Growing up near Florence, AL, the teenage Johnson often hung out at one of the early incarnations of Rick Hall's FAME studios. At the time, the studio was nothing more than a two-track mono-recorder housed above an old drugstore, but with skilled musicians like David Briggs, Dan Penn, and Jerry Carrigan frequenting the studio as well, it wasn't long before Johnson was learning how to put together and play on a professional session. When, in the fall of 1962, Hall built a larger version of FAME in nearby Muscle Shoals, Johnson became his first salaried employee, answering phones, putting sessions together, and taking care of paperwork.
Although he wasn't yet a good enough guitarist to play on sessions, Johnson had formed a band, the Del-Rays, with future FAME sessionman Roger Hawkins, and was getting his chops down by playing the Southern fraternity circuit. After Hall's original rhythm section defected to Nashville over money disputes, it was Johnson's band that formed the second, and most famous FAME rhythm section. Johnson, along with organist Spooner Oldham, drummer Roger Hawkins, and bassist Junior Lowe, woodshedded for two years, demo-ing material for FAME customers like Joe Tex and Percy Sledge.
When Sledge hit in the spring of 1966 with "When a Man Loves a Woman," it piqued the attention of Atlantic head Jerry Wexler, who brought Wilson Pickett down to FAME for a session. By now, Johnson and the band were ready to cut a session, and the results, Land of a Thousand Dances and Mustang Sally, were both hits. Atlantic's association with FAME launched the studio and its musicians into the national spotlight. In 1967, Wexler brought the recently signed Aretha Franklin to FAME, and Johnson contributed his exemplary guitar work to her double-sided hit I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You)/Do Right Woman. Later, when Wexler and Hall got into an argument that severed their working relationship, the Atlantic head flew Johnson and the other FAME musicians up to New York to finish the album and record subsequent follow-ups.
With the success of Franklin, Johnson became an in-demand session guitarist, playing on albums by George Benson, Pickett, and David Clayton-Thomas. In April 1969, after feeling underappreciated and underpaid at FAME, Johnson, along with David Hood, Roger Hawkins, and Berry Beckett, left. The four musicians became partners in their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, located right up the street from their old boss Rick Hall and FAME; their first account was Atlantic Records. Through the next several years, Johnson played guitar and/or produced for such big-name artists as Boz Scaggs, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Leon Russell, and Cher.
Throughout the '70s, Muscle Shoals Sound developed a reputation as one of the best studios in the business, and Johnson was considered by many to be one of the pre-eminent session guitarists in the industry. Rod Stewart, Traffic, Johnny Rivers, and Bob Seger all traveled to Johnson's rural outpost in northern Alabama to cut hit records with the crack Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
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