For more than 40 years drummer Howard Grimes has had several fingers in the Memphis blues, soul, and R&B scene. A key player in the legendary Memphis Stax Records crew, he’s best known as a member of the Hi Records rhythm section that graced essential sides by Al Green, Ann Peebles, and many others. Recent days have seen Grimes supplying his easy-loping funk for Memphis R&B revivalists The Bo-Keys.
Grimes lives in Memphis, where he was born on August 22, 1941. The oldest of nine children, he was the son of a mother whose eclectic tastes in hard-swinging music wielded profound influence on his musical path.
“My mother was the one who instilled the music in me,” he says. “She had a set of blues, jazz, and gospel records around the house, and I was hearing that big band music — Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Glen Miller.” Bill Dogget’s “Honky Tonk” played the piper, too, as did jazzers like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones.
The big band drummers he saw on TV made a big impression on the youthful Grimes.
“The first one I saw was Gene Krupa,” he says. “I’d never seen a drummer play like that. The other drummer was Cozy Cole, when his ‘Topsy’ came out — that was the first black drummer I saw.”
Though the basically self-taught Grimes considers his drum chops “a gift from God,” his style did develop via fortuitous meetings with a few crucial people, including one at age six with a taxi driver named Murray who was going with Grimes’ cousin.
“When he wasn’t picking up fares in his cab, he played on Beale Street at Club Handy,” Grimes remembers of Murray. “He used to come see my cousin, and I saw these sticks in his back pocket. I asked him, ‘What you do with ‘em?’ He placed them in my hand, and he taught me a rhythm called ‘mama daddy roll,’ which was left-right left-right, mama daddy mama daddy mama daddy …”
Sounds suspiciously like a paradiddle.
“Yeah,” he says with a laugh. “That was to develop my rhythm and coordination. Then one day something happened in my body, man, and my left leg was placed on the hi-hat, my right hand was on the ride, and it was like an octopus, everything just moved inside my body.”
Grimes got his start playing professionally with singer Rufus Thomas at the age of 12, and, still in his mid-teens, scored his first paying job at Memphis’ legendary Satellite Records (which became Stax Records), where he played on Carla Thomas’ “’Cause I Love You” and on innumerable R&B/soul hits over the next several years.
From an early age, Grimes had an ability to quickly absorb and master a wide variety of drumming techniques, a gift that got him steady work.
“I played with Ben Branch’s group at Curry’s Tropicana club in Memphis, and at that club I saw everybody, from Hank Ballard And The Midnighters to Bill Doggett.” Several of the drummers who played at the Tropicana hailed from New Orleans, and Grimes was fascinated by their oddly flavored playing. His time spent with Jazzman Branch and Gene “Bowlegs” Miller’s band gained him further insight into the mysteries of steamy swamp and roll.
If any one event most impacted Grimes’ famously spare and relaxed drum style, it was the day he got the call from Willie Mitchell. The Hi Records producer needed a drummer to substitute for Hi’s houseman, Al Jackson.
“Willie was teaching me how to play feels,” says Grimes. “He showed me how to play cut time, how to play things that could be played without what most drummers do in their wrists; he showed me how to sit in the pocket in the groove. He’d say, ‘Howard, how would you make that hi-hat run away from you? The hi-hat, give it some air, some suction. Sshhp!’”
Grimes went on to play on most of the Mitchell-produced Al Green albums and innumerable other staple soul gems of the ’70s. When Hi eventually went belly-up, Grimes and Hi bassist Leroy Hodges stayed together to back blues and soul artists all the way into the ’90s.
These days, Howard Grimes is happy getting back to basics with The Bo-Keys, whose members include Hodges and several other key players from the Memphis ’60s–’70s heyday. Things are a bit different for Grimes now, though, like how his practice regimen is nonexistent.
“Nah, I haven’t practiced in over 47 years. Ever since Willie Mitchell taught me the time, everything’s up in my head and in my heart.”
Grimes has long since shelved his old Ludwig blue acrylic set, preferring whatever they put in front of him in the studio or onstage — as long as it comes with a felt beater for his signature double-time kick work, which he performs both heel-up and -down.