Talkin' Blues with the Groovemaster, Jerry Jemmott
AAJ: When you met King Curtis, that was in the mid-'60s when he was really riding high. He'd opened for the Beatles when they played Shea Stadium.
JJ: Yes I met him shortly after that as I recall. Other people have told me that he'd seen me play years prior to that, but I hadn't had any contact with him. I used to play every little nook and cranny club around New York when I started out. Court Basie's, the Barron Club, Smalls up in Harlemso he was familiar with my playing back then, but I didn't actually meet him until 1967.
AAJ: People from my generation tend to think of him in terms of R&B and rock 'n' roll, but I'm guessing his tastes and skills went much deeper, is that right?
JJ: Yes his roots went deep into the jazz circle, he'd played with Lionel Hampton, you know, swing and straight ahead jazz. He knew what to play for each style, so when you think of rhythm and blues, it's blues and rhythm. So he could take his jazz improvisational skills and move things around to create these unique sounds. We were coming out of New York and thought we were sophisticated; we brought things like the Latin influence, but he brought influences from Chicago, New Orleans, and the South.
Even musicians from the West, you know when you think about it, it all came out of this place (Mississippi) and spread out everywhere.
AAJ: I've heard that King Curtis could also play guitar, did you ever see him play guitar?
JJ: Oh yeah! I can't recall him recording on guitar, but sure, he'd show someone how to play a part, or play an idea. He'd write songs on the guitar and then transcribe it for the saxophone.
AAJ: And man, he knew how to spot a great guitarist.
JJ: That's for sure!
AAJ: Did you ever hear that he had Jimi Hendrix in his band for a while, back when he was still known as Jimi James?
JJ: Sure, that's when Jimi came to New York. That's when Chuck Rainey was in the band. I wasn't in the band then, but Cornell always used to talk about Jimi being in the bandso that was at the beginning, and that was quite a band.
Jimi had been with the Isley Brothers before that. It's funny how musicians can be floundering here, and then go to Europe with a more receptive audience and really turn things around.
AAJ: It's interesting, I always thought you, King Curtis, Cornell Dupree, and Bernard Purdie transcended racial barriers, and you connected a lot of white Southern players with R&B. When I was growing up, most black kids weren't interested in The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix and that kind of thing, but among white kids soul music and R&B was also very popular. Still, they remained still two very distinct worlds.
But you guys connected with a rock audience in a different way, you kind of lived in two worlds. I guess when you're out with Gregg Allman on the road you still feel that special connection you guys forged.
JJ: I certainly do, and that's all part of the King Curtis legacy. He was the one who was proactive and recording their material. Before him it was the white artists who recorded the black artists' music and would have hits with it. A lot of times the black artist's music would be shelved because all of a sudden a white artist's cover version would take over the airwaves. Historically that's the way it came down.
[Laughing] King Curtis would take music that white artists had done and cover it. Looking at it in retrospect, he wasn't the first to do it, but he did it a lot! You know, coming from the jazz world, it was common for jazz musicians to take Broadway show music, which was often the popular music of the day, and jazz it up. He would just do it on music like "Whole Lotta Love!"
AAJ: It interesting, I heard an older interview with Eric Clapton and he was asked what his favorite recording studio experience was, and he said it was with King Curtis doing a song called "Teasin' " when he was working with Delaney and Bonnie.
JJ: That's beautiful.
AAJ: So how about you, what session would it be?
JJ: That's difficult, because I would like to pick different periods in my life. As you get older, the glitter and the awe kind of wears off, and you feel like this is business. So let's say when I was young and worked with Nina Simone, and later sessions with her, those were magical.
AAJ: Another interesting thing about King Curtis is his role at Atlantic Records. Could you could share something about how he and Jerry Wexler worked together and influenced each other creatively?
JJ: He had a talent for bringing artists into the studio and surrounding them with the right musicians to achieve a goal. He had a knack for putting the right people together, he would often cross country, rock and rhythm & blues.
He and Jerry worked well together, and they were making the right phone calls. In the beginning King Curtis would call me, and then Jerry began to call me directly. Jerry was also interested in the overall production in a supervisory capacity.
AAJ: He was also a creative guy too, right? Not just about budgets and things?
JJ: Definitely. He also understood that by making the right calls, the less he would need to be involved. He could sit back and give directions, and he knew how to communicate with people. He allowed us to do our thing, and trusted us to come in and do the right thing.
He might have an idea and then ask one of us to interpret it. He and King Curtis were both very good at communicating the ideas they wanted us to interpret. They were "people people."
King Curtis was more musical and could explain what he wanted you to do. Jerry might mention another style, or occasionally another artist to convey what he wanted. He might get the feeling and start dancing or doing stuff.
AAJ: Did you start out with King Curtis in his band, or in the studio?
JJ: I didn't want to play with King Curtis's band live after he recorded "Memphis Soul Stew" without me. He had promised me studio work to get me to join his band. Becoming a studio musician was my focus and goal. The seed was planted in my head by a trumpet player named Richard Dugan, he was a bit older and had hung out with a bunch of the studio cats like Snooky Young and Ernie Royal in the early '60s.
So the promise of studio work is how King Curtis lured me out onto the limb and into touring. This meant I had to give up my day job, and I had just started a family.
So when he recorded that without me, I was pissed. I was only 20 years old. He explained that he wasn't the producer on that session and hadn't made the calls. But I left the band and joined Lionel Hampton's band. [Laughing] I ended up having some differences with Lionel along the way and he fired me. So I ended up back in New York without a job, and King Curtis called and said, "Look, you don't have to be in the band, just make my records." So he started calling me for his records and for other peoples' records.
AAJ: Jerry Wexler said that he preferred what he called the "Southern Style" of recording, working without sheet music and letting the musicians work it out on the spot. He said it was more creative, but also cheaper if you don't have someone running around altering charts and sheet musicthat costs time and money.
JJ: [Laughing] The Southern Style was when people would come in and play all day for half the money! That's what he was really talking about, bless his soul.
AAJ: Was Jerry the guy who got you down to Muscle Shoals?
JJ: Yes. I made four trips for him. I took over for Tommy Cogbill. I guess he got the idea when the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section came up to New York and I recorded with them thenthat was the first session I recorded with Aretha Franklin.
Initially I was there as an observer. King Curtis called me and asked me to come in, and said, "Bring your bass, you might play, you might not. But I want you there." So I sat around in the morning from ten to one while they were working on this song. They were going over and over on it, and it just wasn't happening. So around two Jerry Wexler told me to go in and see what I could do.
I've always had a knack for knowing how music should sound. I get an actual physical reaction when music doesn't feel right to me. I had sat there in agony, and kept asking, "Don't you hear that?" So when I finally got a chance to play, it caused everyone else except Aretha to change their part. They had been approaching it as playing against Aretha to create a contrast, and I began playing with her.
And that's when we recorded, "Think." On the third take it was done. So after that I stayed on for the sessions and Tommy switched to guitar. That's when I first played with Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson and Spooner Oldham.
So after that Jerry called me and asked me to go down South to Muscle Shoals to play with them, as opposed to having them come up here. So we worked it out in terms of what I was going to get paid for multiple sessions as opposed to the regular rate.
AAJ: Muscle Shoals is in Alabama, but near the Tennessee line, kind of between Nashville and Memphis. I've read stories of Aretha's husband drinking with the good ole boys at Muscle Shoals and things got kind of tense. So I was curious, what was your initial impression of Muscle Shoals? It seems kind of strange, they had all these good ole boys and these R&B artists like Wilson Pickett coming through, yet it worked so well.
JJ: That's true, I read about that with Aretha, and after that, she didn't go there, they went to New York or Miami to record with her.
When I got there in 1968 it was cool, in the studio everyone was minding their Ps & Qs and was on their best behavior.