Roger Hawkins, the Muscle Shoals drummer who played on massive hits like “Respect”, “When a Man Loves a Woman”, and “I’ll Take You There”, has died at the age of 75 in his Sheffield, Alabama home.
The Muscle Shoals Music Foundation announced Hawkins’ death on Thursday via social media. According to AL.com, he had been suffering from numerous health problems in recent years, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and his death came after an extended illness.
“Our hearts are breaking today as the heartbeat of ‘The Swampers’ drummer Roger Hawkins passed away this afternoon at his home in Sheffield,” the foundation shared in a statement. “[Producer] Jerry Wexler called Roger, ‘the greatest drummer of all time.’ Roger was a kind and generous man who loved family, friends and his fellow musicians.”
Hawkins was the founding drummer of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, aka the Swampers, who were brought together by FAME Studios owner Rick Hall to be session musicians at his studio in Muscle Shoals, AL. Other members included guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bassist David Hood, and keyboardist Barry Beckett. The group left FAME in 1969, co-founding the rechristened Muscle Shoals Sound with funding help from Wexler in nearby Sheffield, AL.
From the mid ’60s to late ’70s, Hawkins played on a series of classics with artists like Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, The Staple Singers, and more. Some of the biggest hits included Franklin’s “Respect”, Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”, and The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There”, as well as Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” and “Land of a 1000 Dances”.
“I never sat around and thought, ‘I’m going to make up the part that’s going to be known for 40 years.’ It was just doing what you felt,” Hawkins told AL.com in 2019. He added, “I was a better listener than I was a player and I think the other guys were too. Because they loved music and they had catalogs of music in their brains, just like I had a catalog of stuff where I could pull out certain things and make it work with newer stuff.”
Hawkins was born in Mishawaka, Indiana, and first became interested in percussion as a young child during services at his Pentecost church. After drumming on makeshift equipment for three or four years, he received a drumkit from his parents at the age of 13. He moved to Alabama as a teenager after a few years as a touring musician, and got his first big break by playing on the aforementioned “When a Man Loves a Woman”.
One of his greatest musical influences was Stax Records drummer Al Jackson, who helped inspire his playing on “When a Man Loves a Woman”. Hawkins explained, “Through listening to Al Jackson is how I learned to build a drum part in a soul ballad.”
Hawkins was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2008 alongside his Muscle Shoals bandmates. He and the surviving members were later featured in the 2013 documentary, Muscle Shoals, about the musicians and their legacy.
Hood is now the only surviving Swamper. Beckett and Johnson died in 2009 and 2019, respectively.