A significant and prolific regional center of the classic R&B era is Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The number of hit records produced in this sleepy Southern town is mind-boggling, but an online list of the 20 Best Songs Recorded in Muscle Shoals includes contributions by Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Jimmy Cliff, Clarence Carter, Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Seger. The main draw to this otherwise quiet hamlet was a group of legendary session players known as the Swampers, whose core four members consisted of Barry Beckett on keys, Jimmy Johnson on guitar, Roger Hawkins on drums, and actual living legend David Hood on bass. Memorialized in a verse of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” the Swampers created music of lasting beauty—songs that are as inextricable from the American consciousness as justice and equality. Songs such as Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music,” Aretha’s “Respect,” and the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” were created by a perfect blend of black and white musicians approaching each other as equals, in a time and place where it was highly uncommon to do so.
It’s easy to choose tracks to examine from this massive catalog: Throw a dart and you land on a hit record. My first choice, Etta James’ “Tell Mama,” won mostly because hearing it on the radio reminded me I had a column to write. Of course, the song is spectacular. “Tell Mama” was a smash hit for Etta, and it has served as a template for producers, writers, artists, and players since the day it hit the street in 1967. Digging around, I learned that the song’s main author, Clarence Carter, had a minor hit with “Tell Daddy” a year earlier. While the gender identification is masculine, it is essentially the same song as “Tell Mama,” but naturally, I was drawn to the subtle differences between the grooves created by bassists Tommy Cogbill on the Carter version and David Hood on Etta’s hit.
I’ve mentioned Cogbill a few times already in this space, and he will undoubtedly reappear, as he is one of the great unsung heroes of our world—not only for his musical legacy, but for the influence he had on others. David Hood told me the best advice Tommy ever gave him, when Hood asked how to improve his playing, was: “Practice.” Like a great bass line, his advice is profoundly obvious, and obviously profound.
The two versions are tempo-matched at 120 bpm, but the male version’s lower key, accentuated by Cogbill’s deep, rounded Fender Precision Bass, gives “Daddy” a more settled groove compared to the high-energy thrust of “Mama.” Another factor is the quarter-note Cogbill places on the verse groove’s beats one and three, whereas Hood pumps out eighth-notes with swinging consistency throughout. Hood says, “I wanted to play it like Tommy, but producer Rick Hall wanted it more like ‘In the Midnight Hour.’” Fame Records and Studio owner Rick Hall was the man behind many hits, and as Hood admits, he was still new on the job: “I fought him about it, but he won.” Example 1 is the basic idea behind Cogbill’s part on “Tell Daddy.” The main compositional difference is the intro figure, which stays on the I chord, whereas “Mama” uses the I–IV progression of the chorus. To give the line some forward push and breathing room, Cogbill shortens the eighth-notes on beats two and four, indicated by the staccato markings.
“Tell Daddy” hit #35 on Billboard’s R&B charts, but the feminine answer version hit #10 on the R&B charts and #23 on the Pop charts, becoming Etta James’ biggest crossover hit. Her vocal is a defining R&B vocal performance, and the band is hitting it hard and tight. As Hood mentioned, Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” influenced the intro and chorus grooves, but Hood takes Cogbill’s basic idea in the verses, with a few extra eighth-notes. Example 2 approximates his line on this R&B/soul classic. Hood’s ’61 Fender stack-knob Jazz Bass cuts through the mix with the line played in the higher register. When asked why he positioned the part there, Hood says, “I really don’t know. It was one of my first sessions there—I’m even playing with a pick!” Whatever drove the decision, the effect is a bass hook that’s immediately audible, even on the small car radios of the ’60s. While he never played the song live with Etta, Hood drops the part down an octave when performing it nowadays. While his best-known performance is undoubtedly the groove and signature bass solo from the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Hood’s resumé includes artists as wide-ranging as Wilson Pickett, Boz Scaggs, Cher, Tony Joe White, Aretha, King Curtis, Albert King, Linda Ronstadt, Traffic, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Percy Sledge, Art Garfunkel, Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens, and Delbert McClinton. His style is song-driven, articulate, and when needed, supremely funky. Check out his playing on Clarence Carter’s “Snatching It Back” for some seriously tight finger funk—Ex. 3 shows you the basic framework of his line.
While the media focuses on shiny young talent, Hood is an inspiration at age 73, still laying down the groove in Muscle Shoals. He’s provided the backbone for recent projects by Jim Lauderdale, Jason Isbell, Candi Staton, the Waterboys, and more, but his work from the early days of his career is certified R&B Gold!
Ed Friedland of Tucson, Arizona, is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks. He featured both Tommy Cogbill and David Hood in his book The Way They Play: The R&B Masters [Hal Leonard].