Obituary: Roger Hawkins, Muscle Shoals drummer, co-founder (75)

A collection of interviews, reviews, and obituaries dealing with the life and times of Muscle Shoals drummer Roger Hawkins.

21 May 2021 | James Porteous | Clipper Media

Roger Hawkins (Drummerworld)

Without a doubt, 1969 is the most important year in the career of drummer, producer, and songwriter Roger Hawkins, without whom the pop music of the ’70s would have sounded quite different. But that date has yet to be as firmly established as the official founding of the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, an enterprise also involving splendid rhythm guitarist Jimmy Johnson, spunky bassist David Hood, and special keyboardist Barry Beckett.

For much of the following decade this became the “in” rhythm section for a variety of artists whose main concern was either chart success or the desire to achieve it.

Hawkins’ drumming is featured on projects by Paul Simon, the Staple Singers, Leon Russell, Sam & Dave, Cher, Bob Seger, Eddie Rabbitt, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt, and Percy Sledge. That, of course, is just a short list.

The drummer started out gigging at dances and clubs in Alabama and Tennessee, eventually leading to a house band gig at an Alabama studio optimistically called FAME. In this capacity, he backed up some of the finer recordings of soul giants such as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, establishing a snare drum snap so dynamic that at times it seemed as if the stick had been fired from a tightly-wound crossbow.

The aforementioned guitarist Johnson was one of his associates from this studio, and by the end of the ’60s they had stepped out to start their own Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The rock giants were soon flocking, with some, such as Winwood and later, Eric Clapton, also nabbing Hawkins for touring assignments.

Often in partnership with Beckett, Hawkins has also branched into songwriting and production. The duo were responsible for the hit entitled “Starting All Over Again” by Mel & Tim, and have also produced tracks for Paul Simon, Bob Seger, and Canned Heat, among others. After selling their original studio early in the ’90s, Hawkins opted to continue managing the facility under the new owners. His expertise both as a player and philosophical overlord has continued to be in demand throughout the overlapping styles of rock, rhythm and blues, gospel, and country.

Roger Hawkins: The Pulse of Muscle Shoals

Jeff Potter | Modern Drummer

Roger Hawkins stands as one of the great studio drummers of all time. As a member of the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Hawkins was the driving engine behind scores of soul/R&B classics. His unshakable time, southern-infused deep pocket, and commanding, song-serving drum parts placed him in high demand with producers.

As house drummer at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Hawkins cut a mother lode of landmark ’60s hits including Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” and Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” And when Atlantic records brought their newly signed artist Aretha Franklin to record with the southern rhythm section, the union produced a long string of Queen of Soul classics, including “Respect,” “Think,” and “Chain of Fools.”

Also known as the Swampers, the core rhythm section of Hawkins, bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, and keyboardist Barry Beckett became so highly in-demand that they left FAME in 1969 to found their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, where they continued to lay down killer rhythm tracks for the top names of soul, rock, R&B, country, and blues.

Hawkins’ enormous album discography also includes titles by the Staple Singers, Etta James, Clarence Carter, James Brown, Joe Tex, Bobby Womack, Albert King, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy Buffett, Ry Cooder, Willie Nelson, Cat Stevens, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Duane Allman, Levon Helm, Herbie Mann, the Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama, Solomon Burke, Millie Jackson, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Eric Clapton, Glenn Frey, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Seger, Traffic, Patti Austin, Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Joan Baez, Laura Nyro, Paul Simon, Duane Allman, Bobby “Blue” Bland, J. J. Cale, Boz Scaggs, Rod Stewart, and more.

In a companion article in the June issue of MD, Hawkins discusses four of his watershed soul sides. Here he reminisces on other memorable sessions and offers much drumming wisdom.

MD: When Atlantic Records first brought Aretha Franklin down to Muscle Shoals to record with you and your session mates, there was an infamous mishap that almost derailed music history.

Roger: There was a little row in the studio between a trumpet player and Aretha. He did something he wasn’t supposed to do: it was pinching! So the next day, I went into the studio and looked up on the calendar board and it said No Session Today.

I started calling around and everybody was telling me different stories. But what I heard was that the trumpet player pinched Aretha on the ass, which pissed off her husband, and they went back to the hotel and then left for home.

Upon [Atlantic producer] Jerry Wexler’s displeasure with what happened, he discreetly called us later on and said, “Would you guys be interested in coming to New York to record?” We said, “Sure! Put us in, coach!” So he flew us to New York and we resumed the sessions there at Atlantic Studios at 1841 Broadway.

At first I was a little nervous, because I was out of my element. I’d been playing at FAME studio and some other demo studios. So to go to New York with a big project like that was scary.

MD: Were you just working from sketchy charts?

Roger: Usually the piano player would do a numbers [chord] chart, and that was just a map for the verses, choruses, and turn-arounds. Nobody really suggested anything to play; we would interpret it. Now that I look back at what we did, in addition to being musicians, we were really arrangers as well. It was up to us to come up with the part. That was the rule back then: producers wanted us to come up with some parts.

MD: Before recording with you, Aretha had recorded for Columbia. But her soul sound didn’t come to fruition until she was teamed with the Muscle Shoals musicians. In addition to your church influence, what was the background that fostered your funky feel?

Roger: I grew up on country music, like most people in the South. But when I was very young, I was playing in a band with Jimmy Johnson and other fellas. We would go to the University of Alabama to play frat parties. And on the way up and back, we would listen to Wolfman Jack and also John R [Richbourg] out of Nashville. He was a radio personality who was a legend to Jimmy and me. He played all R&B; there was no country music on his show. He would play all this funky stuff, and we just loved, loved, super-loved it. We were already playing rock ’n’ roll, but we decided we loved that. We didn’t know how to do it, but we wanted to learn. We listened every chance we got. We also listened to a lot of Philadelphia, a lot of Motown, a lot of California, and tried to soak it up as much as we could.

MD: Paul Simon travelled to Muscle Shoals Sound and recorded two big hits with the Swampers: “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock.”

Roger: Paul came in and we were just in awe—awe! Because we’d heard all about the session players who spent days making an intro. [laughs] He sat down in a chair with his guitar and he said, “Fellas, I’m going to play you some songs. Just tell me which ones you like.” He played and we said, “Yeah! That ‘Kodachrome’ sounds pretty good.” He let us pick the songs!

MD: “Kodachrome” had an unusual feel for a pop hit.

Roger: I call it a loping feel. That was the drums, but that didn’t get the feel enough [sings a relaxed galloping repeated pattern of an 8th note coupled with two 16ths]. And I sure as hell couldn’t play it on the bass drum. So I got an old two-inch tape box, like the big reels used to come in. I put some newspaper in the box and played the pattern on it with hard vibes mallets. I listened back to it, though, and it wasn’t quite cutting through. So I kept changing the packing in the box until it came through well. [laughs] That’s where the loping feel comes from. I don’t know if that drum part would have sounded that good without it.

MD: You recorded quite a bit with Bob Seger, including the monster hits “Old Time Rock and Roll” and “Main Street.” That called for a different sound and feel.

Roger: I always liked to play different things. But, basically, that was just rock ’n’ roll like I’d played it a thousand times before. [laughs] All of the stuff I’ve played—I’ve been listening to music since I was three years old—if you love music, as the years go by, you catalog things in your mind. Like, “Well, that sounds like so-and-so.” On “Main Street,” Pete Carr played that signature guitar intro and I just played what I felt.

MD: Willie Nelson came to Muscle Shoals to record—an unusual move because he usually recorded in Nashville.

Roger: It was an album called Phases and Stages. We, as a rhythm section, played on the whole album. It was not a hit album. But Jerry Wexler loved Willie and he wanted to bring him to the studio, and he did.

As I walked into the studio, there was Willie Nelson and Jerry. And Jerry had his notes going. From afar, I could see them discussing how we were going to do it. When I passed by to go to the drum booth, I heard Willie Nelson say, “Jerry, if it’s okay with you, we can just do side one, take a break, then do side two.” And Jerry said, “I’d rather have a little more control over it than that!” Willie was prepared to do side one of his album live, then do the other side live.

It scared me. I thought, “Good God! There’s no way I could do this. There are only one or two guys I’ve known who could do it—that’s Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon. They could go up there and just cut it right to disc.

But Jerry Wexler did at least suggest to Willie that he’d like a little more control, so he wanted to record it with our 8-track machine. [Note: the entire album, released in 1972, was completed in only two days.]

MD: What drums did you use for your house kit?

Roger: Most of the time it was Ludwig because I had always dreamt of Ludwig. I would look at the catalog every month and dream, dream, dream.

MD: Any tuning preferences for recording?

Roger: I tried to tune them to the song—whatever would fit in with the song and the way the singer was singing.

MD: In the sense of attack and/or pitch?

Roger: I didn’t look at it that way. I thought of it as, “I feel this song,” and I tuned my drums for that song because I felt it in a certain way. If it came down to putting tape all over the drums, that’s what I would do.

What you really don’t want—and everyone knows what I’m talking about—is when you get your drums tuned like you want, then hit the tom-tom, and the snare goes off ringing. I discovered that I could hit the tom-tom, then very lightly use my index finger and go around the snare drum. And usually there would be a place—often at the edge—where it would stop the ringing. So that’s where I would put a little piece of tape. And those little sticky things that came out later were the greatest things in the world.

MD: Being a successful studio player, delivering a perfect, magic track on demand, is a high art. A lot of drummers understand it intellectually but don’t ultimately deliver it. What’s your advice?

Roger: One simple thing: don’t be doing tom-tom fills when the singer’s singing. [laughs]

But, talking about the grooves on these tracks, we had a rhythm section that no one else had—maybe besides Booker T. & the M.G.’s. When “Green Onions” came out, I went directly to the record store and then started learning about Stax as well. [M.G.’s drummer] Al Jackson was a big influence. I listened to him a lot.

The way we’d put together those tracks, we would just start playing what we thought would work. If it didn’t, we’d change it to something else we thought would work. If the producer was having fun, we knew we were on the right groove. What we played was all ours. We couldn’t read music. A lot of people didn’t know that—couldn’t read a note.

Every musician strives to be the best they can. Not every musician gets the chances I had. Some new studio players have an attitude of, “Man, I’ve got to play something great here—gotta play the fast stuff to be hired again.” That’s not the way to go. I’ve always said this: I was always a better listener than I was a drummer. I would advise any drummer to become a listener.

Swampers drummer, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio cofounder Roger Hawkins has died

20 May 2021 |  Matt Wake |

Roger Hawkins, one of the most influential, accomplished and danceable drummers in American music history, has died. Hawkins was 75.

Hawkins was a member of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the studio musicians better known as The Swampers, thanks to being immortalized in the lyrics to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Southern-rock anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.”

The Muscle Shoals Music Foundation confirmed Hawkins’ death to In recent years, Hawkins suffered from myriad health problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and died after an extended illness.

“We are going to miss his funny memes and texts and calls to us at the studio,” Muscle Shoals Music Foundation executive director Debbie Wilson said. “He had such a great sense of humor and loved to talk about drumming always.”

Born in Mishawaka, Indiana and a longtime Shoals resident, Hawkins played on classic R&B and rock hits including: “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett; “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge; “Respect,” “Chain of Fools” and “Think” by Aretha Franklin; “I’ll Take You There” by The Staple Singers; “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger; “Slip Away” by Clarence Carter; and many others.

Perhaps his most immortal groove, and he created many of those, powers 1966 Pickett smash “Land of 1000 Dances.” Particularly the infectious breakdown pattern, played on Hawkins’ gold-sparkle Ludwig kit and Speed King kickdrum pedal. That beat has shook many tailfeathers and souls. And always will.

During a 2019 interview, Hawkins told me he didn’t know why his beats had stood the test of time so well. “I never sat around and thought, ‘I’m going to make up the part that’s going to be known for 40 years. It was just doing what you felt.”

Photo by Deborah Feingold

Hawkins’ passing leaves bassist David Hood as the only surviving Swamper. Guitarist Jimmy Johnson died in 2019 and keyboardist Barry Beckett in 2009.

“I was a better listener than I was a player and I think the other guys were too,” Hawkins said in 2019. “Because they loved music and they had catalogs of music in their brains, just like I had a catalog of stuff where I could pull out certain things and make it work with newer stuff.”

The Swampers’ funky, empathetic accompaniment made them music’s hit-making secret sauce, in the mid ’60s at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios and then their own Muscle Shoals Sound in Sheffield, founded in1969.

“We didn’t really plan it that way, but looking back now we all lived virtually within minutes of where we went to work every day,” Hawkins said in 2019. “And we loved what we were doing. And when we were in that studio nothing else mattered. We had such a good time making things sound like what we wanted them to sound like, hoping people would like what we’re doing.”

RELATED: The 20 best songs ever recorded in Muscle Shoals

Hawkins first became interested in rhythms while watching services at his Pentecost church as a youth. Soon he was beating on pans and pots at home, using crochet needles instead of drumsticks.

From there, he saved up two bucks or so for some real drumsticks, and later brushes, and would sit on the floor in his family’s home and drum on cannisters, tinfoil and, later, a practice pad. He did this for three years before his father finally bought him a used three-piece Slingerland drumkit when Hawkins was age 13. He’d been drumming without drums, just those sticks and brushes, for at least three or four years.

With actual drums to play on now , Hawkins was thrilled. “Put them in the living room and I slept on the couch so when I would wake up I would see the drums,” Hawkins said. “I wanted to make sure they were still there, and I couldn’t believe it. I did a lot of playing on those little drums.”

His musical influences included Stax Records drummer Al Jackson, whose playing helped inspired Hawkins’ dramatic and nuanced work on “When A Man Loves a Woman. “Through listening to Al Jackson is how I learned to build a drum part in a soul ballad,” he said.

Hawkins felt a special musical bond with Aretha Franklin. The first song he cut with the gospel singer turned soul star was at FAME, the smoldering ballad “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” also Franklin’s first real hit. Later, sessions took place at New York’s Atlantic Studios.

After cutting his drum track for Franklin’s sassy Otis Redding cover “Respect,” Hawkins sat in a chair and watched Aretha and her sisters overdub the song’s “sock it to me” backing vocals. “At the time I thought, ‘This is really cooking,’” Hawkins says. “I never realized what kind of history was being made, but I knew that I liked it a lot.”

As told in the 2013 “Muscle Shoals” documentary film, Hawkins, Hood, Beckett and Johnson parted ways with FAME’s legendary owner/producer Rick Hall in 1969, and founded their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, just minutes away in Sheffield. Pop singer/actor Cher was the first artist to record there at 3614 Jackson Hwy. and even named her resulting album (of Dr. John, Bob Dylan and Buffalo Springfield covers) after the studio’s address.

At 3614, a humble cinderblock building and former coffin factory, Muscle Shoals Sound produced some of the most enduring music recordings ever. The Rolling Stones recorded “Wild Horses” here. It’s where Staple Singers cut “I’ll Take You There.” More recently, The Black Keys cut their breakthrough album “Brothers” there.

In 2019, Hawkins told me of all his drum tracks, he was proudest of 1972 gospel/funk gem “I’ll Take You There.” The Swampers had recently spent time in England where they’d been turned-on to Jamaican reggae music. Hawkins thought a reggae groove, with the kick drum on two and four beats just like the snare, would be a good fit for “I’ll Take You There.“ That didn’t work.

So he shifted the the kick to the one and three, and pulled the drum microphones down closer to the snare. Playing cross-stick, he peppered the groove with “little unexpected hits like a timbale would make,” he said. “It was really different. I basically went in with a plan that did not work and changed it around to where it did work.”

Additional essential Hawkins drumming can be found on Wilson Pickett’s Beatles cover “Hey Jude” (which boasts a solo from future guitar hero Duane Allman) and Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

The hundreds of sessions he played on also include recordings by Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Otis Redding, James Brown, Johnny Taylor, Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey, Boz Scaggs, Candi Staton, Jimmy Cliff, Levon Helm, Delbert McClinton, Steve Cropper, Alicia Keys and many more.

Hawkins was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2008.

In addition to history they made together at Muscle Shoals Sound and FAME, Hawkins, Beckett, Hood and Johnson also for a time in the ’70s joined Steve Winwood’s British jam-band Traffic, known for songs like “Mr. Fantasy.” They can be heard on Traffic’s studio LP “Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory and the live album “On The Road,” both released in 1973.

In 2019, Swampers bassist David Hood told that Hawkins, “has a great natural feel in his playing that I’ve not seen anybody else have. I work with a lot of great drummers, but I haven’t found anybody better than him at recording.”


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