If you loved R&B — no, call it what it was, “soul music,” the best of its time — the Stax Records logo said it all: a hand held upright, fourth and fifth fingers curved inward, second finger pointing toward the sky, and third finger poised against thumb, like a match ready to ignite.
It’s an apt image for this music. A musical note wouldn’t have been right: Though there were great singers onboard at the Memphis-based label, they weren’t crooners; the gifts of Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla, Eddie Floyd, and the late Otis Redding couldn’t be measured in the ebb and flow of a classic, crafted melody.
No, the finger-snap was perfect, because Stax was all about the beat.
On the long stream of records that issued from Stax during its glory years, roughly 1965 through ’72, musicians who filled out the fabulous Stax rhythm section, the bare-bones but in-the-pocket Memphis Horns, and the vocalists all plugged directly into the beat. There was no percussion to dress it up, and when strings were brought in for ballads they were written thin, usually in single lines or, if harmonized, with a non-intrusive intimacy (as on Eddie Floyd’s “I’ve Never Found a Girl”).
For this to work, you had to have someone behind the drums who understood the formula. The current had to flow unimpeded, at every speed; the slowest tunes needed that pulse as much as the ones that rode an up-tempo rush.
You needed a drummer who respected the air in the rhythm, who could resist the temptation to fill every hole with reminders of his virtuosity …
… resist, that is, until the perfect fill, perfectly positioned, could explode the tune — like the strike of a match.
On top of that, you needed a drummer whose tempo was perfect, who locked each take down right where it belonged but could ramp it up on stage, where live energy made it appropriate.
All of this ruled out pretty much every drummer on earth at that time save Al Jackson Jr. — and it’s everyone’s good fortune that this amazing musician, who transformed America’s idea of rhythm before his tragically premature departure, was on that gig.
You can’t do this with many drummers, but Jackson’s genius can be reflected in a single, impeccable lick.
It happens where the last chorus ends and the outtro begins on Sam & Dave’s “Hold On I’m Comin’.” Up to this point Jackson has stuck to eighth-notes on the hi-hat, backbeats on the snare, and a simple kick pattern that varies slightly with each section of the song.
But now, just after the third beat on the final bar of that chorus, Jackson raps a crisp, three-note figure on the snare, follows it with two eighth-notes on the bass drum on the last sixteenth-note and the next on the first sixteenth of the vamp that leads to the fade.
It is the only fill Jackson plays up to that point. And in all likelihood, he threw it in on impulse, during the first and only take. It was, in other words, another day at the office.
Jackson learned the essential lessons — how to play, and how not to overplay — on the job. His father, a bassist, was one of the top jazz players in Memphis in 1935, the year of Al Junior’s birth. He led his own 18-piece band, reading charts by Basie and other arrangers of the day. These were the formative influences on the younger Jackson, who showed enough flair on drums to play his first gig, as a featured guest of Al Senior’s band, when he was just five years old.
In those years Al Senior held down a day job at the local Army depot, which sometimes made him late to a show that night. Whenever that happened, trumpeter Willie Mitchell took over until Jackson could show up. It was not unusual for Al Junior to sit in, though as a novelty feature rather than as a full-fledged part of the lineup. Still, Mitchell registered his progress from childhood into his teenage years, so that when the regular drummer failed to make a gig they had booked one Saturday evening at the University Of Arkansas in Little Rock, Mitchell made the obvious suggestion.
“Al Junior was about 14 years old then,” Mitchell remembers, “and I said to his father, ’Hey, let’s use your son!’ He said, ’Oh, man, he can’t play this shit!’ But he did make the gig. He set up his kit — a cymbal, a snare drum, and a bass drum — and I kicked the thing off. And, man, that thing went off at 20 tempos!”
Mitchell chuckles as he remembers the young drummer’s nervousness. “But that was around 7:00 o’clock. And by the time Al Senior came in an hour later, at 8:00 o’clock, Al Jackson Jr. was swinging that damn band like a pro.”
In those days, Jackson already had the tools for a career in jazz. He liked that Basie feel, as laid down by Sonny Payne, but was aware of all the great drummers, from swing through bop. “He could play Gene Krupa and all that stuff,” Mitchell says. “And he was reading charts when he was 12 years old. He had to, because his daddy’s band had three trumpets, two trombones, and four saxophones, and when they hit, he’d better hit with them.”
No surprise, then, that when Mitchell got out of the army in the mid ’50s and decided to launch his own band, he offered the drum chair to Al Junior. In 1959, when Mitchell also signed a deal to begin producing for the local Hi Records imprint, Jackson quit his gig with trumpeter Gene “Bowlegs” Miller and started playing with Mitchell’s group on much the same circuit that they’d covered with Al Senior, including military bases and high school proms; it was as a kid at his prom that future Stax bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn had his first glimpse of Jackson, who was playing there with Mitchell.
Jackson was loyal to Mitchell — but he was also open when other opportunities presented themselves. And in the early mid ’60s there were plenty of options for a talented, self-starting musician in Memphis. The one that Jackson chose led to another studio, this one in a former movie theater that would soon become the center of a revolution in American music.
It’s not your typical Stax up-tempo beat, but that’s because Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose” breaks down to a guitar/bass hook — just three notes — that cycles through virtually the whole song. If it weren’t for riffs that trumpeter Wayne Jackson and saxophonist Andrew Love blow over the groove, there wouldn’t even be a clear chord structure.
With the beat more elemental than usual, Jackson strips the drum part down to straight eighth-notes on a slightly opened hi-hat, backbeats on the snare, and quarter-notes on the kick. This last detail is crucial: With Duck Dunn dominating the low end of the spectrum, Jackson knew that he had to stay out of the way and just drive the beat. You can’t get more basic than that — but it takes a drummer with an ear to detail to make the basics come to life.
First of all, this performance offers one of the better examples in the Stax catalog of a formula that Jackson devised to push the momentum without losing control of the tempo. Go to the very first bar, which offers just the guitar/bass riff with the hi-hat closing on the second and fourth beats. The first of these ticks hits right on top of the beat; the second one falls a hair behind. You almost don’t notice the difference, though to Jackson and the rest of his rhythm section that timing was essential.
Dragging that attack — on the fourth beat of the bar here but more often on the second — gave songs like this a feeling of being reined back against the urge to let the rhythm rock. This fits right in with the simplicity of the groove, which in turn makes it hit that much harder when the fill, impossible to hold back any further, makes itself heard.
That moment comes, on “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” four bars past the beginning of the vamp leading toward the fade. He flagged this section with a transitional lick, repeated three times, after which he kicks into the home stretch, imperceptibly notching the tempo down. Of course, this builds the tension even more, and with that Redding, a gut-busting, hyperventilating, strangle-voiced shouter, goes deep into the gospel well, barking through his ad-libs: “I can’t, uh, turn you loose. Never, I’m never gonna turn you lose. I’m gonna keep holding on … turn you lose. Gonna keep a grip on you, I can’t turn you loose …” He’s a one-man call and response, preacher and choir, asking for and hollering back his own amens.
And then, out of nowhere, Jackson is on the snare, pounding straight-eights on the last bar, circling around the toms, and ending with a crash — the first in the entire song — on the first beat of bar nine. That’s all it takes, no more or less, to rocket these few seconds into groove immortality. In fact, no disrespect to the mighty Otis Redding, it is the detail that elevates this from being merely a great performance to reaching the peak of this singer’s up-tempo catalog.
People affiliated with Stax have disagreed over when Jackson became a part of the picture, but the consensus seems to be that it happened in 1962, when Booker T. Jones persuaded him to come in for a session. Stax guitarist Steve Cropper has suggested that “’Cause I Love You,” by Carla Thomas, was the first of his dates at Stax. Jones, who played baritone sax on that date, had worked already with Jackson on several big band jobs. The experience wasn’t always easy; Jackson could ride the younger musician hard, if he felt he wasn’t totally on top of the groove. Yet as Jones saw it, no other drummer in Memphis could provide what the label needed at that point. After a bit of negotiation, then, in exchange for a weekly retainer, Jackson joined the house band.
He never cut his ties completely with the Hi label, though. He was still the drummer of choice years later. If he was out on the road with Booker T and the MG’s or otherwise tied up at Stax, Mitchell would call Howard Grimes, a onetime student of Jackson’s who would establish himself soon as the “other” top drummer in Memphis. When Jackson was available, Grimes was still brought in sometimes, and the two were paired, usually with Jackson on traps and Grimes on congas. This combination of kit and percussion, never attempted at Stax, became integral to the sound that Al Green laid down on his early hits at Hi.
“Usually I’d have Al play those sessions by himself,” Mitchell says. “Sometimes I’d play the conga drum with him, on things like ’Let’s Stay Together.’ But there were times that Al Jackson couldn’t get the feel I wanted, on songs like ’Take Me To The River’ or ’Love & Happiness,’ so I had Howard come in for that. Now, Al could actually play anything … but he couldn’t play it raggedy. And when that’s what I wanted to have, I called Howard.”
In contrast, the feel at Stax, though relaxed, was tight — which, let it be said, isn’t the same as being slick. The Memphis crew ceded that quality to the other great R&B rhythm section of the day, the Soul Brothers up at Motown, whose somewhat looser interactions owed to the jazz background shared by drummer Benny Benjamin, bassist James Jamerson, and the rest. Their productions were glossier, with sweeping strings and silvery rattles from Jack Ashford’s tambourine. Not so at Stax, where reverb was a rarity and flubbed notes — catch Wayne Jackson’s trumpet clam just before the fade on “I Can’t Turn You Loose” — were kept, in case fixing them meant losing something from the feel.
Another difference: where the rhythm on tracks cut at Hi reflected some of the jazz background that Mitchell, Jackson, and others shared, the Stax groove was straighter, more up-and-down. There was plenty of syncopation over that, especially from the Memphis Horns, which worked especially well because Jackson’s backbeat gave it something strong to play against.
“Some drummers will do a track and it’s just, ’Hey, here’s a lick,’” says Duck Dunn. “But Al could go back and forth, from 2/4 to 4/4 in a bridge, to change it. And in what we used to call the fadeout at the end, he would completely turn the groove around; we could write another chart from how he changed it over. That’s because he listened to the song. He completed the song. He played the song.”
“The key to Memphis music was, first, the song and the singer,” confirms Terry Manning, a young engineer at Stax during the glory years and currently on staff at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. “And as they came together on the song, those guys were all amazing — the best I’ve ever worked with. They seemed to breathe at the same time, especially when you added the horns, because Wayne and Andrew were like one person. But everyone — Steve, Booker, Al, Duck, Isaac Hayes, and all the other people who were around … I never found anyone else who worked like they did.”
As for Jackson specifically, Manning, who would also record John Bonham on Led Zeppelin sessions, insists, “I would rank Al number one among all the drummers I’ve worked with, and that’s saying a lot when I’m bringing Bonham and even a few great studio drummers into the picture. He had better time than anyone; we called him the Human Metronome. He had the groove. He knew when to swing it just right. He knew how loudly to hit each drum; he didn’t hit each one the same. He found a way to let his track breathe. He would drive the session. But beyond those technical things was the man behind it. He was so nice, so learned, a wonderful human being. You just wanted to play with him and keep up with him.”
For all the dance classics laid down at Stax, the definitive example of the house band’s brilliance has to be Otis Redding’s rendition of “Try A Little Tenderness.” Prior to this date, the tune was performed most often as a smoky ballad, typically with the drummer on brushes and the dynamics muted. That’s pretty much how Redding and the band kicked it off at Stax too; Jackson even sits out during the dolorous horn intro and the entire first verse.
A hint of what’s to come emerges as the drums enter on the second verse, with an eighth-note tick-tock side-stick on the snare. The groove is established, but it’s pulsing in the background, keeping rather than pushing the time. Then, after the bridge, Cropper comes in with what feels like a bossa nova syncopation; Jackson lets the guitar pick up the momentum, holding back until the finale, when Redding, as if seized by spirits, begins testifying. He leaves melody behind, and Jackson stays with him, his four-beat emphasis prodding the singer from grunting to shouting to the edge of glossolalia.
When they played this arrangement live, as on the seven-minute workout documented on Volume 4 of The Stax Story, issued in 2000 by Fantasy, this adventure stretches beyond the version they’d cut in Memphis. It is, first of all, much faster than the original, which was typical of Redding’s approach on stage. And by the end of this marathon, he as well as his audience seem transformed. Here, too, as in the studio performance, Jackson simultaneously heats up and holds back this race toward ecstasy, staying on that line between losing control and killing the feel. Listening, it’s impossible not to conclude that this sort of drumming, this way of balancing discipline and anarchy, has become a lost art.
“You know,” remembers trumpeter Wayne Jackson, “when Al started tapping out that beat on the second verse of ’Try a Little Tenderness,’ everybody in the band knew that a huge mistake had been made. He wasn’t supposed to come in until later. But we also knew that it felt so good that he wasn’t going to stop. Something in the house made him go to that beat before it was time … but it was the perfect time.”
The architect of the Memphis Horns laughs as his recollection of that session, which in some ways was typical of how he and everyone else worked at Stax. “Everything we did was spontaneous. Nobody wrote anything down. If Duck decided to end the song, he’d kick it a little bit harder. Youth had a lot to do with it. We weren’t thinking, ’That’s a C chord and that’s a B-flat chord. It was more like a dance, because we were teenagers, most of us. When you’re dancing, you get a feeling of doing the girl this way instead of that way. That’s how we played the music.”
They recorded live in those days, often doing the lead vocal at the same time. Stax had an 8-track setup, standard for the era, which meant that just one mike was assigned to the drums. Jackson’s kit was positioned at the low point of the studio, near where the movie screen used to be. After years on the receiving end of leaks or spilled drinks that would trickle down the sloping floor in this former theater, the carpet beneath the drums was usually damp, if not a little squishy, which eventually rotted a lower portion of the kick drum away.
Because of the partitions that separated the drums from the band as they cut tracks, a very slight delay would occur often between his and everyone else’s parts. Rather than try to tighten this up, Jackson decided to let it happen and even encourage it, to the point that it became a critical element in their distinctive rhythm feel. As Duck remembers, “Al used to tell me, ’Dunn … dunney, dunn, dunn … wait on 2!’ And I’d hold back just a little after that second beat. It didn’t always work, but you can hear it clearly on [Wilson Pickett’s] ’In the Midnight Hour.’ Things like that made my time better. In fact, he made me a better player, period.”
“Because of that partition,” Wayne Jackson says, “there was a certain amount of delay between Al’s foot and his right hand and where we played the downbeats. We had to anticipate where the beat was. That gave us the famous laid-back feeling of the horns. We didn’t have a cue system or earphones, but Al, having played drums with a big band even as a little kid, was aware of that. He knew how to play with the lead trumpet. He knew all the words to all the songs. He knew all the chords. He was the only guy in the band that was allowed to stop the recording, if he heard someone play a bad chord or sing the wrong words or go out of tune. We all lived in fear that he would stop the recording because of us, so he made us play our asses off.”
The singers shared the musicians’ respect and, it’s safe to say, awe of Jackson’s gifts. “He knew how good he was,” recalls Sam Moore, half of the great Sam & Dave duo. “He’d walk in with that head cocked to one side. He wasn’t that tall, but he’d look at you, and if you didn’t know what you were doing, he was like, ’You better get your shit together because I’m getting ready to put something up your butt.’ Then when we’d lay down the track, Al would get up, go to the engineer’s room, stay there maybe two or three minutes, until they’d finally say, ’How do you like it, Al?’ And he would go, ’How do y’all like it?’ It was like, ’I done my job.’”
Moore laughs uproariously, as if remembering something from a session they’d cut just the other day. “Man, he was so cocky … but he was so goddamn good. I put him in the same bag with Ray Charles or Billy Preston, in a class all his own. I’ll tell it to you straight: he could make shit smell good.”
With Jackson’s murder, more than the Stax saga came to an end. It can be argued that the vitality began to seep from the style that he had pioneered. Some drummers treated his simplicity as an excuse to take it easy, while forgetting the importance of listening to the material or to the singer’s phrasing. Some producers went further, with drum machines and sequences that ground out a kind of macabre, mechanical permutation of Jackson’s playing.
They all miss the point, of course. “He wasn’t just the timekeeper,” Wayne Jackson states. “He glorified the singer, because it’s all about the singer and the song.”
“He was,” Willie Mitchell sums up, “just one of the greatest drummers who ever lived.”
There is no middle ground. Either you understand the brilliance of Al Jackson’s drumming or you don’t. Our guess is that drummers who fall into the latter category are chops fanatics who crave speed, power, and volume. We suggest that those web surfers explore this site to find more complicated lessons.
Everyone else can savor the understated elegance of Jackson’s drumming, in which one spare note is one note too many. We’ll start in the most obvious place, with Booker T. And The MG’s trademark song “Green Onions,” a track in which all of the instruments swing except for Jackson, who keeps the pulse simple and angular — a strategy he also applies to the band’s rendition of the Rascals’ hit “Groovin’.”
Believe it or not, Jackson could play even simpler. Take a look at the excerpt from the Eddie Floyd hit “Knock On Wood,” with its mid-tempo, stripped-down groove with the bass drum on 1 and 3 and the snare on 2 and 4, which culminates in a two-handed eighth-note fill. On paper it looks barren, even uninspired. But in context this most basic of backbeats is the perfect counterpoint to Steve Cropper’s choppy rhythm guitar and Duck Dunn’s melodic bass line.
Since Jackson’s approach is minimalist, you can learn as much from the notes he chooses to leave out as from the ones he actually plays. A good example is in Wilson Pickett’s enormously popular hit “In the Midnight Hour,” where Jackson sucks the air from the downbeats of the third and fifth bars by laying out for an eighth-note rest. Combined with the sixteenth-note snare fill that completes measure five, these two little breaths at the very beginning of song launch the listener into his relentless backbeat that drives the rest of the track.
We also threw in Jackson’s part from Otis Redding’s “(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay” to demonstrate one of his busier performances, as well as a snippet of Redding’s “Let Me Come On Home,” a rare example of the drummer actually swinging the feel — ever so slightly.
Al Jackson’s Kit
On his website, New York session great Jim Payne describes the first time he met Al Jackson Jr., and describes the scene when he walked into Stax Studios: “I met Al Jackson when I visited Stax in 1969. He was very congenial and friendly as he arrived for the day's session. His drum set was situated on a riser, which was leveled off to compensate for the slanted floor of the old movie theater, which served as the Stax studio. It was a very simple set with, I believe, a 20" bass drum, one rack tom, one floor tom and two small cymbals — the largest was about 18" and very dead sounding. A grand piano, a Hammond B-3 organ, guitar and bass amps were spread out fairly close to the drum set with some temporary baffles set up for the horns. Just two microphones were in place for the drums. The control room was situated on the old stage, enclosed behind a wall with the usual soundproof glass window. Mixing was done on Seeburg jukebox speakers; the gold ones that stood about three feet high and included horns on the top.”
Rogers Drums In Black Finish: 14" x 5" ’60s Ludwig Acrolite Snare Drum with aluminum shell, matte aluminum finish, and eight classic lugs, 20" Bass Drum, 12" Tom (also occasionally an additional 13" Tom), 16" Floor Tom. Zildjian Cymbals: 14" Hi-Hats, 16" Crash, 18" Ride.