Jimmy Johnson has scaled unbelievable musical heights. He was the guitar player for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (aka “The Swampers”), as well as a member of two legendary hit factories: Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Al, and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in nearby Sheffield. Johnson has had a long and storied recording career: the Swampers’ indelible discography is awe inspiring in its length, depth and breadth, tracing an historic arc from rhythm & blues to rock and roll; from politically aware folk to soaring disco; from blue eyed soul to classic country and beyond.
Critics and musicologists alike sing the group’s infinite praises, attempting to define the vision that allowed them to shine so brightly. Almost five decades after these country boys from northwest Alabama charted their first hit, the faithful still beat a path to The Shoals, hoping to soak up the murky essence of the Tennessee River and distill its swampy magic into certified gold. I recently found myself making that very same trek deep into the Cotton State, but my own motives for going there were far more modest then cutting a hit record.
I was hoping to find four songs that Johnson had recorded 37 years earlier-forgotten songs performed by Annette Snell, a talented R&B vocalist from New York City. Tragically, she had died just hours after leaving Johnson’s studio on April 4, 1977, a passenger on the ill-fated Southern Airways Flight 242. The DC-9 lost thrust in both engines in a vicious hailstorm over Rome, Georgia, crashing minutes later in the rural community of New Hope, GA. A total of 72 people lost their lives in that disaster.
While I was writing a series of stories about the plane crash, I discovered that Johnson’s younger brother Earl, a 28-year-old engineer with Reynolds Aluminum, had also been a passenger aboard Flight 242. Earl survived the crash, but died the following day in the burn unit at Grady Hospital in Atlanta. I sent Jimmy an inquiring e-mail and he quickly responded, inviting me to come out and talk. Three days later, as I drove west on I-20 across the Georgia/Alabama border, it somehow felt like I was following the same path that Annette had taken almost four decades earlier.
When I arrived at the house, he took me straight into the kitchen and served up a steaming mug of coffee. As we headed into his home studio, I tried in vain to count the gold records that seemed to cover every wall, a testament to his wildly successful music career. Over the next two hours we listened to the Swampers’ biggest hits, played over his vintage Sony 3000 console while he punctuated the nuances of each song with a conductor’s flourish. It was an outstanding show – a command performance. From there we moved into his cramped office, where I saw even more gold (and platinum) records covering the wall. I took a seat, and we finally got down to the business at hand.
I taped his interview, which I have transcribed and included in another posting. After a quick search, he found a CD with the four songs he had recorded for Annette, and he burned a copy for me. Then he showed me some photographs from his private collection, which included images taken while he worked on two of the most iconic sessions from the 1960’s: Aretha Franklin recording “Respect” in 1967 at Atlantic Studios, and the Rolling Stones recording “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” and “You Gotta Move” at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio from December 2nd-4th, 1969. He also told me he was planning to attend his first Southern Airways Flight 242 memorial service the following Sunday in New Hope, GA. We made plans to meet before the service at Rodney’s BBQ, and after that I reluctantly packed up and headed back home.
Memorial Service in New Hope, GA
Seven days later, Jimmy drove out with his wife Becky, a gracious woman he has known since the second grade. At Rodney’s, he spoke with crash survivor Frederick Clemens, who described the last, almost serene moments before Southern 242’s destruction. And he met Sadie Hurst, the mother of three who lived in the house where the aircraft came to a fiery halt. Amazingly, Sadie still remembered seeing a man that she later identified as Earl stumbling out of the plane, critically injured but still alive. During an emotional exchange, she assured Jimmy that the first responders had treated his brother with both care and compassion, and that Earl had been taken quickly to the hospital.
Later, we went to the memorial service at the Civil War era cemetery down the street from Rodney’s, directly across from the New Hope First Baptist Church. The pastor spoke movingly about the New Hope community, and how its members had reached out after the crash. Jimmy just stood there, holding his wife while he listened to their prayers and devotions. I imagined he was a thousand miles away, thinking about Earl and everything he had accomplished during his short life, proud once again of his younger brother and the courage and strength he displayed on that tragic day.