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Roger Hawkins, drummer heard on numerous hits, is dead at 75
Hawkins’ less-is-more approach to drumming at FAME — often little more than a cymbal and a snare — can be heard on Percy Sledge’s gospel-steeped “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a No. 1 pop single in 1966. He was also a driving force behind Aretha Franklin’s imperious “Respect,” a No. 1 pop hit the next year, as well as her Top 10 singles “Chain of Fools” (1967) and “Think” (1968).

by Bill Friskics-Warren

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Roger Hawkins, who played drums on numerous pop and soul hits of the 1960s and ’70s and was among the architects of the funky sound that became identified with Muscle Shoals, Alabama, died Thursday at his home in Sheffield, Alabama. He was 75.

His death was confirmed by his friend and frequent musical collaborator David Hood, who said Hawkins had been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other conditions.

An innately soulful musician, Hawkins initially distinguished himself in the mid-’60s as a member of the house band at producer Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. (The initials stand for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises.) His colleagues were keyboardist Barry Beckett, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and Hood, who played bass. Hood is the last surviving member of that rhythm section.

Hawkins’ less-is-more approach to drumming at FAME — often little more than a cymbal and a snare — can be heard on Percy Sledge’s gospel-steeped “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a No. 1 pop single in 1966. He was also a driving force behind Aretha Franklin’s imperious “Respect,” a No. 1 pop hit the next year, as well as her Top 10 singles “Chain of Fools” (1967) and “Think” (1968).

Remarkably, none of the four members of the FAME rhythm section could read music. They extemporized their parts in response to what was happening in the studio.

“Nobody really suggested anything to play; we would interpret it,” Hawkins said in a 2017 interview with Modern Drummer magazine. “Now that I look back at what we did, in addition to being musicians, we were really arrangers as well. It was up to us to come up with the part.”

In his 2015 memoir, “The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame to FAME,” Hall attributed the transformation of the middle section of Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances,” a Top 10 hit recorded at FAME in 1966, to the genius of Hawkins.

“All the musicians stopped playing except Roger Hawkins, who continued to play with every ounce of strength he had in his body,” Hall recalled. “I poured the echo into the drums, and Pickett started screaming, ‘Nah, nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, nah nah nah, nah nah nah nah.’”

Hawkins said that a principal influence on his playing was Al Jackson Jr., the drummer with Booker T. & the MGs, the rhythm section at Stax Records. “Through listening to Al Jackson is how I learned to build a drum part in a soul ballad,” he said in a 2019 interview with Alabama magazine.

In 1969, Hawkins and the other members of the FAME rhythm section parted ways with Hall over a financial dispute. They soon opened their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, in a former coffin warehouse in nearby Sheffield.

Renaming themselves the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the four men appeared on many other hits over the next decade, including the Staple Singers’ chart-topping pop-gospel single “I’ll Take You There,” a 1972 recording galvanized by Hawkins’ skittering Caribbean-style drum figure. They also appeared, along with the gospel quartet Dixie Hummingbirds, on Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock,” a Top 10 single in 1973.

Hawkins and Hood worked briefly with British rock band Traffic as well; they are on the band’s 1973 album, “Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory.”

Hawkins and his colleagues became known as the Swampers after producer Denny Cordell heard pianist Leon Russell commend them for their “funky, soulful Southern swamp sound.” Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd mentioned them, by that name, in their 1974 pop hit “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Hawkins also worked as a producer, often in tandem with Beckett, on records like “Starting All Over Again,” a Top 20 pop hit for R&B duo Mel and Tim in 1972. The entire rhythm section produced (with Bob Seger) and played on Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s “Old Time Rock & Roll,” a Top 40 hit perennially cited as among the most played jukebox records of all time.

Roger Gail Hawkins was born Oct. 16, 1945, in Mishawaka, Indiana, but was raised in Greenhill, Alabama. He was the only child of John Hawkins, who managed a shoe store there, and Merta Rose Haddock Hawkins, who worked in a nearby knitting mill.

Hawkins became enamored of rhythm while attending services at a local Pentecostal church as a youth. His father bought him his first drum kit when he was 13.

As an adolescent, he began spending time at FAME, then located above a drugstore in Muscle Shoals, before he joined the Del Rays, a local band, led by Johnson, that played fraternity parties and other dances. By 1966, he was doing session work at FAME.

He and the other owners of Muscle Shoals Sound sold the studio in the 1990s. Hawkins stayed on as the studio’s manager under its new owners.

Hawkins was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1995, along with the other members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Thirteen years later, they were enshrined in the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.

He is survived by his wife of 19 years, Brenda Gay Hawkins; a son, Dale; and two grandchildren.

Hawkins’ approach to session work often focused on those moments in a recording when he remained silent, waiting for just the right time and place to strike the next note.

“Every musician strives to be the best they can,” he told Modern Drummer. “Not every musician gets the chances I had. Some new studio players have an attitude of ‘Man, I’ve got to play something great here — got to play the fast stuff to be hired again.’

“That’s not the way to go,” he continued. “I’ve always said this: I was always a better listener than I was a drummer. I would advise any drummer to become a listener.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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