Given the success of Muscle Shoals, the movie documentary, a resurgence of recent recordings in Muscle Shoals (i.e Gregg Allman and The Black Keys to name just two), and the recent passing of FAME Studios founder, Rick Hall, more people are probably familiar with The Swampers now than were in their heyday. Muscle Shoals Has Got the Swampers, in that sense is a timely release, as Muscle Shoals Recordings, a new imprint of the famed Malaco label from Jackson, MS, has unearthed 14 lost tracks that are presented here for the first time.
The Swampers, of course, was the nickname for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a collection of players that backed many of the great soul and rock n’ roll hits from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; and major soul artists on the Malaco label in the late ‘80s. The dizzying array of names runs from Big Joe Turner, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin through Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, The Staples Singers, and countless others which we’ll mention later. The Malaco artists include Little Milton, Denise LaSalle, Bobby “Blue” bland, Johnny Taylor, Dorothy Moore and others. The Swampers were Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), David Hood (bass), and Jimmy Johnson (guitar) – basically a group of southern white men that many thought were black, given their innate feel for deep soul and R&B.
Comprehensive liner notes come courtesy of Dick Cooper, Muscle Shoals historian and former curator of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. They read like a straightforward chronological history, bereft of juicy quotes or anecdotes. Yet is rather astonishing to read about the staggering number of hits made in Muscle Shoals. One passage that did catch my attention was about Jerry Wexler who loved working in the South. Although he also worked with Stax in Memphis, the majority of his work migrated to Muscle Shoals and Wexler thereby earned the unofficial title of the Godfather of Muscle Shoals Music.
Many of the tracks were recorded between 1969-1978 at The Swampers home base, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, at 3614 Jackson Highway, post their two-year stay at FAME. Others were from the ‘90s and recorded at their second studio at 1000 Alabama Avenue on the Tennessee River. David Hood recalled, “We had so much work that to that we had to get a bigger studio!” Unfortunately, there are no details on the jacket or within the notes to indicate place and year of each track.
The release coincides with the 50th anniversary of Malaco Records. Appropriately enough, the Malaco slogan is “Keeping Southern Music Alive” and founder Tommy Couch began the label with a dream of opening a recording studio with the Shoals musicians who later adopted The Swampers name. Malaco today now includes 13 labels across blues, soul and gospel genres.
For those of you that have extensive record collections, especially in vinyl, it may be fun to explore the credits on many of them. Here’s a short list beyond the names already mentioned of who The Swampers collaborated with. It reads like a roster from The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Names include the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Steve Winwood and Traffic, Dire Straits, Levon Helm, Carlos Santana, Gregg Allman, Bob Seger, Jimmy Buffett, John Hiatt, Melissa Etheridge, Etta James, John Prine, Johnny Taylor, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Arguably, no group of players can boast these storied credentials. Dig in and admire the diversity of styles, ranges, and airtight collaborations.