Roger Hawkins and Mavis Staples Roger Gail Hawkins (1945-2021) was an Alabama-raised musician who became internationally renowned as a principal drummer, percussionist, and record producer associated with the Muscle Shoals music scene. He built his storied career as a founding member of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (MSRS) and a founder of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Colbert County. Hawkins was influenced by many musical styles, including jazz and reggae, but more importantly by the mixture of rhythm & blues (R&B), country, and rock and roll that is often referred to as country-soul and was a principal innovator of recording studio drumming techniques. He, in turn, influenced many drummers and other musicians. Indeed, from the mid-1960s through the late 1990s, Hawkins was the heartbeat of the “Muscle Shoals sound,” a unique amalgam of black and white cultural traditions born of the proximity to recording centers in Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee.
Hawkins was born on October 16, 1945, in Mishawaka, Indiana, to John A. Hawkins and Merta Rose Haddock; he was an only child. The family moved to Lauderdale County in the late 1940s. His father, from Waterloo, Lauderdale County, worked as the manager of a shoe store in Florence, and his mother was raised in Lutts, Lauderdale County. Hawkins spent several summers in Mishawaka with an aunt who brought him to Pentecostal church meetings with substantial performances of sacred music that instilled an early interest in drumming. Hawkins attended several local parochial and public schools. Other early exposures to music in the 1950s came through piano lessons at school, a brief stint with private lessons, and rhythm practice on a toy drum his father bought him after he noticed his son’s inclination to drumming on kitchenware. Hawkins had one drum lesson during which he learned basic rudiments. In the late 1950s, he met Spooner Oldham at a Florence recreation center and joined his band, Spooner and the Spoons; they played their first paying gig in Collinwood, Tennessee. Hawkins bought a Ludwig Hollywood gold-sparkle drum set and like many young musicians studied techniques and styles by listening to records, bought at Ryan’s Piano Company in Florence. He practiced unrelentingly, listening to jazz and R&B records such as Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and Ernie K. Doe’s “Mother in Law.”
FAME Studios, 1967 Around 1960, Hawkins met future MSRS member Jimmy Johnson at a dance at the Tuscumbia Armory and soon joined Johnson’s band, The Del Rays, and playing at nearby college fraternity gigs. In the early 1960s, Hawkins worked in night clubs in Atlanta, Macon, Orlando, and even as far as Chicago. Discouraged, he returned to the Muscle Shoals area, took a job at an auto body shop, and soon joined demo sessions at FAME and Quinvy Studio. When Arthur Alexander‘s 1961 hit “You Better Move On” charted on FAME’s record label, Hawkins was able to pursue music recording in Muscle Shoals full time due to the increasing popularity of the studios with other musicians and resulting availability of work. Soon he recorded demo sessions at FAME with Jimmy Johnson, Spooner Oldham, and Dan Penn and appeared on releases including Spooner & the Spoons’ (often working under the name Dan Penn & the Pallbearers) “Wish You Didn’t Have to Go” (1964) and The Del Rays’ “Fortune Teller” (1965). Concurrently, he met local drummer Mike Shepherd who was working with Hollis Dixon & the Keynotes at the Tuscumbia Armory. Shepherd, a drum instructor and eventual member of the U.S. Navy Band, showed Hawkins jazz techniques that became part of his repertoire.
At Quinvy Studio (also named Norala) in Sheffield, in February 1966, Hawkins played on Percy Sledge‘s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the song that would launch his career as a studio drummer. The session resulted in a No. 1 hit on both the R&B and Pop charts, and it was Atlantic Records’ first No. 1 hit. As a result, Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler brought Wilson Pickett to FAME to record “Land of a Thousand Dances” in May of 1966. The song also reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and Wexler immediately recognized Hawkins’ talent as a studio drummer. Indeed, Hawkins would become a pioneer in developing studio recording techniques for drumming during the 1960s. The principle process of these studio techniques is playing back recorded “takes” and reexamining and revising the decisions that went into the concept of the performance. Overall, Hawkins was among the great drumming innovators, from Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich to Earl Palmer and Al Jackson Jr., and that makes his career profoundly significant in the history of American music.
Wilson Pickett at FAME Studios More Wilson Pickett sessions followed in the fall of 1966. Hawkins’ playing on Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” and “Funky Broadway” in February 1967 became classic examples of soul drumming. Buoyed by his confidence in Hawkins’ drumming style, Wexler brought Aretha Franklin to FAME in January 1967 to record the future hit “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).” The session proved Hawkins’ notable sense of timing, technical proficiency, articulation, and understanding of dynamics. While technically adept, Hawkins’ sense of style and taste for accompaniment are primary ingredients of his “time-feel.”
Within days of the FAME session, Hawkins was in Atlantic Records Studio in New York City and contributing his talents to Franklin’s classic soul hits “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Think.” Back in Muscle Shoals during 1967 and 1968, Hawkins recorded with Clarence Carter (“Slip Away”), Wilson Pickett (“Hey Jude” with Duane Allman), Arthur Conley (“Stuff You Gotta Watch”), and Etta James (“Tell Mama”). In the two-plus years between Franklin’s arrival at Fame in 1967 and the formation of MSSS in April 1969, Hawkins defined the much-revered style of soul drumming gracing more than 50 tracks for Atlantic Records made at the pinnacle of its recording industry presence.
Hawkins, with Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, and David Hood founded MSSS in April 1969 at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield. Working at the original studio location for almost a decade, Hawkins, as the MSRS drummer, propelled hundreds of recordings by a diverse and cosmopolitan roster of singers, songwriters, and recording artists including James Brown, Solomon Burke, Cher, Jimmy Cliff, Joe Cocker, Ronald Bertram “R. B.” Greaves, Luther Ingram, Lulu, Linda Ronstadt, Leon Russell, Boz Scaggs, Rod Stewart, Livingston Taylor, and Willie Nelson. Hawkins’ playing on records by STAX artists at MSSS during the years 1970-1975 contributed to the highly original sounds on albums by artists including William Bell, Johnnie Taylor (Taylored in Silk), The Staple Singers (Be Altitude: Respect Yourself), and Mel & Tim (Starting All Over Again), an album he produced with Barry Beckett.
Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Jerry Wexler Following a tour in Germany with Traffic in 1973, Hawkins and other members of MSRS contributed to Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. In the years 1976-78, Hawkins invented definitive stylistic innovations in recording studio drumming. He became known for his high-hat inflections, syncopated bass drum work, dynamic snare drum style, and importantly his adherence to the arrangement of the song. His work with Bonnie Bramlett, Art Garfunkel, Eddie Hinton, Delbert McClinton, Bob Seger, Percy Sledge, and Bobby Womack exhibits the range of his rock and soul approaches to the rhythm section concepts he innovated. Following the 1978 opening of the upgraded MSSS at 1000 Alabama Avenue in Sheffield, Hawkins worked on recordings by Billy Burnette, Joe Cocker, Glenn Frye, Levon Helm, Julian Lennon, and Delbert McClinton. In the 1980s, Hawkins recorded with Patti Austin (Body Language), Eric Clapton (Money and Cigarettes), Glenn Frye (No Fun Aloud, The Allnighter, and Soul Searchin’), Frankie Miller (Standing on the Edge), Eddie Rabbit (“Suspicions”), and Bob Seger (Against the Wind). After Malaco Records acquired MSSS in 1985, Hawkins again worked with a roster of veteran blues and R&B artists: Bobby Bland, Little Milton, and Johnnie Taylor, producing some of his most mature distillations of a lifetime of perfecting his repertoire. In the 1990s, Hawkins worked on Jimmy Buffett‘s Beach House on the Moon, Etta James’s The Right Time, Dan Penn’s Do Right Man, and Joe Louis Walker’s The Preacher and the President.
Hawkins was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1995. He had been married to Brenda Grigg Hawkins since 2002 and had a son from a prior marriage. He died on May 20, 2021, after a lengthy illness.
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