Roger Hawkins of The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section dies aged 75

Roger Hawkins was a drummer who danced around the empty space, playing only when necessary, emphasising the contrast between silence and solid grooves.

Roger Hawkins, best known for his session work drumming for The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, has died aged 75 in his home in Sheffield, Alabama. He had been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for some time, as well as other conditions.

Hawkins played a pivotal role in shaping the sound of the late ’60s and ’70s, with his drumming featured on iconic tracks such as Percy Sledge‘s When a Man Loves a Woman and Aretha Franklin‘s Respect, two consecutive number 1 pop hits in 1966 and 1967 respectively.

The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section
The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, with Roger Hawkins pictured second from the left.
Photo: Muscle Shoals Sound

The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, also known as The FAME rhythm section, after the FAME music studio, was comprised of keyboardist Barry Beckett, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bass player David Hood, with Roger Hawkins on drums. The four of them played on countless records recorded at FAME, and later their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, cementing their role in directly shaping the sound of popular music coming out of the USA.

Hawkins drumming style was instantly recognisable and extremely tasteful, leaving plenty of breathing space for the rest of the music. His signature drive and groove drove these tracks at their required pace, often all the way to the top.

Outside of drumming with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Hawkins’ talents extended to production, such as on Bob Seger‘s classic top 40 hit Old Time Rock and Roll, which is considered one of the most played jukebox tracks of all time. He also spent a brief period as the drummer for Traffic from 1972-73.

Roger Hawkins in Traffic
Roger Hawkins drumming with Traffic, wearing a Muscle Shoals T-Shirt, 1973
Photo: Brian Cooke/Redferns

Hawkins’ funkiness and success can be attributed to his unique view on session work.

“Every musician strives to be the best they can,” Hawkins stated, during an interview with Modern Drummer Magazine. “Not every musician gets the chances I had. Some new studio players have an attitude of ‘Man, I’ve got to play something great here — got to play the fast stuff to be hired again.’

“That’s not the way to go,” he urges. “I’ve always said this: I was always a better listener than I was a drummer. I would advise any drummer to become a listener.”

While Muscle Shoals Sound was sold in the 1990s, Hawkins remained as studio manager under the new owners. In recognition of his musical contributions, he and The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section were inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1995 and The Musicians Hall of Fame in 2008.

Roger Hawkins leaves us with his massive legacy, as a critical character in the shaping of funk and soul music throughout the 60s and 70s. Check out some of his grooves on I’m Your Puppet by James and Bobby Purify.