Jimmy Johnson’s first appearance as a paid guitarist was at the age of 15 at a Saturday night dance at the National Guard Armory in Tuscumbia, Alabama. He earned $10.00 for that night’s “fun,” and he was hooked. He couldn’t believe he was paid for doing what he loved. His first experience in a recording studio was in his Uncle Dexter’s studio across the street from his home in Sheffield, Alabama.
In the early 1960’s he went to work for Rick Hall as the first employee of FAME Studio–doing everything from engineering and typing to “sweeping up” after the session. By the mid-60’s, he had begun playing rhythm guitar on sessions. Eventually he became a regular member of the FAME Gang.
By 1969 he and his partners Roger Hawkins, David Hood and Barry Beckett, decided to form the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
In the 70’s and 80’s Jimmy Johnson was busy producing Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Amazing Rhythm Aces , Blackfoot, Levon Helm, Billy Vera, Billy “Crash” Craddock, Connie Francis, Lloyd Price, The Rossington Band, Luther Ingram, Phil Driscoll, Mickey Newbury, Bob Seger, Paul Simon…with Paul, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was nominated for a Grammy for the production of the album “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”… and many others.
His distinctive guitar fills can be heard on the recordings of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Millie Jackson,Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Dr. Hook, Leon Russell, The Staple Singers, Johnny Taylor, Z.Z. Hill, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Lulu, R.B. Greaves, Luther Ingram, Rod Stewart, Johnny Rivers, Paul Anka, Clarence Carter, Oak Ridge Boys, Boz Scaggs, Dorothy Moore, Cher, Bobby Womack, Jose Feliciano, Art Garfunkle, Tony Orlando and Etta James, “The Right Time,” just to name a few.
Throughout his career he has remained renowned as a recording engineer, having worked the controls on classics such as The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses” and “You Gotta Move.” Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music,” George Michael’s (Solo Version) “Careless Whisper,” The Gants’ “Road Runner” and Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Knock My Love(part 1 and 2).” As a music publisher, Jimmy’s copyright credits include: “Down Home Blues,” “Old Time Rock And Roll,” “Torn Between Two Lovers” and “Starting All Over Again.” MSS Publishing continues to be successful.
In the history of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, one of these bands, The Del Rays, stands out. Unknown to anyone then, within the personnel of this band were two young men, Jimmy Johnson and Roger Hawkins, who later became originators and owners of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. The original site of the first studio was 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield in a former casket warehouse. It opened in 1969 with an addition to Jimmy and Roger-two additional partners, David Hood and Barry Beckett. The foursome became the world famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
Expanding from an eight track to a 24/48 track studio and outgrowing the original facility, the partners agreed to purchase the old Naval Reserve Center not only for its potential as a studio complex, but also for its nostalgic musical background. Oddly enough, the Naval Reserve Center in the 50’s and 60’s was the site for teenage dances and “sock hops.” Young people from the Shoals area met at the center and danced to the music of the local bands. In 1978, the new facility was opened. Today, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio is a state-of-the-art two studio complex located on the Tennessee River in Sheffield, Alabama. The 31,000 square foot structure is steeped in history. Beginning as the city’s power plant in 1903 and later serving as the Naval Reserve Center, the structure has served its many purposes well. Through the doors of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio have come some of the most famous recording artists, musicians, producers, engineers, and song writers from all over the world. The recording sessions at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio have given world-wide audiences countless hours of musical enjoyment.
The new millennium finds Jimmy Johnson at his Swamper Sound Studio, still producing and engineering. He now finds time to extend his interest and talents in support of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame-of which he is a member of the board. Jimmy has played venues that extended the length and breadth of the United States, multiple tours of Europe/Scandinavia with varied artists, and performed two seasons at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. His memories chronicle some of the best rock and roll years; he has been quoted in books and publications such as Sweet Soul Music, Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted, Stars Fell On Alabama, The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones, and Guitar Player Magazine. He was listed in Playboy’s 1983 Jazz Poll. He has been interviewed by public television and heard on the King Biscuit Hour, Sound Tracks of the 60’s with Murray the K, Voice of America, British Broadcasting Company, and radio stations in Scandinavia, Germany, Senegal-West Africa, Holland, and Japan. He can be seen in the rock movie classic “Gimme Shelter.” Jimmy is listed in the Who’s Who of Entertainment/Who’s Who In The World. The original “Benji” movie theme has Jimmy’s rhythm guitar behind the voice of Charlie Rich, while the soundtrack for “Across 110th Street,” is filled with his distinctive rhythm guitar. He and his fellow “Swampers”(a name for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section coined by Denny Cordell and immortalized in the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “Sweet Home Alabama”) were interviewed by David Ritz. The topic was the “Rock/R&B” legend Jerry Wexler with whom Jimmy has a friendship and working relationship for over 35 years. Jimmy has always loved the beautiful Tennessee River-the very same river that inspired the lyrics of Julian Lennon’s song “Vallotte” on his visit to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
Jimmy finds pleasure in the fact that he still loves working in the music industry, still has his permanent residence in the Muscle Shoals area, and is still paid for doing what he loves – being an independent producer/engineer/musician and publisher.
—by Dick Cooper