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 also their road manager, Ian Stewart, played on "Brown Sugar" some, but during "Wild Horses" Jim Dickinson was out behind where we put the guitar amps. Do you remember Paul Simon's "Kodachrome" where we went to double time and the tack piano comes in, the piano kind of goes crazy? That was our tack piano, an old upright piano — we put tacks on the hammers so it sounded like a honky tonk. Anyway, Jim was back there just tiddling on it, playing along with what they had settled on as the groove, and Keith walked by and said, "Hey, you need to play that!"
Let's try to reconstruct how "Brown Sugar" was tracked. First, what mics did you have set up, starting with the drums?
We only had three mics on the drums. We ran a Neumann U47 up over the top, about nose high to the drummer. We had a high stand out in front, with the mic facing downward at the kit, from the bass drum in with a little boom that came over the snare. It gave a good overview of the whole kit, so you could play with a lot of dynamics and you could get an incredible sound. In fact, Charlie Watts wanted to buy that microphone! But of course, I wouldn't sell it. He couldn't get over the sound we were getting. On the bass drum we used the E-V 666, a fantastic dynamic mic for the time. It was on a little stand looking to the backside of the drum. Then I had a hi-hat mic, which I think was another [E-V] RE-15, though it could have been a little [E-V] 635A — that remains in question. The RE-15 was a better mic, had more response. We avoided using the 635A unless we had to. Actually, if not the RE-15 it might have been an SM57, more likely than the 635A.
And Charlie brought all his own drums?
Yes, he brought all of this own kit.
What guitar was Keith playing?
It was a Gibson, but not a Les Paul. I think it was a SG, and as I recall it was black. I remember it had those sharp horns on the cutaways. That's what he played most of the time he was here.
And Mick Taylor?
Taylor, to my recollection, was playing a Strat. And guess what we came up with for Bill Wyman? Do you remember those Plexiglas body basses that were around then? I checked with David Hood later and he says it was a Dan Armstrong. So to the best of our recollection, that's what it was. He played through David's Fender Bassman setup, the tube head and separate box.
And the guitar amps?
Keith played a Fender Twin, and so did Mick Taylor, and they brought those in with them. The loudness on those tracks really came from Keith. I had it put in that back booth and shut the door on it.
So Mick's was out in the room?
Yeah, it was out, set where I normally played. If you looked from the control room it was on the left side, about the middle, facing toward the front. You see, we had all these wonderful baffles, covered with burlap, with that pink insulation underneath. We would corner off the sound with a couple of baffles up against each other. It would just knock the directness off, it took a lot of top end off.
So you could balance it out, but not stop leaking altogether.
Exactly, you couldn't really snuff the sound out. It wasn't as evident in the other mics, but it was there.
How did you mic the guitars?
On the guitar amplifiers, let's see, there were two different ones — on Mick's I had a Shure SM57, and on the other I was using... I might have been using a RE-15 on Keith. But I had a real problem with Keith because he was running a Fender Twin amp WIDE open, I mean that sucker was getting it. I had a real problem with distortion going on, but I happened to remember that my maintenance guy had left me a 20dB pad that he had made, so I just stuck it in-between. So I dropped that level before it hit the front of the Universal Audio and it saved the day. Otherwise, I would have been fucked. I still thank God for that. I would have been screwed. So on Keith's amp... oh no, I remember what was on his amp, a RCA 77DX, because I was having to get that level down any way I could, it was a ribbon mic. With the pad and that RCA, I made it, just barely. A lot of that had to do with how it sounded, and I was always real pleased with that guitar sound.
I assume you close-mic'ed the amps.
Yes, they were mic'ed about 2 or 3" from the grille cloth, and with the Twins we would get right in front of one of the two speakers. I'd make sure that both were working all right and that one didn't have a hole.
Did Keith blow any speakers in those sessions?
No, they all held up.
How about the piano mics?
On the piano I was using only one mic, not two, so I had to move it around to find the hot spot. I'm going to have to think on that one. I think it was a U47, that was the other one, because three was all we had. And we used them all on every session. Jagger sang on a U47.
So the U47 on Jagger, that was a live vocal track? Or was it overdubbed?
I don't think so, not unless he had to fix something in London. The only overdub I remember was the percussion that he did. He had mono earphones of course, and they were hearing what the board was hearing, they couldn't get a separate mix.
Did you have a mic on the bass amp?
Yes, the bass guitar mic was an RCA 44. We didn't have direct back in those days.
How much separation could you get in that studio?
Well, Keith's guitar amp was in a booth, and Jagger was in the back of the room with baffles around him. There was some leakage going on, but you couldn't tell because he was so close to the mic. It was part of the sound. The drums didn't have a booth, they were open, but with baffles. But there was a lot of leakage on the drums, cymbals and stuff. But he didn't play real hard.
Really? But there's a lot of impact in the drums on that song, more than on most Stones tunes.
Yeah, it's that mic and the way we set it. Even today, that would be a good way for a rock band to mic their drums, if they like some great live drumming sound. They would be surprised to find that sometimes less is more. I think it would blow them away. The sound of Keith's guitar is so good — I really attribute it to that RCA DX77 with the pad, going into that Universal Audio tube console which warmed it up, too. Pretty wild, huh?
How many tape machine tracks did you use on "Brown Sugar"?
I'm sure we did 6 o r7, maybe 8. Well I did have one track left for Jagger's percussion overdub, so I must have had at least one open for overdubs. I think that they probably transferred to 16-track when they got to London and did the overdubs on that.
What were the control room monitors back then?
We had a pair of EV 9844s. They were basically a 2-way, with two 12-inch woofers in each cabinet, and then a horn on top. The horn looked very much like what they had on the old Altec Voice of the Theater. And the power amps were a pair of mono, 75-watt, Macintosh tubes. All in all, it was pretty good monitoring. The weakest parts were the console, which sounded great but was limited in what it could do. And we didn't have tons of great mics. We had three of the U47s, and I think the next mic we got was the 67... but the Stones happened in our first year. We incorporated Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, imagine this, on April 1 of 1969. I didn't even know that date until we looked at the papers a couple months later, and we had a good laugh about it.
Did you get credit for engineering those songs?
Not specifically, though I did get credit on the album as one of the engineers. But they didn't mention the studio at the time, though they do now on the re-releases. They didn't at the time because immigration didn't know they would be recording here, they didn't have the proper papers. They didn't have a visa to record.
Did you use any compression on those tracks?
None. At the time, I did not have a compressor in the building. It was a couple more years before we had compressors. The only outboard gear was that 20 dB pad, that's all I remember.
What about board EQ? Did you use much of that?
Mostly, on all sessions, I would use one click or two on the highs to air it out. It was set at around 3 or 4 k, with 2dB steps - you could go to 2 or 4. We had 100 Hz for the low end, and I guess around 3500 Hz for the high.
Did you do any rough mixes, and save them?
Yes I did. Glyn Johns [Tape Op #109] called me and said he had to let me know something. "What's that?" I asked. He said, "I never was able to get the sound of the mix you got on the rough, I had to tell you that. I got close, but it was no cigar!" I said, "I can't believe you called to tell me that, but I wish you had got it." But what he ended up with sounded good to me.
So when they left, they took everything out with them?
They carted everything out of here, and they had people going around checking. But I did sneak a rough out, though I don't have it now. I played it to people for years. It sounded pretty close, the vocals were right on and the guitars sounded the same. The only things I could tell for sure were that backgrounds were added, and I know we didn't do that, and the sax. And that's about it.
How many takes did they do before they got a keeper?
That was interesting. With all three songs, they would just start out and Jagger would have an idea. They would start — it was like bedlam, you didn't know what was going on. Everybody was trying to come up with a lick. For 3 or 4 hours, they would just be noodling around, real unorganized. Usually Keith would come up with the pattern. About hour four into the night they would all fall in with him. Charlie would be out in space somewhere until the pattern was set. Then he would come in and the bass would fall into place, and by hour five they were singing. About that time I would really start paying attention, because there was no producer up in the booth to tell me when to roll tape. Just from my experience, I knew that if they went past it, they would never get it again. So I am sure that, without being officially the "producer", I did a lot of what the producer did on their dates. Jagger and Richard really produced the record and arranged it. And Jagger was writing it on the spot the way I saw it. By hour 5 or 6, the thing was cooking. And it happened all three nights, in that sequence, and usually before hour seven we would have it cut. But I remember when the groove started to happen I would start rolling the tape, and I didn't even tell them. Though I guess they could probably see the lights on the recorder through the control room window. So then it came down to choosing the cut, they would stop after a take and ask, "Is that it?" And I would say, "I think you need one more, there's another one in ya." And they'd do it again, and I'd say, "Come on in, I think you got it." And that was it. So I wasn't rolling for 5 hours, but just for the last 20 minutes. When the song really got to grooving and started getting there I would roll it.
Was it the third and last take that was used for the final mix?
It was about third take on each song, once I started taping them. I don't remember it being any quicker than that. But I knew that if they did another one, it would have gone backwards. And I don't think you can argue with those takes!
Certainly not from today's vantage point! But back then, did you have a feeling it would be a huge hit?
I don't think anybody knows how well a record will do, but I fell in love with them. They were grooving me to death. But you never really know. I remember when we cut "When a Man Love a Woman" with Percy Sledge, I was the engineer on that, and it was all mono... and guess what, of all the songs from those sessions, enough for an album, I picked "When a Man Loves a Woman" as third. Think about it!
I remember Barry Beckett saying he was sitting outside on the steps and could feel the building shaking.
Yeah, when they started grooving around 1 in the morning, when I started the machines, it was an unbelievable thing. I have not experienced anything quite like that since.
At the very end of the track, as the music trails off in the room, you can hear somebody say "Yeah!" Who was that?
You know, I don't know who did that. I think only the band would know. Could have been Mick Taylor. Or maybe Charlie Watts. I don't think it was Keith.
I'm still not altogether clear on why the Stones came down there. Was it to record, do a distribution deal, or both?
It was all Ahmet's idea, from what I heard. [Ahmet Ertegun was a prolific producer and president of Atlantic Records.] He was producing R. B. Greaves at the studio that week, and it just came up a few weeks before. He gave me a call and said they want to do it the same week as we're doing R. B.'s album, which is highly unusual for us. Because I was working on guitar from like 10 to 5:30 every day, then Monday through Wednesday we had the Stones start at 6:30 PM and work until... And I was doing both sessions. All the lawyers were down here as well, the Stones' lawyers and the Atlantic lawyers. Jerry Wexler was there, and Ahmet was there too, though he was at the studio most of the time. But all the lawyers were meeting to work out distribution of the Stones' new label in America with Atlantic. That's exactly what happened. It wasn't done in New York or London — it was done at the Holiday Inn in Florence, Alabama.
What was the studio like acoustically?
It was semi-dead, not really totally dead. But not real bouncy, though some of the top end got that way. At the time we did the Stones some of that was kind of bouncy, the drums and the cymbals. We never did close the drum booth in totally, but we put a roof on it and left an area to leak out, and it really worked well.
As I recall, that studio wasn't particularly big, right?
The studio was 25 foot wide and about 55 foot long, and that was the part that included the studio and the control room as well. The control room was only about 12 feet deep, very small. The iso booth was about an 8 x 10 room with about a 12 foot ceiling, back at the far left rear of the studio. Well, actually it was toward the front of the building, because the office for the four of us was connected to that booth, and then after the booth the studio started. So that half of the building... half of it was the booth, the other side was our office. A little buffer from the road noise on Jackson Highway. Acoustic treatment was insulation covered with burlap on the walls and ceiling... though we had a strip where you could see the concrete block walls. Then every 4 feet there was a piece of plywood up with the insulation and burlap. Now where we had bare concrete showing we put up these strange acoustic devices which were really leftover packing materials. They were used for packing electrical meters for houses, and we picked them up down at the power company. It was a funny shaped thing that Rick Hall had over at FAME, so we copied it. We would paint those things and then tack them into the concrete.
So is that what's in the photo of you and Wilson Pickett at Fame?
Yeah, that's what those are. Rick came up with idea. They had plenty of them in the warehouse — it was a real thick cardboard. I don't know if they helped at all. They might have been more decorative than anything else.
I saw this list of Stones sessions on the 'net, purportedly a complete record of Stones sessions, and it said that some of the takes on these songs were erased.
That must have happened later, maybe after they transferred to 16-track in London.
So maybe that means that the takes not used on the 8-track were erased after they transferred to 16?
I don't know. But we didn't erase anything. We cut the songs, put the tapes in the vault and started back the next day with a new tape. We did one song per night, one roll each. I kept a 7.5 [ips] mix they didn't know I had.
Were the roughs done in stereo or mono?
Just to mono, on our Ampex machine. We didn't get stereo for another couple years. I think Rick might have had a 2-track Scully at the time. Before '67, all we had at FAME was two mono machines, that was it! We cut a lot of huge hits, like "Mustang Sally" and "Land of 1000 Dances" on those mono machines. Of course when they took it to New York, they overdubbed the background singing, the Sweet Inspirations, but other than that, everything was done on the spot, to mono, with the horns live. Most of the things were live in those years. We might put on a tambourine or horns by bouncing to the other machine, particularly if we didn't have the horn section. But otherwise, it was all done at once. It was a good way to learn this business, I'll tell you.