Roger Hawkins

Born: October 16, 1945 in Mishawaka, Indiana

One of the defining elements of early rock’n’roll was its so-called “big beat,” a new, more powerful groove that would change popular music forever. The sound of the big beat was created not by drummers alone, but by the rhythm section as a whole—guitarists, bassists, and keyboard players who came together with the drummer to “supersize” the groove. Many of early rock’s most important rhythm sections came from a particular city, or were allied with a particular record label or studio. By working on hundreds of sessions together (often in very primitive conditions), these musicians developed a special rapport, a unique “sound” that became the signature of countless hits, and made them sought-after by singers, songwriters, and producers.

We’ve already looked at several of these magical rhythm sections, and now we’ll turn our attention to the “Muscle Shoals sound.” Also known as the Swampers, this rhythm section—comprised of keyboardist Barry Beckett, bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, and drummer Roger Hawkins—was assembled in the late ’60s by producer Rick Hall at FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (FAME is an acronym for “Florence, Alabama Music Enterprises”).

Although Muscle Shoals is only 120 miles south of Nashville, the musicians at FAME created a totally unique style, one that fused elements of R&B, soul, rock, and country with the laid-back mood of the Deep South. Thanks in large part to Hawkins’s gritty, heartfelt, and utterly funky feel, that sound transcended any particular genre, and made FAME a destination for musicians from all over the world. In 1966, Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler brought in an unknown singer named Aretha Franklin for her recording debut, resulting in megahits like “Respect,” “Think,” and “Chain of Fools.” Other iconic tracks followed, including “Tell Mama” (Etta James), “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Percy Sledge), “Mustang Sally” (Wilson Pickett), and “I’ll Take You There” (the Staple Singers).

Their initial successes led the Swampers to record in New York and Nashville, and tour with likes of Traffic and Eric Clapton. In 1969, they broke away from FAME and began operating their own recording facility, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. In doing so, they became the first rhythm section to own its own studio and, eventually, its own publishing and production companies. Throughout the next two decades, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and its rhythm section attracted a who’s who of mainstream rock and pop performers to Alabama, including the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Boz Scaggs, Joe Cocker, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy Cliff, and Willie Nelson.