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Talkin' Blues with the Groovemaster, Jerry Jemmott

Alan Bryson By

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Jerry Jemmott's groove is the bedrock of guitarist B.B. King's career defining hit, "The Thrill is Gone." He was in the studio with Duane Allman and singer Wilson Pickett recording "Hey Jude," a track that was instrumental in launching the late Allman Brothers Band guitarist's musical career; and they were together again for flautist Herbie Mann's Push Push (Atlantic, 1971), Allman's first and only jazz sessions, and the last full album he recorded prior to his death on October 29, 1971. Jemmott was also there on December 13, 1968, when guitarist Mike Bloomfield called another six-stringer, an unknown Johnny Winter, up onstage at the Fillmore East—a Friday the 13th that turned out to be Winter's lucky day.

Jemmott was with singer Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul herself, when she conquered San Francisco's hippie community at the Fillmore West in March of 1971. The album, drawn from this series of concerts (with a surprise appearance by singer Ray Charles), earned her a gold record, and was something she would later refer to as a highlight of her career.

Jerry Jemmott's blues credits are truly remarkable: in addition to B.B. King, Freddie King, Mike Bloomfield, Duane Allman, Otis Rush, Johnny Winter, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, there's his legendary association with Cornell Dupree, Bernard Purdie, and King Curtis. In my last column, Jimmy Herring had this to say about him: "He's a genius, there's just nobody like him. He's the sound that defined an entire generation. I love Jerry Jemmott, it doesn't get any better than that."

Another of his seminal achievements, which will no doubt be watched by generations yet unborn, was his collaboration with Jaco Pastorius on the instructional video Modern Electric Bass (1985). Even beyond its instructional value, because it was done so close to Pastorius' death on September 21, 1987, it provides an invaluable insight into this extraordinary musician and composer. Pastorius had this to say about Jerry Jemmott: "He was my idol. That stuttering kind of bass line, bouncing all around the beat but keeping it right in the groove—well, they don't call Jerry the Groovemaster for nothing. He's the best."

In this extensive interview Jerry Jemmott speaks about all this, as well as his wide ranging session work for Atlantic Records, and his current gig with blues/rock legend Gregg Allman.

B.B. King

All About Jazz: I want to ask first about the sessions with B.B. King for "The Thrill is Gone." When you guys finished and heard the playback, was it just another song that day, or did you have the feeling that this could become something momentous?

Jerry Jemmott: You have to look at it from our perspective. We came together to revolutionize his music, so it was with great intent that we set forth. We were thinking in terms of taking things apart and reconstructing the music so to speak. But it happened naturally through the selection of the people involved, starting with the contractor, Herb Lovelle. Earlier in the '60s he had worked with the same producer for Bob Dylan to make his music more accessible.

That's part of the reason you know Bob Dylan today, because of Herb and his partner, whose name escapes me right now, but they had a reputation around New York for being able to turn peoples' music around. So, for that reason, they called him to do the B.B. King sessions. He played the drums, Paul Harris was on keyboards, and Al Kooper was there—so we knew we were there for a reason. They had about 20 minutes of a live party album, but it wasn't enough for a full album, so they had the idea of coming into the studio.

In the studio you can construct things and make a memorable recording. So if you do something, you're thinking, let's make this the definitive version of the song. That's always my approach when I go into the studio. As it turned out, later I learned from B.B. that he'd been working on "The Thrill is Gone" going back six years prior to this session. He'd performed it live a few times, but he could never quite get it the way he wanted it.

B.B. King Completely WellHe was comfortable letting us do our thing because the previous album had been successful and the song "Why I Sing the Blues" had gotten a lot of air play, so he was happy with that. So the next time we came together in the studio he brought in "The Thrill is Gone" and said, "Let's see what we can do with this."

It was Herb's idea to put strings on it.

AAJ: Sometimes those string things can really transform a song. Like James Brown's "It's a Man's World," I've heard a version without the strings, and man, the strings really did the trick.

JJ: Oh for sure, without a doubt! Strings are beautiful.

AAJ: Were the strings on "The Thrill is Gone" live with you guys?

JJ: No, that was Herbie Lovelle's idea, and Bert de Coteaux did the arrangement after the fact. Bert is great.

AAJ: Oh man, those cellos are wild.

JJ: Yeah, what they would do in those days is pick up the rhythm parts and duplicate and amplify them. Then they would take the rhythm section down in the mix and you would hear the strings.

AAJ: It's so cool, the way he did it, it's like a spontaneous dialog between you and the cellos.

JJ: Bert was phenomenal, he was able to pick up on that, and on the lines that Hugh McCracken was playing. That's their technique, it's called sweetening. Sometimes it's accentuating or it can be a call and response.

AAJ: Have you seen B.B. out, or on video lately? A few years back at the Crossroads Festival, even in his 80s, his voice was just unbelievable.

JJ: I haven't seen him recently, but I started going out to see him in the 1980s because I hadn't seen him since the '60s. It had been almost a 15 year gap from the time that we recorded "The Thrill is Gone," and he was so warm and affectionate when he greeted me. I was embarrassed because of all the praise and appreciation he showered on me for my work when he introduced me to the musicians in his band—I think that was in Newark, New Jersey.

I've seen him a few times after that, I've kept up with him until—it was 19...no 2000, [laughing] I feel like Champion Jack Dupree. He'd be talking about the 1800s and then say, "No, I mean the 1900s!" And we all would crack up, we were in our 20s, so he was an old man to us, talking about the 1800s, when he was a boy.

So anyway, I saw him last in 2006 and he sounded great, and I hear from people that he's dropped a lot of weight and he's feeling good. The fact that he's singing great, I'm not surprised.


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