the Rolling Stones recorded part of their Sticky Fingers album there, with Johnson engineering three of the LP’s tracks; “Wild Horses,” “Brown Sugar” and “You Gotta Move.”
“When the Stones came, I wasn’t nervous at all,”Johnson admitted in a 2015 interview with NAMM, “Partially because I didn’t like the Stones then. I wasn’t a big fan, but I was thrilled that they were coming to the studio to record.”
With their popularity high, Johnson and his Muscle Shoals partners moved in 1978 to a larger venue in close vicinity to the original studios.
Between both locations, such vaunted artists as Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Joe Cocker, Levon Helm, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, George Michael, and Cat Stevens recorded alongside Johnson.
Though the musician played with some of the biggest names in music, he never felt like a celebrity. “I think the best way to put it is we consider ourselves backup players and not stars,” Johnson explained, adding that he always found studio work more comfortable than concerts. “It's a little nerve wracking to play to a live audience. When we're in the studio we're playing to a producer and an engineer, usually, and that's the only people through the glass that are hearing what we're doing.”
A 2013 documentary titled Muscle Shoals chronicled the impact the studio and its founders had on modern music. It was warmly received at the Sundance Film Festival and helped drum up public interest in the studio’s history. Muscle Shoals Studios has since become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Alabama.
As for the "Swampers" nickname bestowed on he and his fellow musicians, Johnson took pride in the moniker. “The name was based on all the water around here, the Tennessee River, you know that kind of thing – and it has inspired a lot of our music,” Johnson revealed in 2014. “People have always asked, ‘Why did it happen here? Tell us why?’ And we would say, ‘It’s in the water!’ But we were honored to be a bunch of southern rednecks who were able to play so many different types of music.”
Though a cause of death was not given, Johnson’s passing was confirmed by his son, Jay. “He is gone. Playing music with the angels now,” the younger Johnson posted via Facebook.