Roger Hawkins: The Pulse of Muscle Shoals

Roger Hawkins

Photo by Deborah Feingold

by Jeff Potter

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. Advertisement

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. Advertisement

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. Advertisement

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! Advertisement

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. Advertisement

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.] Advertisement

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? Advertisement

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. Advertisement