By ALAN RICHARD
(Photo by Nathan Black)
MEMPHIS — Howard Grimes remembers that day at Royal Studios in 1972 when the groove just wouldn’t quit.
“Man, when we locked that track in, we couldn’t turn it loose,” said Grimes, who’ll turn 80 in August.
The groove felt so good, the band behind classics by Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, Otis Clay and many others, couldn’t seem to stop. Willie Mitchell, the legendary producer and musician who ran Royal Studios and Hi Records, finally had to cut them off.
“Willie was in the control room and came out and said, ‘I got it. You can stop playing the motherfucker!’ You should have seen Willie in there dancing, man,” Grimes said. “That particular day was a special day—a very special day. There wasn’t nothing in that studio but joy.”
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That’s but one memory Grimes recalled during a long visit in June on his front porch in Memphis. The master-drummer shares a lifetime of unforgettable moments in music—and his upbringing in north Memphis—in Timekeeper: My Life in Rhythm, his new autobiography written with author Preston Lauterbach. The book was released July 1.
“He’s one of the architects and foundations of what people think of as Memphis music,” said Scott Bomar, a veteran musician and producer in Memphis and close friend to Grimes. “He’s one of the most important and overlooked figures in Memphis music over the past 50 years.”
Grimes still plays drums in The Bo-Keys, and old friend Don Bryant, the legendary Hi Records singer-songwriter, will join the band for a special performance at a book reading by Grimes and his co-author.
“My beat is the backbone of the Memphis sound,” Grimes writes in Timekeeper. “The rhythm of this city runs through my heart.”
The perfect pocket
“Love and Happiness” is important for many reasons. While not one of Green’s major hits in the U.S., it was a favorite album track of radio DJs before it was finally a single in 1977.
As soul-music lovers likely know, the song begins with a short, sweet, signature croon from Green. Then Hi Rhythm guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, who wrote the song with Green, taps his foot five times on an old Coca-Cola crate before unleashing his unforgettable opening guitar lick.
Teenie’s brother, the Rev. Charles Hodges, adds a glorious moment of church organ before Grimes launches into one of the steadiest, most memorable grooves in all of music.
“That Coca-Cola crate had been sitting there for years,” Grimes remembered. “Then Mitchell urged him: Howard, put it down in front of Teenie and put a mike on it.”
In the book, Grimes writes that Mitchell told him the legendary Al Jackson (the band’s other sometimes-drummer, from Booker T. and the M.G.’s) was mad about not playing on “Love and Happiness.”
“Willie said he told Al, ‘I don’t want the motherfucker pretty. I want the motherfucker funky.’ So, I played drums on that,” Grimes wrote.
A book is born
Grimes writes of many musical mentors as he came up in the North Memphis neighborhood known as New Chicago. One key figure was Emerson Able, Grimes’ high school music teacher at Manassas High School and later a member of the Isaac Hayes Movement. (Ironically, Mr. Able once kicked Hayes out of the high school band.)
It was Mr. Able who directed Preston Lauterbach to contact Grimes as the author did the research for his 2011 book, The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n Roll.
Lauterbach began to visit Grimes regularly, and the drummer connected Lauterbach with lots of his musical friends and contacts.
Grimes had countless stories to tell. Lauterbach would often record their conversations.
“Every time he’d come here,” Grimes said, “we’d go to the seafood place over there next to the Memphis Drum Shop (Soul Fish Café).
Later, Lauterbach encouraged Grimes to let him assemble the stories into a readable order.
“I said, oh man, I couldn’t write a book,” Grimes recalled.
Then Lauterbach showed him what he’d put together. “You know when I read it, I saw my life. I feel so relieved.” Grimes said. “I started crying because I said, ‘This is me.’”
Rhythm of Memphis
Rhythm was on Grimes’ mind already when television began to bring more types of entertainment and music into his life. He’d watch big bands perform in TV movies on Channel 3.
“When I got out of school, I used to rush home. It started at 4 o’clock,” Grimes said. “I was getting all kinds of ideas. I stayed in front of the television more than I did in the street.”
“All my ideas came from movies, sounds,” he continued. “There used to be a train. My grandaddy worked at Baptist Hospital. He’d get up just before daybreak. I could hear those rails. I could hear that rhythm. It had to be God, all these rhythms.”
“I hear rhythm now,” he said as cars passed by.
Grimes was only 12 when Mr. Able let him play at his jazz gig at the Rivermont Club at Lamar and Central avenues.
Then Ben Branch and the Largos hired a young Grimes to join them at their regular gig Currie’s Club Tropicana back in Grimes’ own neighborhood. Floyd Newman played baritone saxophone and would soon have hits of his own.
Grimes also joined the brilliant trumpet player and arranger Gene “Bowlegs” Miller’s group for a time at the Rosewood club.
Those experiences drew the attention of local DJ and former Sun Records recording artist Rufus Thomas, who hired a young Grimes to play a 1959 session at Stax (still called Satellite at thew time) with him and his daughter, Carla. They recorded, “Cause I Love You,” which became a minor R&B hit in 1960.
Grimes remembers first walking into the old movie theater that formed the husk of Stax’s main studio. There he saw Black and white musicians performing together, sax man Floyd Newman and a young Booker T. Jones among them.
It also was the first time he laid eyes on a drum booth set up in a studio.
“I hadn’t even played miked drums before,” Grimes said. “At the club, the mike would be under a snare and there would be one in the bass drum, or a mike on the high-hat. But you know, you had to have control. They taught me how to do that.”
“Al Jackson had that spot,” Grimes said, recalling that sax legend Andrew Love once told him that “Otis, he’d be singing and humming the horn lines at the same time.”
The producer at the time was Chips Moman, who would later run American Studios in Memphis, co-write “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and “Dark End of the Street” with Dan Penn, and produce records for Elvis Presley, Bobby Womack, Willie Nelson, Dusty Springfield and a long list of others.
“I don’t know what Chips saw in me. He accepted me into The Mar-Keys,” Grimes said.
The Mar-Keys were Stax’s first house band and all-white at the time. Grimes writes that he never felt fully accepted in the group, which he joined after the band’s national hit, “Last Night.”
The musicians could play and eat together in the studio but couldn’t be seen leaving together, Grimes said.
Even so, Grimes said that Stax co-founder Jim Stewart welcomed Grimes into the fold and asked him to record on Carla Thomas’ first solo singles, including the smash, “Gee Whiz.” Grimes writes that they cut that song at nearby Royal Studios, with Willie Mitchell and Moman as co-producers, after an equipment malfunction at Stax.
The label wanted to expand, Grimes recalled, so The Mar-Keys began to record instrumentals.
Stax put different group names on the labels to appear to have more acts on its roster.
Grimes and the band recorded under pseudonyms such as The Triumphs (they scored a hit, “Burnt Biscuits”) and “Yank Me Doodle” as The Baracudas (joined by musicians from Washington, D.C., Grimes said).
“We were the same bands,” Grimes said. “We only had one group and that was the Mar-Keys.”
The Royal treatment
At the recommendation of Moman, Grimes joined Flash & the Board of Directors, a band that would cover rock tunes at the old Thunderbird, an integrated club at Poplar and Manassas.
The band also would back visiting acts such as B.J. Thomas and Dusty Springfield. That’s how tour man Jerry Williams spotted Grimes and asked him to tour with Paul Revere and the Raiders.
“I was the only Black (person) in the band at the time,” Grimes said.
But that was the late 1960s. After Grimes endured threats in Dallas and Montgomery, Alabama, he began to consider his safety.
Teenie Hodges had mentioned to Grimes that they needed a drummer at Willie Mitchell’s studio.
At his audition, Grimes said the band launched into “20-75,” Mitchell’s instrumental hit from 1964.
Then Mitchell stopped everything. What was the drummer doing?
“I’m trying to make your band!” Grimes replied.
“’He said, ‘Slooowww down!’ And I picked up the vibes through his voice. He said, ‘We’re aaaaaaalllllllll gonna get there at the same time,’” Grimes recalled.
“It’s like my spirit slipped into this man’s body. His foot would always be on the downbeat, which was the one,” Grimes said. “He’d say, ‘Get in a hole, and get out of it.’”
“He trained me to be able to play and not be busy. He just wanted me to get in this pocket,” he continued.
The drummer also felt right at home with the incredible Hodges Brothers—Teenie on guitar, Charles on organ, Leroy (who’d become one of Grimes’ best friends) on bass, and Mitchell’s stepson, Archie “Hubbie” Turner, on additional organ and keys.
The Hodges came up in Germantown, now in the Memphis suburbs but the country back then. Their father, Leroy Sr., had a band called the Blue Dots that featured now-aged Beale Street performer Earl the Pearl.
Together, they “made music that will go on past our own days on this earth,” Grimes writes. “I needed a family, and they were a family.”
Hitting the Road
In 1968, Mitchell and his group cut King Curtis’ “Soul Serenade,” and it became a top 10 R&B hit.
Mitchell played trumpet, his signature instrument from years as a local bandleader. Charles Chalmers was on sax—he also played on classics by Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. Chalmers and his then-wife and her sister, Sandra and Donna, also would form Rhodes, Chalmers & Rhodes, the white vocal trio who regularly backed Green at Royal Studio.
That sent the group on tour, Grimes said, with the help of Memphis booking agents, a white couple named Donny Dortch and Bettye Berger. “They was wonderful people, man,” Grimes said.
The band hit the road and made their way to California. They played Midnight Special, American Bandstand with Dick Clark, and Donald O’Connor’s and Joey Bishop’s TV shows. They even played a club date with Ike and Tina Turner, who Grimes and the band later backed on the 1969 album, The Hunter, which was to be nominated for a GRAMMY©.
“The night we played the Troubadour, Faye Dunaway hit on me,” Grimes writes.
Grimes’ first real sessions at Royal weren’t for Hi Records.
O.V. Wright, one of the greatest and most unheralded of voices in soul, came to Memphis with Don Robey from Houston, owner of the Back Beat, Peacock and Duke labels.
On some of the most moving numbers you’ll ever hear, Wright pleads and wails his way through a catalogue of minor R&B hits that weave some of the deepest blue notes and with the genre’s most clever lyrics—some funny, some heartbreaking.
In 1967, the band first cut Wright singing “Eight Men, Four Women,” with Mitchell as the producer. Grimes plays a slow, driving beat that foretells an approach Mitchell would perfect with Al Green.
This wonderful music didn’t just unfold by itself. Grimes said that Mitchell would work for days to determine how a song should sound. Then he’d work with Grimes for hours at times to tune and tighten the drums.
“He had the men crying and the women, too,” Grimes said.
One of Wright’s best, “I’d Rather Be (Blind, Crippled and Crazy),” is built atop one of from Grimes’s most incredible grooves.
His drum opening was inspired by tap dancer Ray Bolger, best known for Vaudeville-style moves as seen in his role as the Scarecrow in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. “He used to trip and act like he was going up the wall,” Grimes recalled.
After that opening, Grimes’ beat becomes so steady, so funky, so perfectly complementing the organ, horns, and Wright’s vocals.
“Willie heard all this and said, ‘Boy, that’s some crazy rhythm you got there,’” Grimes writes. “But it’s in time. And it’s funky.”
“Willie Mitchell was so laid back, man. He was in another world. He was on another planet,” Grimes said.
Grimes’ nickname, Bulldog, or just Dog, came from Mitchell’s observations of Grimes’ heavy foot on the big bass drum.
Unfortunately, O.V. Wright also had many demons. Grimes writes that he saw Wright drink entire bottles of cough syrup before recording at Royal. In 1979, Wright offered Grimes badly needed work on a tour in Japan, but one night Wright drained some whiskey and came out on stage in bedroom shoes.
The singer would pass away in 1980.
“Willie felt like if he’d lived people would recognize O.V. as the greatest singer in the world.,” Grimes writes.
Green Is Gold
One winter night on the road in Waco, Texas, with Mitchell, Grimes and the band came across a shooting star.
“That club that night was jammed. Man, it was full,” Grimes recalled. A young man approached Mitchell and asked to do a song. He said his name was Al Green. He’d just scored a hit with the bluesy “Back Up Train.”.
“Willie said, ‘You ain’t Al Green,’” Grimes recalled. “I didn’t think it was him either.”
Mitchell asked the club owner, and he said, “Yeah, that’s him,” Grimes said.
“He called him in the dressing room. He said, ‘What you want to sing?’”
When Green took the stage, Grimes remembers that “he started giving directions. He said, ‘Bass man, here’s what I want you to play. Drummer, all I want is a light rim shot.”
Then he started to sing—and this was before Green learned to whisper-sing in that sexy sounding way that Mitchell and the group would soon help perfect.
“I tell you, honest to God,” Grimes said, “when he sang (his 1967 hit) ‘Back Up Train,’ that whole place come to life, man. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
After the show, Teenie Hodges talked to Mitchell about bringing Green to Memphis. “Al first stayed in a house in Orange Mound,” Grimes writes. “The place had no furniture, but a shoebox full of reefer.”
Green had little material, however, so Mitchell and the band cut mostly cover songs on the singer, including a single of Green singing The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1969.
Green’s first album on Hi Records, 1971’s, Gets Next to You, is good—Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield’s “I Stand Accused,” a nice slowed-down version of “The Letter” by Memphis’ Box Tops, and more—but the best was yet to come.
“We was fishing and trying to find this guy,” Grimes said. “We had Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, O.B. McClinton and O.V. Wright (on the label). But Willie was looking for something.”
Before the band would lay down any rhythm track, Grimes would hang out at the studio to hear the singer and the song. Grimes would “beat on top of the organ or something” to find the right beat.
Green came into the studio one day with an original: “Tired of Being Alone.”
“He had a little acoustic guitar,” Grimes said. “He started playing (it on) acoustic, and I knew it was a hit.”
The song is the centerpiece of the album Gets Next to You and it’s when Mitchell and the group began their incredible balance of emotion and restraint on Green’s vocals and material.
“After that, man, everything we did turned gold,” Grimes said.
Months later, Mitchell, Al Jackson and Al Green wrote the classic, “Let’s Stay Together.”
Jackson played the drums on what’d become Green’s first No. 1 smash, but Grimes was there for additional percussion, which he’d learned from Mr. Able and those club bands.
“Willie said, ‘I hear something, but I don‘t know whether it’s going to fit,’” Grimes remembered.
He directed Grimes to use only two fingers and play a light alternate beat on a conga drum. “He said, ‘Put it in the rockin’ chair!’”
As he began to tap, Grimes thought of the holiday Budweiser beer commercial of that era with the Clydesdale horses and the clip-clop rhythm of their hooves.
“Their heads were doing this,” he said, nodding back and forth. “The vision just come. ‘Willie, is this what you want?’”
Mitchell put a microphone close to Grimes’ gentle playing and turned it up in the mix. It can’t be any better.
Grimes also writes that Atlantic Records wanted to send Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway to record with the band at Royal. But Mitchell may have been wary of Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler and his dealings with neighboring Stax Records that ended up crippling the company.
“The studio was growing so,” Grimes said. “There was artists coming from everywhere.”
Singer-songwriter Denise LaSalle, a Mississippi native recording on Detroit’s Westbound label, came to Royal at the urging of another of Grimes’ former bosses, Gene “Bowlegs” Miller, who’d produce a couple of LaSalle’s best albums with Grimes and Hi Rhythm—including the sublime No. 1 soul hit “Trapped by This Thing Called Love.” (Miller also played with Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and many others.)
LaSalle had brought along her protégé’, singer Bill Coday, who cut a few songs with the band, including “Get Your Lie Straight,” which made the R&B top 20.
“We cut two hits in one day,” Grimes recalled.
One of Hi Rhythm’s best performances, Grimes contends, was in 1971 when the Detroit Emeralds to town.
“They had heard the way we were doing things and the way I was setting grooves. And that’s what they were looking for.”
After a tiring day of work, the Emeralds manager, an old buddy of Mitchell’s, asked them to stay and do just one song with the group.
They recorded “Do Me Right,” which became an R&B hit. “We cut it in one take,” Grimes said.
Then there was Ann Peebles. Grimes remembers working with Peebles, who Don Bryant would soon fall in love with and to whom remains married, on her timing.
“She got so tight, it was just perfect,” he said.
One day at Royal Studios, the band came up with one most distinctive moments in soul: That raindrop pitter-patter that opens Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain.”
“Willie thought it needed something,” Grimes writes. Mitchell instructed Grimes and Teenie Hodges to tinker with a timbale in the studio. Grimes thought of the TV commercial that showed coffee percolating as he played, with Hodges picking the final notes on his guitar.
And that happens in the song before Grimes dives into another of the greatest grooves in popular music, which Mitchell added Peebles’ blues-and-gospel vocal and classic horn lines.
“John Lennon called it the best song ever, so I think we got it right,” Grimes noted.
Life and death
Grimes also writes about being in the studio with Green when he learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel a couple of miles away. And he recalls being at Royal Studios with Green—and a couple of women and a bodyguard—on the night of the “grits” incident.
A breaking point for Hi Records, Grimes said, was when Mitchell decided to cut Syl Johnson singing “Take Me to the River” before Green, who had written the song, could deliver his own earth-shaking version. Grimes played on both singers’ recordings.
“I think that the way Willie handled ‘Take Me to the River’ started the end of Hi Records,” he writes.
Green took out his frustration in part by firing him, Grimes writes: “Willie said, ‘I do the hirin’ and I do the firin’.” Al didn’t like that. He shut the session down and left.”
Then in 1977, Grimes said, Mitchell broke more bad news.
“He just came through the door and he said, ‘The company’s been sold out. I got a pension for everybody,’” Grimes remembered. “I didn’t know what a pension was.”
The heyday of hits was over. Grimes, left without work and direction, eventually ended up living in his car at times.
“I went into a suffering, a loss,” he said. “But I kept my faith.”
On one desperate, stormy Memphis night of lightning and wind, Grimes heard a knock at the door. When he answered, he was shocked to see Al Green wearing in a white suit and holding a briefcase with $500 inside.
“I don’t know if God ordered him (to come) or Willie Mitchell did,” Grimes writes. “To this day, he hasn’t asked for that money back.”
Seeing the light
Grimes also writes in Timekeeper about his religious epiphany, and even today he talks vividly about his visions.
“I was dying. Everything was turned off—no money, no food, and I went into a deep sleep,” he said. “I saw God stand there and had his arms out and like that I just walked up into his arms. He said, ‘I want you to speak when I command you to. Don’t run your mouth or they’ll call you crazy.’”
After he awoke, a neighbor came by.
“He knew the situation I’d been in. I’d been ashamed to be out in public,” Grimes said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Howard, you’re glowing.’ He said, ‘I can hardly look at you, man. God got you.’”
“The Lord told me to go on Beale Street and find an artist to draw just what I had saw,” he said. “I was down there checking out Earl the Pearl’s show.”
The drawing came back, and “it was exactly what I had seen.”
The drummer later reconciled with Mitchell, who died in 2010, and with Green, who’d also reunite with Mitchell after years of preaching and recording only gospel music.
And Grimes found his way back into music.
Bomar, the local producer-musician and owner of Memphis’ Electraphonic Studios, met Grimes at nearby LeMoyne-Owen College at a book event in the late 1990s for author Rob Bowman’s Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records.
Years later, Bomar brought together some of Memphis’ best aging musicians with some of the city’s younger talent in The Bo-Keys.
Trumpet player Marc Franklin and legendary keyboardist Archie “Hubbie” Turner, who’d played often with Hi Rhythm, kept bringing up Grimes’ name. Bomar knew of Grimes’ legendary work on Hi Records, but wasn’t aware at first his work on those early recordings for Stax.
When Bomar needed a drummer for Cyndi Lauper’s 2010 blues album, which would be nominated for a Grammy Award, he knew who to call.
“Howard, he brought so much to the table. Not only just his drumming, but he also brought his rolodex with him, too,” Bomar said. “He just had all these people that he liked working with and had a history with and brought them into to what we were doing.”
The groove returns
Grimes himself joined The Bo-Keys and began to play alongside guitarist Skip Pitts (who plays the wah-wah part on the Shaft soundtrack and many others), Ben Cauley (of The Bar-Kays, the lone survivor of the Otis Redding and The Bar-Kays plane crash in 1967), country-soul singer Percy Wiggins and more. Other soul legends—Don Bryant, William Bell, Floyd Newman, Otis Clay and others—became regular guests.
Grimes’ friend Willie Hall, a drummer and producer with his own incredible legacy, also was in the group and played on Bomar’s projects such as the score to the film Hustle & Flow.
Hall also played extensively with Isaac Hayes (including on “Theme from Shaft” from 1971, which won an Oscar) and later in the original Blues Brothers band, for Levon Helm, and as Al Jackson’s successor in Booker T. and the M.G.’s after Jackson’s untimely death. (Grimes also writes about his friendship with Jackson, which wasn’t contentious despite their competition as drummer, and Jackson’s murder.)
Grimes, too, has played with Bomar and the group of many records, including Don Bryant’s wonderful comeback albums.
“I don’t know if I’d still be in the studio business and making records without Howard,” Bomar said. “Every studio he’s gone to, they’ve had success.”
“No one plays like Howard. They’ve tried to,” he added.
In 2016, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame presented Hi Rhythm with a lifetime achievement award. The Americana Music Association has done the same.
Grimes also remembers when he had to get up and speak at the Memphis Blues Society event when it honored Grimes with a lifetime achievement award of his own.
“I broke down for a minute there,” he recalled.
He stepped away to collect himself, then returned to a standing ovation. “I saw so much love there.”
Grimes recalls the host of the event’s words to him. “He said, ‘Howard, you told the truth. You just showed the real you.’”
Alan Richard, a longtime writer in Atlanta, is the editor of the SoulCountry music blog and has written about music for No Depression and other publications.
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