A PLAYLIST OF DAVID HOOD’S WORK—VIRTUALLY ALL OF it recorded in the Muscle Shoals, Alabama area where he grew up—would cover entire swaths of American music. Not many bassists can claim as eclectic a resumé as Hood, whose percolating lines set a low-end foundation for everyone from Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson to Shelby Lynne and Frank Black.
As a member of the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a.k.a. the Swampers, Hood and his mates got a shout-out from Lynyrd Skynyrd in the words to “Sweet Home Alabama.” They similarly gained long-overdue attention at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where a new documentary simply entitled Muscle Shoals documents much of the work that Hood and his mates and other area musicians did during the R&B heyday of the 1960s and ’70s.
Growing up in Sheffield, just across the Tennessee River from Muscle Shoals, Hood began his own musical journey inauspiciously. “I took piano lessons but wouldn’t practice,” he says. “Then I played trombone in the high school band but got kicked out of the band for mischief. I saw a local rock & roll band, the first one around here—Hollis Dixon & the Keynotes,” he adds. “They had the first electric bass I had ever seen. I was 14 or 15 years old. Later some friends started a band, so by the time I was 18, I bought a Fender Jazz Bass. That was a pretty late start.” Fortunately, Hood was a quick study. “It came pretty easy to me. I wasn’t a brilliant musician; I’m still not a brilliant musician. I’m not schooled at all. But I don’t remember worrying about fret-buzzing and things like that. I just started playing.”
Recording a couple of songs with his band at producer Rick Hall’s FAME Studios (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) in Muscle Shoals set Hood on his career path. “I’ve always considered myself a recording musician more than playing live concerts,” Hood says. “Rick knew me and knew I had a bass. Sometimes he would call me to play on a demo or something.” The learning curve was swift. Hood’s first union-scale recording session was Percy Sledge’s “Warm and Tender Love,” which became a gold record roughly four years after Hood bought his first bass.
Hits by local favorites Sledge, Arthur Alexander, Clarence Carter, and others started to catch the attention of the national music industry, most notably Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler. Hood played trombone—not bass—on Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man,” but he played bass on sessions for such R&B stalwarts as Wilson Pickett, Johnnie Taylor, and Etta James. He later played bass on Franklin’s “Call Me” and several other tracks.
“FAME had an old [Fender] Bassman amp that had only one speaker in it. We would record it with one of those old RCA 44 mics. When they learned about going direct, they started running me direct and miking me. Inevitably, they’d run out of tracks, so they would lose one of those. Usually the one they would keep was the direct track, so nowadays, I go direct. If I can, I like to have an amp, and they can mic it if they want.”
In the late ’60s Hood, drummer Roger Hawkins, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, and keyboardist/songwriter Spooner Oldham worked as FAME’s primary recording unit. Oldham and Dan Penn, who co-wrote James & Bobby Purify’s hit “I’m Your Puppet,” departed for Memphis, where they continued their songwriting success with the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby.” “After Spooner left, we tried some other players, but we knew about Barry Beckett, who had come up with Don Schroeder, the producer of ‘I’m Your Puppet.’ So we gave Barry a call and said, ‘Would you be interested in doing this?’ He leaped at the chance, and it was a good fit right from the start."
Like the Funk Brothers of Detroit and Memphis’ Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section supported innumerable artists anonymously. Hood says, “When I started doing session work at FAME, I knew I’d better learn things like song construction and verse/chorus quickly, so I got everything by the M.G.’s, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and the Motown stuff . Booker T. and all the guys were our heroes, but we later became friends. The first time I worked with [M.G.’s bassist] Duck Dunn, I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’, but he was so cool, and such a nice guy—crazy personality, just a lot of fun.” In 2008, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Booker T. & the M.G.’s were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville.
Hood, Hawkins, Johnson, and Beckett continued to work at FAME for a period of about two years. “Around that time , a studio became available in Sheffield. The guy who built it really didn’t know what to do with it, so he approached Roger and Jimmy about buying the studio. They thought, ‘We can’t do much in the studio unless we have a rhythm section.’ Roger and Jimmy approached Barry and me, so we quit Rick. He had just gotten signed to a record deal with Capitol Records, and he brought us up to his office, in front of the Capitol Records guy, to tell us about this deal, and we said, ‘No, we’re leaving.’ So it was really a bad thing for him.” The fallout between Rick Hall and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section is one of the key stories explored in the new documentary.
Hood is quick to point out: “Rick was Record Producer of the Year the next year with a new rhythm section. So he saw that he could do it without us. But that’s when we knew that we were a unit. When we left him and got our own studio, we knew we’d better get good.”
They did, and quickly. The 1970s were prime years for Hood and his cohorts, who dubbed their new workspace Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Hood played on the studio’s early successes, including Boz Scaggs’ “Loan Me a Dime,” which included Duane Allman on guitar, and hit singles like “Take a Letter, Maria” by R.B. Greaves and Mel & Tim’s “Starting All Over Again.” Island Records’ Chris Blackwell brought Jamaican singer Jimmy Cliff to Muscle Shoals to record. Some of the tracks Hood recorded with Cliff , including the classic “Sitting in Limbo,” ended up on the soundtrack of the film The Harder They Come and consequently accelerated the worldwide popularity of Jamaican music.
After hearing the Jimmy Cliff sessions, Traffic, which featured Steve Winwood, temporarily enlisted Hood and Hawkins to tour in support of its album The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. Hood and Hawkins stayed long enough to record Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory and the live album On the Road. “Bob Marley had just brought out Catch a Fire,” explains Hood. “Every night before Traffic played a concert, that album was playing over the PA. It just lodged into our psyche or something.”
One of pop music’s enduring records of the era, the Staple Singers’ 1972 classic “I’ll Take You There,” may be Hood’s most familiar recording. It begins with a staccato C on the bass and a snare-drum pop, then launches into the pulsing, reggae-like I–IV groove. When Mavis Staples sings “David!” at the 1:52 mark, Hood launches into a funky, minimalist solo that slides up the neck but stays in the pocket. “That Be Altitude: Respect Yourself album is one of my favorites of all time,” Hood recalls. “The Staple Singers were fun, too. Three sisters and Pops— we just had a good time with them.”
Paul Simon was so impressed that he wanted to capture a similar groove. “I don’t know the exact story, but either Paul or his manager called Al Bell [owner of Stax Records] and said he wanted to record with the black Jamaican musicians who played on ‘I’ll Take You There.’ As I understand it, Al said, ‘I can give you their number, but they’re mighty pale.’” Pallor notwithstanding, Hood and his bandmates helped Simon produce some of the most soulful work of his career. The meticulous Simon had only planned to record “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” at Muscle Shoals Sound, but the musicians’ efficiency took him by surprise. “We got it, I think, on the second take. He had three or four days booked, so he sat on the studio floor and played us ‘Kodachrome’ and a few other things.” Hood and company subsequently played on “Loves Me Like a Rock,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “My Little Town.” They also lent a hand to seminal works by Bob Seger (“Beautiful Loser,” “Night Moves,” “Old Time Rock and Roll”), Rod Stewart (Atlantic Crossing, “Tonight’s the Night”) and Willie Nelson (the concept album Phases & Stages). “Being on the end of the R&B and soul era, that was a lot of fun. Then disco came along, and that just killed it. That’s when we started doing more country and pop.”
Muscle Shoals Sound later moved to a more modern facility, where the band recorded hits by everyone from the Oak Ridge Boys to Julian Lennon. “Julian wrote the single ‘Valotte’ sitting in front of our studio—‘Sitting on a pebble by the river playing guitar . . . .’” Hood, Beckett, Johnson, and Hawkins sold the studio in 1985, and all but Beckett remained in the Muscle Shoals area. Barry Beckett, who passed away in 2009, found further success as a producer in Nashville.
Lately, Hood’s instrument of choice has been a Lakland Joe Osborn model, one of three Lakland basses he owns. From 1976 to 1988, he played an Alembic; he also occasionally plays a Kubicki Factor and a 1957 Fender Precision. (Hood’s Jazz Bass was stolen during the Traffic era.) He uses flatwound strings on the Lakland Osborn and the Precision, and roundwounds on the rest. For amplification, he favors a Gallien-Krueger head driving two Ampeg cabinets, each of which has two 12" speakers.
“If there’s a tool in my arsenal that’s a valuable thing, it’s my ability to write [Nashville] number charts,” Hood says, adding that he picked up that skill from Beckett. “More than my ability to play fancy stuff is my ability to see a song and visualize it on that chart with those numbers. It’s a very simple thing, and I tell young musicians that. It teaches you the structure of a song, but also there’s a lot of sure-enough music theory there.”
The 69-year-old Hood still works steadily in the studio. He played all the bass tracks on M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper’s 2011 release Dedicated, which included guest appearances from Steve Winwood, B.B. King, Queen’s Brian May, and others. Through his association with producer Jon Tiven, Hood has also played on solo albums by the Pixies’ Frank Black.
Another of Hood’s contemporary projects is Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, the second solo record by Drive-By Truckers singer/songwriter Patterson Hood, David’s son. Patterson writes, “My father has always been my favorite bass player. We never really ever got to play together until fairly recently; last year, I had a couple of songs that I thought he’d be right for, and he came and played on them. It was one of the most amazing studio experiences of my life. His tone is absolutely fantastic, and he plays beautiful, clean parts—never an extraneous note, just what is needed to hold down the bottom and execute the melody, all with that perfect tone. His performance on the title cut is one of my favorite performances of his, period.” Patterson, who framed one of his dad’s number charts for the session (“He makes the greatest charts ever”), points to Willie Nelson’s Phases & Stages as one of David’s underappreciated works.
Of the experience recording with Patterson, David says, “I wasn’t so sure it would work at first, because I’m used to a more structured situation in the studio. They just go in and work all night on one thing. But it worked out good; I hear the album on satellite radio quite often. And the songs I played on are the ones they play the most, so I guess I helped.”