Muscle Shoals Sound Studio opened in early 1969 by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (also known as the Swampers) – David Hood on bass, Jimmy Johnson on rhythm guitar, Roger Hawkins on drums, and Barry Beckett on keys. They began working together at Rick Hall’s FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama where they became well-renowned in the recording industry for playing a unique style of funky R&B with artists such as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Etta James.
The musicians decided to become entrepreneurs by leaving their positions at FAME and opening up their own studio at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield, Alabama, establishing Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. This studio was unique because it was the only recording studio owned and operated by the session musicians at the time. The four musicians were equal partners in the endeavor - not only as studio musicians but also booking sessions, paying the bills, and handling all aspects of a running business.
Jerry Wexler, Vice President of Atlantic Records, had a great working relationship with the musicians from their time at FAME. Wexler was a key part of the start of MSS by loaning the musicians money to get equipment while continuing to bring clients from Atlantic Records. The first release from MSS was Cher’s debut solo album, titled 3614 Jackson Highway in 1969. The album cover features a photo of the building, with the title of the album superimposed over the facade, which inspired the now iconic 3614 Jackson Highway sign.
After working with artists like Boz Scaggs, Lulu, and Arif Mardin throughout 1969, the studio found its first commercial success with “Take A Letter, Maria” by R.B. Greaves. The single was a hit, peaking at no. 2 on the charts and scoring MSS its first gold record. The same week of recording with Greaves by day, the Swampers were hosting The Rolling Stones by night. The Stones stopped in for three nights, cutting three songs from their 1971 releaseSticky Fingers“Brown Sugar” “You Got To Move” and “Wild Horses”.
MSS remained at the Jackson Hwy location for nine years from 1969 to 1978. During that time, the Swampers played on over 200 albums, with over 75 RIAA Gold and Platinum records, and hundreds of hit songs with artists such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, Duane Allman, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Bob Seger, Staples Singers, Rod Stewart, Leon Russell, Willie Nelson, Cat Stevens, Dr. Hook, and Eddie Hinton.
By 1978, the Swampers had outgrown the facility at Jackson Highway and purchased a larger building on Alabama Avenue in Sheffield. Since the move in 1978, the original Jackson Highway location has housed a pro audio retailer and an appliance repair shop before becoming abandoned in the late 90’s. In the early 2000’s the building was purchased by a local citizen, to be reopened as a museum and fully-functioning studio. In 2009, The Black Keys recorded their albumBrothersin the studio. In 2013, the studio was purchased by Muscle Shoals Music Foundation to restore it to its former glory.