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Johnson Family of Muscle Shoals

A Legendary Family

by Dick Cooper, January 2000

Muscle Shoals music is hard to label because of its diversity. It is Rock, Pop, R & B, Country, Jazz, Folk, and most genres in between. While many influential people have come to the area and added to the overall legacy, the strength of its music is rooted firmly in the northwest Alabama area known loosely as Muscle Shoals.

The taproot is the three-generation involvement of the Johnson family. Brothers Ray and Dexter Johnson got their start in radio during the late 1930s at a station in the Sheffield Hotel. "When we started playing on WNRA, I was small," Ray said. "They sat me at the microphone in a straight back chair, and my feet wouldn't touch the floor."

Ray's son, Jimmy, became Rick Hall's first employee, and a founding member of the world famous Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, and his grandson Jay, is a mainstay with The Southern Rock Allstars.

As with most families, Ray's wife Hazel provided the nurturing that was necessary. The example of strength she set during her lengthy battle with cancer was amazing. Outlasting by far the medical expectations.

"Dexter and I performed for several years as the Johnson Brothers, then, in the early 1940s, we joined with Quinton Claunch, Buddy Bain and Bill Cantrell to form The Blue Seal Pals," Ray said. "The Columbia Mill and Elevator Company of Columbia, TN, makers of Blue Seal flour, sponsored the Pals."

The Pals could be heard each week on WJOI in Florence, AL and at shows in the north Alabama, Mississippi and southern Tennessee area. As the group's popularity grew, they were called to Nashville to host a show on WSM. Sunup Serenade was broadcast each Saturday morning at 6:30 a.m.

Ray had started a family, and had a good job with the new Reynolds Metals plant in Muscle Shoals. So he left the group, and was replaced by Edgar Clayton. The Pals continued to perform until the late 1940's, when they disbanded and brother Dexter returned to the Shoals and settled in to a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Dexter soon turned his small garage into a recording studio, the first in Muscle Shoals, to give he and his friends a place to play and record. Jimmy's first recording studio experiences were in this facility. A humble birth for what is today known worldwide at the Muscle Shoals Music Industry.

"I was present during several sessions at Dexter's studio. It was always this little magical place to me when I was a child. He would let me bang around on the drums and plunk about on the mandolins," Jay said. "I only did one session there, and at age 16 it was my very first one. Dexter let me bring my old garage band in and do its first demo there. It was four-track, and it was like a bunch of kids loose in a toy store."

Ray and Hazel had two sons, Jimmy and Earl, and music always played a big part in their family. After Muscle Shoals Sound became a place for the best in the business to record, many stars were invited to elaborate southern dinners Ray and Hazel would prepare. Many of these dinners ended with Ray and Hazel singing the old country songs. Among the guests of honor at these dinners were Producer Jerry Wexler, Bob Seger, the Oakridge Boys and the Staple Singers.

"Dad had bought me a trumpet and I joined the Sheffield Junior High School band," Jimmy recalled, "but that wasn't my instrument and I quit the band. Later, when I heard Chuck Berry, I thought I wanted to play the guitar. I was firmly convinced when I saw Donnie Srygley, the guitarist with Hollis Dixon and the Keynotes, playing at a dance in the basement of the Sheffield municipal building. I stood in front of him the whole night and watched him. I came home and told my Dad I wanted a guitar, and he reminded me that he was still paying for the trumpet."

Not to be denied, Jimmy mentioned that he was interested in the guitar to his Aunt Edna, and she bought him an electric guitar and amp.

"It wasn't very good, but I thought it was great," he said.

Within a short time, Jimmy was playing at a local dance.

"I got paid $10, and I was hooked. I took the money home and showed it to Dad, and he took me to buy the Fender guitar I wanted," Jimmy said.

"I traded in my Gibson acoustic guitar on it," Ray said, "They wouldn't take the trumpet as a trade in."

Jimmy played in a few local bands, before making one of the earliest recordings at Rick Hall's FAME studio with his last group, the Del Rays. At the end of the sessions, Rick offered Jimmy a position as his first employee.

Jimmy's career is legendary, as a session guitarist he played on some of the greatest recordings of all time, including Aretha Franklin's "Respect," Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally," Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock And Roll," Paul Simon's "Kodachrome," and the Staples Singers', "Respect Yourself." As an engineer, he recorded Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman," and the Rolling Stones "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses," and as a producer, he has produced acts as diverse as The Amazing Rhythm Aces and Connie Frances.

Jimmy's son Jay grew up around the studio. "Dad and Mom were divorced, and when I would go to visit him he didn't have anyone to look after me, so I hung out at the studio," Jay said.

"Like most fathers, I would certainly get a kick if my son went on to follow in the family footsteps. But I believe I will let him decide his musical course (if he chooses one) with no behind-the-scenes pushing from me. My own father felt it was very important that a child should not be forced into doing ANYTHING, be it football, music, art or otherwise. That's the approach he took with me, and I appreciate it today as an adult. Therefore, I think I'll do the same. I'll let my son find his own destiny, and if he needs a little help along the way, I'll be there for him. More likely he'll be telling ME what to do though. The kid is waaaay too smart," Jay says proudly.

"At first I thought I wanted to be a drummer. There were some drums at my grandfather's house, and I would kind of beat around on them. My Uncle Earl asked me if I wanted to learn to play them, so when I said yea, he set them up and taught me the fundamentals."

"That all changed in 1975 when Blackfoot came to the studio," Jay said. "When I saw that stack of Marshall amps, and Charlie Hargrett and Ricky Medlocke playing, I knew I wanted to play guitar."

Today, Jay tours with former Blackfoot drummer Jakson Spires, and has played with Hargrett and Medlocke.

His knowledge of the music on the Cowboy Ray project is solid. "My early exposure to this style came from listening to Ray and Hazel sing the songs," Jay said. "My grandparents sang all the time - all those great songs."

The Cowboy Ray project has a long history. "Roger Hawkins and I had been talking about recording our fathers for decades," Jimmy said. Roger's father had also loved to sing and play country song. "We just never got around to doing it."

"A few years ago, Tony Hooper (a Shoals area guitarist and producer) played me a recording he had made of an older area musician, and I mentioned I had intended to do the same with Ray. He basically reminded me of my original intention," Jimmy said.
"I talked to Jay about helping me with the project, and we decided to work on it."

"At first this was going to be real simple," Jay, said. "We started tracking in August 1998. Bob Gilliland and Jimmy made the initial music arrangements, and I took the charts they made and recorded the initial tracks at Lakeland Studio, owned by keyboardist Mark Ray & myself."

"I brought Bob in to cut the rough tracks with me and to make sure all the arrangements were right. The sessions ran smooth - two days tops. We did the vocals right after that, and Ray really did great, doing most tracks with one take. We never did any vocal overdubs with him at all. He nailed his parts right off the bat. I love it when an artist can do that, because the feeling is there, and none of it is lost due to constant re-takes," Jay said.

"The project was then put in limbo for an extended time - Jimmy had several projects running at the same time, and I was working full-tilt trying to get the Southern Rock Allstars debut finished before fall 1999. When we did finally get back to work on the Cowboy Ray project, things went so smoothly I just could not get over it. What was really cool was that so many fabulous musicians were literally chomping at the bit to play on this CD! Quite a tribute to Ray indeed," Jay pointed out.

"David Hood came in and replaced the original bass, we put N.C. Thurman on, and then brought in Donny Carpenter, Penn Pennington, and Clayton Ivey," Jimmy noted.

"During the vocal overdubs I kept getting the feeling that something was missing on certain songs," Jay said. "I figured it out in the midst of "Beautiful Brown Eyes." The element I was missing was my Grandmother's harmony part, which I had heard so many times when I was young. I went in and did my best to recreate her part on "Brown Eyes", and "Happy Roving Cowboy." Penn Pennington jumped right in on the style and added a third part harmony. Thanks, Grandma!"

"The most unforgettable moment for me was tracking the bass vocal part that Penn Pennington sang on "I'll Fly Away." Penn had cut a pilot vocal that I personally thought was great, and I really did not want to re-cut it. He convinced me to try something off the wall. He wanted me to literally knock him out of bed at 6 a.m., and instructed me to cut the track within the first 10 minutes after he woke up. I got him up, (he looked REALLY special by the way) and he went right to it, nailing it in one take. I was amazed - this HUGE Darth Vader voice came out of the guy! It sent chills up my spine,"Jay said.

Jay's production work also includes a CD on a former group, Radio Tokyo, and one on The Southern Rock Allstars, (SRA).

"SRA is doing very well, and I couldn't hope to be with a better bunch of people. The band is booked constantly, the fans are great, and the new CD is about half finished. It looks like it will be a more rounded record than the first, at least in style," Jay said.

"It is more refined, and the band's identity is really showing through. The first CD was really good in my opinion, but it lacked consistency. We really do not try to write songs any particular way, and I feel that contributes to the honesty and feeling that our music has. On the first album, that formula made for a record with songs of varied styles, and I think it really surprised a lot of people who until now had us pegged as a "boogie" band that could do no more than rehash their old tunes. We took the same approach with the songwriting on the new SRA stuff, but this time the results are more cohesive, and the southern edge is more apparent. It's still against the grain though - you can't compare it much at all with our past groups. We're going to be what we are - we refuse to rip the fans off by rewriting our old songs or by rewriting our old group histories like some of our contemporaries. With SRA, you get the real thing, no egos or ballyhoo," he said.

"I've played the finished Cowboy Ray CD for many of my musician friends, and all of them went nuts over it. Mike Estes (Lynyrd Skynyrd) and Jakson Spires (Blackfoot) were two of the most outspoken supporters, and both made the statements that the project may be the best work my father and I have ever produced."

"Jakson was particularly attracted to my grandfather's work, saying that it reminded him of Shorty Medlocke, the bluegrass picking mentor/hero who influenced both Blackfoot and Lynyrd Skynyrd band members in their early days," said Jay.

"Estes and Spires went on to praise Ray's music, saying that Îthis is REAL country, not the psuedo-pop-with-a-twang that so often comes out of Nashville these days.' I agree totally. REAL COUNTRY MUSIC. What a concept!" Jay concluded.

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