If you've seen the Rolling Stones' movie, Gimme Shelter, you might recall Jimmy Johnson's brief speaking role. He was the one coaching Keith Richards on the proper Alabama pronunciation of "Y'all come back, y'hear." For three nights in December of 1969, the Stones cut basic tracks and live vocals for three songs: "You Gotta Move", "Wild Horses" and "Brown Sugar". The sessions took place at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios — the "burlap palace" at 3614 Jackson Highway — which the four rhythm section members (Johnson, bassist David Hood, keyboardist Barry Beckett and drummer Roger Hawkins) had purchased earlier that same year. Prior to venturing out on their own, the foursome had been the core players at Rick Hall's Fame Studios, where their rhythm tracks had powered soul hits by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Arthur Conley and others.
Since early in his Fame days, Jimmy Johnson had switched roles back and forth, playing fatback rhythm guitar on some sessions and engineering others. His early engineering credits included "Sweet Soul Music" and "When a Man Loves a Woman". But when the Rolling Stones arrived — with little advance notice — Johnson was confronted with something quite other than the relatively low-volume, laid-back soul and pop sessions that were his usual fare. On one hand, you could say the fledgling Muscle Shoals studio was ill-equipped for the task. On the other hand, you might say this was a good thing.
Let recording history be the judge.
In the following interview, Johnson reconstructs (as best can be expected after 32 years) the night that gave us a rock song for the ages.
Let's try to set the scene for those sessions, starting with the console you used.
When we did the Stones' sessions, we had a Universal Audio console with tube modules, the one with the big rotary knobs, knobs as big as your hand. We had 10 inputs. There was some fixed EQ on it, a fixed low end at 100 Hz, and you could go two clicks of boost at 2 and 4 dB, and you could roll back to minus 3. But that's all it was. It also had an echo send on it. Back then, we were using a live chamber. It wasn't until a year after that we got an EMT plate. Of course, we were uptown then!
Did you get the Universal modules new, or from another studio?
We bought all the modules new and put it in our own little console frame. We had a cabinetmaker build us a console, the same as Rick did over at Fame — this was the same thing he had. At the time, it was one of the best things you could get, depending on your budget. Our budget wasn't too big at the time.
And what kind of tape machines did you have?
We had a Scully 8-track, a 1", and it was great. We had no noise reduction, though back then we cut a lot of stuff at 15 ips. We just packed a lot of it on! And the tape was very forgiving, so as a result it turned out well. We got a lot of saturation, and that kind of became part of the sound. I don't even remember any noise reduction at the time. I know there wasn't any when we went up to Atlantic in '66.
So the Stones' "Brown Sugar" was tracked to that Scully?
Yes it was, at 15 ips.
What tape formulation?
Back then it was Scotch (3M), but as far as the name or the number, I really can't remember. It was whatever the top of the line was at the time, and we kept the machine biased and set up for it. I used one roll a night, so three rolls of 1" went back to London with them, along with the rough mixes.
Were you the chief engineer for the studio back then?
Well, at the time we had a couple of guys, Marlin Greene, he was also a guitar player and a producer around town, and there were times when I was playing that he would be engineering. Then we started bringing on assistants. That was in a few years — Steve Melton in about '72 and Jerry Masters in '74 or '75.
But you were the only engineer on hand for the Stones' sessions?
Yes, I did all those myself, along with my assistant, Larry Hamby. It was supposed to be Jimmy Miller, from what I understand, but he didn't show up. It was my intention to assist him when the whole thing started, because I heard they would be bringing their own people. As it was, he never made it down. So I became the unofficial official engineer for all those sessions.
Did that intimidate you, considering their stature and reputation?
Not really. I admit I wasn't that knowledgeable about the Stones at the time, in the sense that I wasn't a big fan beforehand. I admired the success they'd had, but I did become a fan after working with them, I will tell you that. And I feel fortunate to have worked on two of the best-known songs they've done. I have read that both Keith and Mick had thought that "Brown Sugar" and "Honky Tonk Women" were the most commercial singles that they had done, and I felt honored that I'd been in on one of them.
Did you cut all the basic tracks here?
They did some overdubbing later, of backgrounds, saxophone and acoustic guitar. But electric guitars, lead vocals, piano and even the percussion was done right there — Jagger did that. Mick Taylor was on those sessions, of course, and during "Wild Horses" Jim Dickinson showed up, from Memphis. What happened was that their touring piano player, who was...