David Briggs’ office upstairs at House of David Studio is strewn with priceless mementos, mostly photographs, but other personal memorabilia, too; souvenirs of an amazing career in music spanning more than half a century. Looking around the room, one can see photos of Briggs with some of the biggest stars ever, rarified company like Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, B.B. King, Dolly Parton, and Joe Cocker. He worked with all those legends and more.
A native of Florence, Alabama, Briggs began working professionally as a piano player in the late ’50s — before he was old enough to drive — and in the ensuing decades, he would wear many hats: session musician, songwriter, recording artist, arranger, producer, publisher, television music director, and studio owner; and wear them all successfully.
You could say Briggs got his start in the Muscle Shoals scene, except when he got his start, there wasn’t a Muscle Shoals scene. He’s one of the people who helped give birth to that scene in the late ’50s and early ’60s, earning him a place in music history regardless of all that would follow.
Briggs began his formal music training in elementary school when his mother insisted he take music lessons. “My mother made me take piano,” Briggs recalls. “I had a guitar — I messed around with it all the time anyway. But she wanted me to be a little more refined, I guess.” He pauses, then adds with a laugh, “She made me take piano lessons — I didn’t want to.”
By his early teens, Briggs came to the attention of a band called the Crunk Brothers, three brothers who appeared regularly on a local TV show and were all much older than Briggs. “I had been in a lot of talent contests, and I kept winning — I just played boogie boogie; nobody’s worth a shit in them,” he explains. “Anyway, they [the Crunk Brothers] came over one day, and they wanted me to play with them, so I started playing with them.”
During his time playing with the Crunk Brothers, Briggs met bassist Norbert Putnam, who would become his longtime friend and musical partner. Putnam would invite Briggs to join his first rock & roll band, The Rhythm Rockets.
Songwriter James Joiner owned the first recording studio in Muscle Shoals and after hearing Briggs play on a demo session there in the late ’50s, he hired the young keyboardist to play on a Jimmy C. Newman session. As it would turn out, that was a pivotal moment for Briggs, not only because it was his first session with a recording star, but also because that was when he first met songwriter Peanut Montgomery and drummer Jerry Carrigan.
“After the session, Peanut said, ‘Why don’t you go with me, I want to take you somewhere,’ and he took me to FAME, the original FAME, which was just a block up the street and around the corner,” Briggs recalls.”He said, ‘We don’t have a piano player.’ So I got to know Peanut, and Peanut got me in at FAME.”
FAME is also where Briggs first met guitarists Terry Thompson and Kelso Herston, who would join Briggs, Montgomery, Carrigan, and Putnam in the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section. Briggs played keyboards on all the early hits that came out of Fame Studios from 1962-64, including “You Better Move On” by Arthur Alexander, “Untie Me,” “What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am)” by The Tams, “Everybody” by Tommy Roe, and “Steal Away” by Jimmy Hughes. He and the other members of the FAME rhythm section backed Tommy Roe and the other opening acts on the Beatles’ very first U.S. concert in 1964.
During that same period of time when the first national hits came out of Muscle Shoals, Briggs began writing songs and getting them cut, and also made his first records as an artist. In April of 1963, ABC-Paramount released an instrumental single by The Mark V, “Night Rumble (Part I)” backed by “Night Rumble (Part II),” the B-side written by Briggs, although misattributed to Thompson, and later covered by Al Hirt on his 1966 album, The Horn Meets “The Hornet.” In July of 1963, Dot Records released a single attributed to the Fame Studio Orchestra and Chorus, the A- side of which, “Tender Teardrops,” was written by Briggs. It was backed by a cover of the Johnny Cash hit, “Ring of Fire.” Then in November of that same year, Briggs had a release on Decca under his own name which was produced by the label’s legendary record man Owen Bradley, “Leave Her To Me” backed by “When I Think of You.” In 1964, Brenda Lee recorded a song he cowrote with future songwriting legend Dan Penn, “My Dreams,” which was the B-side of “Alone With You.”
As the word got around about the hot sounds coming out of Muscle Shoals, a few producers based in Nashville started recording there, including ABC-Paramount A&R man Felton Jarvis, who often was accompanied by arranger Ray Stevens. Jarvis, Stevens, and the other Nashville people loved recording in Muscle Shoals with Briggs and the other members of the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section, but they didn’t like Muscle Shoals; it’s hotels and restaurants didn’t meet their standards. Jarvis and Bradley encouraged the Muscle Shoals musicians to move to Nashville, promising they would make more the first year than they were making in Alabama. So at the end of December of 1964, Briggs, Putnam, and Carrigan made the move to Music City.
As promised, Briggs got calls for sessions right away, playing on nearly 140 recording dates his first year in Nashville, more than half as many as he had done his entire time in Muscle Shoals. He got called for some country sessions, but also for the growing number of pop, rock, and R&B sessions in the city. The following year, he played on just over 400 sessions, beginning a two-decade run as one of Nashville’s most in-demand keyboardists, a stretch in which he averaged playing on 420 sessions a year.
In that twenty-year stretch, Briggs recorded with many of the biggest stars in popular music, including Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Linda Ronstadt, Dan Fogelberg, Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, Al Green, Dean Martin, Jerry Reed, Joe Simon, Tony Joe White, Joe Tex, Ronnie Milsap, Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Bob Seger, Dobie Gray, and The Pointer Sisters.
Despite his volume of sessions, Briggs wasn’t just working as a sideman. As an artist, he released an album of instrumental covers, Keyboard Sculpture, on the Monument label in 1969. Around that same time, he became a member of the session supergroup Area Code 615, which released two pioneering albums on Polydor Records that informed the emerging subgenres of county rock and Southern rock, Area Code 615 and Trip in the Country.
Briggs also continued his work as a songwriter after he made the move to Nashville. Among the highlights: In 1966, country artist Jim Ed Brown recorded a song he cowrote with Jimmy Rule, “Taste of Heaven.” In 1968, Percy Sledge recorded “High Cost of Leaving,” a song he cowrote with Donnie Fritts. And working with producer George Martin in 1976, Kenny Rogers recorded a number Briggs cowrote with Linda Thompson, “Our Perfect Song.”
Briggs also became a studio owner and publisher at the end of the’60s, partnering with Putnam in Quadrafonic Sound and Danor Music. Quad quickly became the go-to studio in Nashville for rock recordings, hosting sessions for some of rock’s biggest names, including Neil Young, Dan Fogelberg, The Jacksons, and Jimmy Buffett.
With Danor in the early ’70s, Briggs discovered two writers who would go on to songwriting greatness, Troy Seals and Will Jennings. Briggs and Jennings would work together off and on over the next two decades, including the period in the ’80s when Jennings cowrote more than half the songs for Steve Winwood’s multi-platinum comeback album, Back in the High Life, including the No. 1 hit, “Higher Love.” Around that same time, Jennings cowrote another song that went to No. 1, Whitney Houston’s “Didn’t We Almost Have It All.” Willin’ David Music, the publishing company Briggs co-owned with Jennings, received The Robert J. Burton Award from BMI in 1988 as the publisher of the year.
It was also in the early ’70s that Briggs began a career as an award-winning producer of jingles for national and international brand name companies. In the mid-’70s, he accepted an offer from Presley, whom he had recorded with extensively by then, to join his live TCB band, which he did for several years near the end of Presley’s life.
Quadrafonic Sound was in such demand, that Briggs had a difficulty getting access to it for his own projects. So in 1974, he bought another property a few block away and set up a second studio in it which would come to be known as House of David Studio. Initially, the studio was just for his own use, but after he and Putnam sold Quad in 1979 (and after waiting a three-year noncompete period), he began hosting commercial sessions at House of David in 1982 and continues to do so to this day. Joe Cocker, the Jazz Crusaders, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Bobby Vinton, and Bootsy Collins are just a few of the legends who have worked there over the years.
In 1988, Briggs added one more professional hat to his collection, television music director, when he accepted an offer to become music director for The CMA Awards, annual awards show televised at that time by CBS. Briggs handled those duties for thirteen years.
Briggs was elected to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2011, he and Putnam were presented with the Cecil B. Scaife Visionary Award given annually to individuals whose lives and work have made it possible for future generations to realize careers in the music industry. That same year, he was honored by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum as a “Nashville Cat.” He was also featured in the museum’s most popular exhibit ever, Dylan. Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City, which ran from March 2015 to February 2017