Roger Hawkins: Drummer whose beats appeared on many soul and R&B hits

Roger Hawkins: Drummer whose beats appeared on many soul and R&B hits
The musician recorded during the Sixties and Seventies on tracks such as Aretha Franklin’s Respect and the Staple Singers’ I’ll Take You There

Roger Hawkins, a studio drummer who was the often-uncredited rhythmic driving force behind dozens of soul, R&B and rock hits of the Sixties and Seventies, including Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”, the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” and Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll”, has died aged 75 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Hawkins spent most of his career in relative anonymity as a studio drummer but he was a key force behind what became known as the “Muscle Shoals sound”, named for the Alabama town where he was part of a dynamic and versatile group that played on hundreds of recordings.

They changed their style to suit the music, from Wilson Pickett’s raw R&B to Seger’s mid-Western rock to the Staple Singers’ gospel-tinged soul to Etta James’s energetic “Tell Mama” and heartfelt “I’d Rather Go Blind”.

Even if Hawkins’s name seldom appeared on the albums that climbed to the top of the charts, musicians held him and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section – often called the Swampers – in awe. In Rolling Stone’s list of the top 100 drummers of all time, Hawkins was ranked No 31.

Besides Hawkins, primary members of the Swampers included Spooner Oldham (and later Barry Beckett) on keyboards, Jerry Johnson on guitar and David Hood on bass. They first worked out of Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals before breaking away in 1969, after a dispute over money, to create the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in nearby Sheffield.

The musicians often created arrangements on the spot, building from casual musical sketches. On “When a Man Loves a Woman”, Sledge’s No 1 hit from 1966, Oldham opened with an organ part that came straight from a Sunday morning church hymn, as Hawkins tapped out a steady eighth-note pattern on his ride cymbal, with subtle snare-drum fills. They provided the blank canvas on which Sledge delivered his emotional plea: “When a man loves a woman/He’ll spend his very last dime/Tryin’ to hold on to what he needs.”

Bruce Springsteen’s drummer Max Weinberg wrote in the liner notes of a 1994 anthology Let There Be Drums!: “From the opening roll to the double-time cymbal part in the bridge (the middle section of the song) Roger Hawkins remains in perfect control. It seems as if every bit was planned, so ‘on’ is his execution.”

The gritty, spontaneous style of the Swampers – the name showed up in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song “Sweet Home Alabama” – became as renowned, in its way, as Detroit’s Motown sound or the hard-hitting soul music from Stax Records in Memphis.

Jerry Wexler, an owner and producer at Atlantic Records, used the Muscle Shoals musicians on many of his label’s albums. The Rolling Stones recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in 1969 (but without Hawkins on drums). Some Stax artists even ventured down to Alabama to play with Hawkins, whose versatility resembled that of Los Angeles studio drummer Hal Blaine, who appeared on hundreds of hits.

In 1967, Hawkins and the Muscle Shoals musicians played on several of Franklin’s groundbreaking recordings, including “Respect”, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, “Chain of Fools” and “Think”.

When Wexler didn’t like the original Alabama recording of “Respect”, he secretly flew Hawkins and several other musicians to New York to record the version that became a No 1 hit.

The sound of Hawkins’s snare drum was somewhere between a slap and a rifle shot and he was adept at using all parts of a drum kit, from bass drum to gentle cymbal and feathered hi-hat effects. When he played on Paul Simon’s 1973 hit “Kodachrome”, he tapped a mallet on a flat box filled with paper to achieve a clicking, percussive sound.

For the Staple Singers’ No 1 hit from 1972, “I’ll Take You There”, Hawkins played a modified reggae figure, giving the song much of its loose-limbed vibrancy.

He said in an interview with Modern Drummer magazine: “The way we’d put together those tracks, we would just start playing what we thought would work. If it didn’t, we’d change it to something else we thought would work. If the producer was having fun, we knew we were on the right groove. What we played was all ours. We couldn’t read music. A lot of people didn’t know that – couldn’t read a note.”

Another thing many people didn’t know was that all of the principal Muscle Shoals musicians, who built the foundation for dozens of landmark R&B recordings by black artists, were white.

“I always used to take that as a compliment,” bass player Hood told The Guardian in 1997. “I mean, when the Staple Singers came to record with us they couldn’t believe we were white.”

“There is a great paradox in all this,” Wexler, the Atlantic executive who produced many of those sessions, told The Guardian. “What you need to understand is that these white southern musicians did not learn to play this music from copying records. They play it so superbly because they learned it by living it. They were of the same matrix, the same environment as the black players. When they walked the earth, the same mud was between their toes.”

Roger Gail Hawkins was born 16 October 1945, in Indiana. He moved as a child to his parent’s home state of Alabama and grew up in a rural area near Florence. His father managed a shoe store and his mother worked in a factory.

Hawkins used knitting needles and kitchen utensils as drumsticks before his parents bought him a used drum kit when he was 13. “A lot of the musical influences in my playing come from the Pentecostal church,” he said in 1997.

During the Seventies, Hawkins and other members of the Swampers backed the Staple Singers and toured as members of the British band Traffic but they spent most of their time at their Muscle Shoals studio. Among the performers Hawkins recorded with were James Brown, Etta James, Cher, Jimmy Cliff, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart, Leon Russell, Linda Ronstadt, Jimmy Buffett and Joe Cocker. The core of the Muscle Shoals group drifted apart in the Eighties when the studio was sold, but Hawkins remained active well into the Nineties.

“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,” Hawkins said in 2019.

If there was a secret to the Muscle Shoals sound, it was this: “We loved what we were doing. And when we were in that studio nothing else mattered.”

He is survived by a wife and a son from a previous marriage.

Roger Hawkins, drummer, born 16 October 1945, died 20 May 2021

© The Washington Post