SHEFFIELD, Ala. (WHNT) – On April Fool’s Day 1969, a little building on Jackson Highway opened its doors and subsequently changed the history of music — and Alabama — forever.
Four young men, merely teenagers, started as session musicians at Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in the mid-60s, known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
Jimmy Johnson on guitar, Barry Beckett on the keyboard, David Hood on bass and Roger Hawkins on drums. It was during their careers as session musicians under Rick Hall that they became inseparable.
While they were still session musicians, Roger and Jimmy got the opportunity to play for Aretha Franklin, including her world-renowned song, “Respect.” In a 2019 interview with AL.com, Roger said, “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.”
While there, the Rhythm Section provided the backing music to many historic artists. It was during that time that the boys earned the name The Swampers.
It is said that English record producer Denny Cordell gave them their name during Leon Russell’s recording session as a reference to “the group’s funky, soulful, Southern ‘swamp’ sound.” The name stuck with them when they left FAME in the spring of 1969 and opened Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (MSSS) on 3614 Jackson Highway.
The cinderblock building, affectionately called The Burlap Palace, had a tin roof that made recording in the rain difficult. The MSSS tour guide Terrell Benton said the Swampers took housing insulation wrapped in burlap attaching it to the ceiling to create a soundproof barrier.
“I think the main thing you need to notice about this little studio is… it does not take a Taj Mahal to make hit records,” Benton said.
And he is correct. The only studio to ever sell more hit records than MSSS is Motown.
The Swampers rented 3614 Jackson Highway from Jerry Wexler, the vice president of Atlantic Records. He began as a Billboard reporter, and coined the term “rhythm and blues” in order to replace the outdated phrase “race music.” In 1953, he was hired by the founders of Atlantic, and eventually owned his own share of the company. He helped the Swampers every step of the way, even up until his passing in 2008.
Wexler was involved with several prolific acts. Notably, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Dusty Springfield and Led Zepplin. Franklin even recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals.
In April of 1969, he brought the first artist to MSSS to record with the Swampers: Cher. The album cover of “3614 Jackson Highway” showed many faces from the studio, and at the top, a graphic artist had superimposed the name of the album onto the building. This ended up inspiring the sign which still adorns the grey cinderblock today. Unfortunately, the album did not sell well.
In December of that same year, a very unlikely group of young men landed at Muscle Shoals airport. The Rolling Stones had initially wanted to record in Los Angles and Memphis, but they only had touring VISAs, and in order to use those recording spaces they needed recording VISAs as well. Wexler told them to come on in, and they could record.
According to Benton, Keith Richards once said, “this is the only studio we’ve ever recorded in where Charlie Watt’s drums sounded like they were supposed to.”
After recording major hits “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” and “You Gotta Move,” the Rolling Stones signed their contract with Atlantic Records sitting inside the restaurant at the Holiday Inn in Florence.
The same day that they recorded “Brown Sugar,” another hit was being made. After the Stones left for the day, R.B. Greaves came in and recorded “Take a Letter, Maria,” resulting in two Number 1 hits in 24 hours.
Artists of all walks of life, races and religions recorded at MSSS. Benton said, “one of the things [I think] the Swampers, particularly David Hood of the Swampers, was most pleased with was that in this studio, in the 60s and 70s, it was not race or color. It was people making art.”
One very notable group that recorded at MSSS was the Staple Singers. Two of their number-one hits, “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself,” are products of the sound stage. In 2022, when the Orion Amphitheater opened in Huntsville, Mavis Staples took performed with David Hood as her backing bassist.
In 1979, the Swampers moved out of the cinderblock building on Jackson Highway and into a larger studio on 1000 Alabama Avenue. In 1985, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio closed its doors. The original building on Jackson Highway was bought in 1999. Ten years later, the Black Keys used the studio to record “Brothers,” one of their most highly regarded albums.
In 2013, the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation purchased 3614 Jackson Highway in order to create a museum. Around this time, a documentary came out about the studio and the culture it helped grow. After it premiered, Dr. Dre’s Beats Electronics awarded the foundation $1 million to return MSSS to a proper recording space. According to a statement, the goal was to “preserve the rich history and culture of the iconic Muscle Shoals Sound.”
Since then, the space has been used as a museum as well as a functioning recording studio. Chris Stapleton’s Grammy award-winning song “Cold” was the last hit out of the building before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Swampers and Muscle Shoals have been entwined in American music history since before the creation of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. Even today, you can’t listen to the radio without hearing their influence.
Benton said, “music is that great language breaker. And what these four young men did here was they created the soundtrack to our lives in Sheffield, Alabama.” From 1969 to today, the music coming out of that tiny cinderblock building on Jackson Highway is continuing to change lives and make history.