FLORENCE — The first time David Hood met Jimmy Johnson he was a junior high school crossing guard, wearing a yellow helmet and holding a flag.

Little did they know they would become lifelong friends and be part of a group of musicians that helped create some of the best loved popular music ever.

The Sheffield natives completed junior high and graduated high school together. They worked as session musicians in Rick Hall's FAME Recording Studios, along with keyboardist Barry Beckett and drummer Roger Hawkins, until the four decided to open their own studio — Muscle Shoals Sound.

Hood said he was able to spend some time with his friend Thursday morning, about an hour before Johnson died at Northwest Alabama Medical Center. He was 76. He had been in the hospital since Aug. 31.

"Jimmy encouraged me to be in music from the start, before anybody else did," Hood said. "I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today without Jimmy Johnson's encouragement."

Johnson's son, Jay, said through a Facebook post that his father had entered the hospital on Aug. 31 with multiple health issues. Judy Hood said Johnson died from complications related to kidney failure.

Rodney Hall, owner of FAME Recording Studios and son of the studio founder, the late Rick Hall, said in addition to being a member of the studio's rhythm section, Johnson was his father's first assistant.

"There's going to be a hole in Muscle Shoals music that can't be filled," Hall said. "Jimmy continued to be a friend and a great session musician for all of us. He's going to be sorely missed, for sure. He was so passionate about Muscle Shoals and his music and the area. If it weren't for guys like him staying here, none of us would be here."

In 1969, Johnson, Hood, Hawkins and Beckett struck out on their own and opened Muscle Shoals Sound Studio at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield. The late Denny Cordell, the late Leon's Russell's producer, dubbed the rhythm section "The Swampers" because of their "swampy" sound. 

The music world became reacquainted with Muscle Shoals music, FAME, Muscle Shoals Sound, Johnson and the other Swampers after the 2013 release of the music documentary "Muscle Shoals," which was produced by Stephen Badger and directed by Greg "Freddy" Camalier.

"Jimmy was a gentleman and a scholar, a picker who would lock and carry a groove, a man who truly cared about others, and someone who always made you feel better having spent time with him," Badger said. "I will miss him."

Spooner Oldham, another legendary Muscle Shoals musician, has fond remembers of Johnson since his early days.

Oldham remembers playing with him on numerous occasions, including in the early years with Hollis Dickson and the Keynotes. He said Donnie Fritts, who died Aug. 27, also was in that band.

"Jimmy was a real trooper with the recording and playing," Oldham said. "He had a long, great career. He was just always so interesting to be around."

He said Johnson was a natural in the studio.

"He knew technological stuff and loved gadgets," Oldham said.

Debbie Wilson, executive director of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, said there was a hollow feeling in the studio Thursday.

"We're just overwhelmed," Wilson said. "We're all figuring out how to process it. He and his wife, Becky, are like family. We've been getting condolences pouring in from all over."

She said Johnson often dropped by the studio to spend time with the tour guides and visitors.

"He loved to interact with the tour guides," Wilson said. "That was one of the big things that stuck out with us. It's just not going to be the same.

"He always had a smile for us and people loved it when he walked in. He always engaged with them, and now he's gone. A big part of the music has stopped. It's like it's gone silent today."

She said staff members spoke Thursday about their fondness of Johnson.

"The staff is devastated," Wilson said. "They are absolutely beyond words. He was such a great mentor. They looked up to him. We also want to make sure Becky knows we love her.

"It'll never be the same, but we're so fortunate we have the music that he made and that we'll continue to share it with the world," Wilson said. "He was an influence throughout the word and that will never change. He was clever and witty and left a legacy."

Wilson said Johnson's death also reminds them of the importance of continuing to share the story of Muscle Shoals music.

"It makes us that much more determined to tell his story and the Muscle Shoals story," she said. "He loved sharing it. He loved the music. He was a part of that guitar. He was a part of that control board. It was in his heart and soul and mind. He was determined to make it, and he did."

The tracks that Johnson either played guitar on, engineered or produced are some of the most significant songs in popular music.

"Mustang Sally" and "Hey Jude" by Wilson Pickett; "Respect" by Aretha Franklin; "Tell Mama" by Etta James; "Take A Letter, Maria" by R.B. Greaves; "I'll Take You There" by the Staples Singers; "Kodachrome" by Paul Simon; "The Harder They Come" by Jimmy Cliff; "Mainstreet" by Bob Seger; "Brown Sugar," "You Gotta Move" and "Wild Horses" by the Rolling Stones are just a few in his massive discography.

Johnson was scheduled to be co-engineer for The Stones's visit to the studio in December 1969, but ended up being lead engineer due to a work visa issue.

"Jimmy and I co-produced things together, Blackfoot, and few other things," Hood said. "He taught us, not only me, but Roger and Barry, about the music business because he had worked with Rick. He brought the knowledge he got from Rick to our business."

Shoals Theatre manager and local music promoter Steve Price said his brother graduated high school with Johnson.

"I've known Jimmy forever," Price said. "I don't know what to say. I don't know how to process this one."

Johnson's death came just nine days after the death of Fritts, whose legacy dates back to the early days of the Muscle Shoals music business.

Price said he was glad the theater hosted birthday shows for Fritts, Johnson, Oldham and Hood.

"For years, we always took them for granted," he said. "They were part of our community. We wanted that one night when we didn't take them for granted."

Shoals guitarist Kelvin Holly said Johnson gave him his first studio gig when he arrived in the Shoals. The session was with blues artist Bobby "Blue" Bland.

"He believed in me enough to throw me a session like that," Holly said. "He believed I could do it. He was a great producer and a great friend."

Johnson was a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.

"The Alabama Music Hall of Fame is certainly mourning the loss of one of the most talented and famous inductees today with the loss of our very own Jimmy Johnson," Alabama Music Hall of Fame Director Sandra Burroughs said. "We were all so sad to hear that Jimmy had passed away, but our minds immediately took us to Jimmy playing in Heaven this afternoon. He will never be replaced, but he will always be remembered as one of the greatest to ever play."

"What can I say about Jimmy Johnson?" Hood said. "He was a big part of my life for 60 something years."

russ.corey@timesdaily.com

or 256-740-5738. Twitter

@TD_.RussCorey

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