Jimmy Johnson, the guitarist for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (a.k.a. “the Swampers”) whose foundational R&B-based playing could be heard on hundreds of records, including iconic hits by Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Wilson Pickett and Lynyrd Skynyrd, died at the age of 76. His death was confirmed by his son Jay Johnson, who did not reveal a cause of death. “He is gone,” his son wrote on Facebook. “Playing music with the angels now.”
“The mighty Jimmy Johnson has passed,” Jason Isbell, who grew up in the Shoals area, said on Twitter. “A lot of my favorite music wouldn’t exist without him.”
Growing up in the South in the 1950s, Johnson was drawn to the blooming sounds of rock, R&B and the electric blues. “I guess you’d say my inspiration was Chuck Berry,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “My parents always tried to get me to play country music and I just didn’t like it that much.”
Johnson began to study the guitar-playing of artists like Berry, Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley. After gigging in the Northwest Alabama area as a teenager, Johnson began working at Rick Hall’s FAME studios in Muscle Shoals in the early Sixties, where he eventually began playing on sessions by R&B greats like Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Clarence Carter. Asked about the secret to his backing band’s ability to back such a wide cross section of American pop music earlier this year, Johnson had a simple answer. “We would try to never play the same lick twice,” he said.
In 1969, Johnson, alongside FAME backup musicians Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett, and David Hood, left Hall to found the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Over the next decade, everyone from Paul Simon and Bob Dylan to Cher and Jimmy Cliff would record at the studio, using the Swampers as their backup band. At Muscle Shoals Sound, Johnson also became an influential recording engineer, serving as the engineer for the Rolling Stones’ famous Sticky Fingers” sessions in 1969, which produced “Wild Horses,” “Brown Sugar” and “You Gotta Move.”
Despite being a member of one of the most foundational session groups in American musical history, Johnson was a humble musician who was never eager for attention. “The best way to put it is we consider ourselves backup players,” he said recently, “not stars.”
In later years, Johnson remained active in the Shoals’ music community, producing and engineering records at his own Swamper Sound Studio and serving as a member of the board for the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Johnson enjoyed a resurgence in the interest of the area after playing a large role in the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals, which told the story of FAME and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
“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 said in 2014, explaining the origin of the name of his band. “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.”