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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.

King Curtis, Jerry Wexler

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 Harlem—so 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 band—so 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.

Freddie King is a Blues Master=Muscle Shoals

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 music—that 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 then—that 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.
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