You may not know his name, but you surely know his work. Legendary soul and rhythm and blues bassist Jerry Jemmott – a studio veteran and road dog for the likes of King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Nina Simone, B.B. King and on and on and on – has carved out a large place in American popular music.
Jemmott grew up in the Bronx, New York, studying jazz at an early age. But buying an electric bass and hearing James Jamerson lay down the low-end pavement on “Shotgun,” turned his musical life around. After a stint with Lionel Hampton, he went to work for soul saxophonist King Curtis, and quickly found himself in the thick of the blues, soul and R&B of the late ’60s and ’70s, as a progenitor of the Muscle Shoals sound, and very nearly an Allman Brother.
We caught up with Jemmott at his home in Mississippi, where he still plays actively, running his own band, Souler Energy, and working as a sideman with Greg Allman.
What is it about blues and soul and R&B that drew you in as a player?
The audience that it attracted. The dancing, the singing, the fine women. The location, the environment. All these things are attractive to a kid who, by now was, this was about 1964, so I was 18 years old. Before that I was basically a jazz musician. The only thing I wanted to play was jazz. That’s all I played, basically.
What music did you first hear R&B and blues and soul-wise that sucked you in?
I heard the radio. I wasn’t that much into it. What attracted me basically was the ability and the idea of playing that music for a particular audience. That’s what attracted me to it because before that I was playing at typical social functions, where they’d have like five or six bands, and people partying from like 9 o’clock until 4 o’clock in the morning. The band I played in played a little bit of everything. They had a calypso band, and other bands. I was playing with a band called Smiling Henry and the Rhythm Makers. That was my first band. Cool name, right?
We played local ballrooms where they’d hire five or six bands, in addition to playing nightclubs. So I got a chance to see music performed. This was when I was 12 years old. But for rhythm and blues, I just liked the way people responded to the music. The musician’s I was playing with when I happened to make the switch, they were into this Miles Davis persona where they wanted to be real cool and ignore the audience. So I just decided I’d had enough of it. Ironically this was when I was playing with cats close to my age. They had this kind of attitude. Before that I was usually playing with cats that were older than me. I was usually the baby in the band. They were more responsible people. They played music the people wanted to hear.
So I was a little pissed and I decided I was going to pick up an electric instrument. So that’s what I did. That’s what drew me into it basically. And then playing it. What got me going was hearing James Jamerson playing “Shotgun.” That’s the first line that I learned that attracted me. I’ve been playing “Shotgun” ever since, really, in some form or fashion. That’s what got me into it as a player. As a listener, I learned to enjoy the music and of course you have to listen to learn to increase my vocabulary and understanding the forms. So it was basically wanting to please the audience that got me into this form of music.
Based on what you studied playing jazz and then moving into blues and R&B, what skills did you bring to the party, both playing live and then working your way into the studio? What did you have that other players didn’t?
Groove. Skills. Technique. Knowledge. And creativity. These are the things a jazz musician will have to learn to do. Sometimes they might get stuck in one groove, and all they can play is in four and straight ahead and in one style, but usually the good ones learn to play everything. It’s funny, I read an article, one of your questions led me to think about musicians, and I read the biography of one of my favorite musicians, Idris Muhammad. His story is very similar to mine, but he just played and he was pulled into the circle, whatever circle he was pulled into, he was able to play that type of music.
I digress. I’ll get to him later.
Back in the day as you were coming up, how did you prepare for a session?
Back in the day, the excitement of the idea of going from studio to studio was what led me to want to become to studio musician. With the idea I had, the excitement for me was not knowing what was coming, because I have stories from the age of 14. When I was 14, I was playing the Alfred Wade big band and Richard Dugan was one of the trumpet players. Frank Mitchell was in the band. Phillip Villa was in the band. Cary Pippos, Tommy Lee. I’m trying some of the cats that were in the band. hey were all young. They were close to my age as opposed to the other gigs I was working. This was a non-working band basically. This was a rehearse-to-play arrangement.
He was really the cat. Richard was like 16. I was 14. But he lived upstate New York and he could drive in New York City. He was a white kid and he had a receding hairline. He looked like he was about 30, but he was able to get Byrd to land the Five Spot and he’d come back with these wild stories about the cats he met, and I learned about studio work, studio musicians. How these cats, Ernie Royal, Clark Terry, Snooky Young, Bill Tenton. These guys were going from studio to studio making records and I said, wow, I want to do that.
The excitement was not knowing what we’re going to encounter so there was no separation of this being sensical and that’s what really lured me to that idea of being prepared for anything that attracted me to becoming a studio musician. Back in the day, there was really no preparation of it and just being up on my game basically which was I had a good set of chops in playing upright bass so it was a matter of coming up with an idea. I guess being flexible was the key.
Some days I would get bored and I didn’t know who I’d be playing for, what the situation was. I would just show up and that morning I would decide to play as many notes as possible that whole day. Then the next day I’d do reverse. I’d try to play as few notes as possible. That’s how I prepared. That’s all the preparation. It was the mental thing I would put myself into. I remember get dressed, going to the session, and I mean, I loved the work. I lived to do it. I remember I showed up at one session one day and Ray Alonji, the French horn player, said, Jerry, hey, what’s going on down here? And he was pointing to my shoes. I had on one black shoe and one brown shoe.
I got dressed in the dark. This is a one-time gig. Drive in the car.Go through the parking lot and walk to the session. I’m not looking at my shoes. It was that kind of excitement. I couldn’t wait to get there.
Who were some of these sessions for, the early sessions that you did?
The early sessions back in 1964, 1965, they were for local producers, local labels whose names I don’t remember. The most significant one during that period was with Nina Simone in 1965. That was my earliest. I had some dates with J.J. What was is name? J.J. Jackson. He had me in the studio as an arranger and actually one of my early dates was as an arranger because I was still doing live gigs. That’s where I met Idris Muhammad who was actually at that time he was Leo Morris. This was back in 1964. Well, when first started electric base is when I started playing with him.
He was something else. He was always something else. His first lesson he went to that he had that he paid for, the only one he had, the teacher had him play about four or five things and then he said, “Listen kid, if somebody tells you you’re good, just let it go out one ear and out the other. Now give me my two dollars.” He never forgot that. All during his career, he never thought of himself as being anything special, but everybody, once you heard him or played with him, you knew he was special. But it was implanted in his head that he wasn’t going to let that get to him. It would go in one ear and out the other.
Was there a session where you finally felt like “I’m a studio musician, I get this and this is going to be my life’s work?”
Well, I wanted it to be my life’s work from the time I was 14 when I heard about it, but then life came in and I was sidetracked with family. I kind of lost the dream. I was just doing gigs and I was tapped to work with King Curtis. King Curtis called me to work with his band and he offered me studio work. My eyes lit up. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have joined his band. I would’ve been content to just work at the bank in the daytime to support my family and then work five gigs at night during the week which I had done – that’s all I knew from junior high school. I was always working three, four nights a week, so I had even more money and more stability because sometimes it was two nights a week, sometimes it was three or four. You know, the life of a musician.
I got a day job for a couple years and in 1967 when he called me, I wasn’t really keen about leaving my day gig and doing these gigs and the studio work, I really didn’t know much about him, because I’m coming from John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly and Ben Webster. This is my frame of reference. I knew of him but I still wasn’t really into the style of music. I was playing it. I was playing at it. I enjoyed a little bit of studio work and was getting my feet wet but as far as old time playing rhythm and blues, I never thought of myself as being that well to even do that. Playing live on stage as opposed to the studio. It’s a different set of circumstances playing live before an audience and playing the studio. I can get more into my thing in the studio and focus more. Creating music as opposed to just knocking stuff out which I’ve been doing since I was 12. Knocking stuff out.
In the studio, I got a chance to arrange and compose my part. A lot of times there was no music and they would call me to create a part. Of course, after awhile I got pissed off about that because I wasn’t making enough money doing that. There’s an upside and a downside to everything. Especially when you’re young, you want to experience.
What was the question?
We were talking about coming up and figuring out when you were going to make it your life’s work and slip it into that studio thing.
At 14, I thought about it, but when I started doing it, I left Lionel Hampton’s band. That’s when I decided, no more of this road stuff. I’m going to stay in New York and become a studio musician. That was the defining moment. After that King Curtis called me to do sessions.
How long were you with him?
From April until July of 1967. I was working with Gates and Lionel Hampton from July to August. After he fired me, I was going to stay in New York and tough it out. Things didn’t work out. He made amends later on, 20 years later I think, sometime late in the 1970s, I was playing with him and Bette Midler. We did a show and I was hired to play the bass, so we got a chance to patch the bridge up between us. I was young. I had a little attitude I guess. We came to a disagreement and that was it. So I left the band. I came to New York and ironically, King Curtis called me and said, “You don’t gotta be in the band anymore. Just make my records.”
And I left his band because he had recorded “Memphis Soul Stew” and he didn’t use me. I was pissed. And everybody else in the band was using me for their sessions. Melvin Last, he had stuff going on. Who else? Ronnie Miller was doing stuff. When “Memphis Soul Stew” came out and I heard the record, we got to play it and I was on it, I left the band.
At any rate, so things worked out. At that point, I decided to be a studio musician. I would’ve done it, continued doing it until I got injured in 1972 and that was it for me.
How did you get hurt?
I was in a car accident. That took its toll. I was the driver, so I had a lot of guilt going on and the mental thing screwed me up, the physical thing also. I still have to live with the injuries. Mental thing I’m cool with hopefully. My wife will tell me different, of course. I can look and tell myself too, but it’s been interesting recovering from that and then everybody else has to deal with the circumstances in their life. Nobody escapes life.
After King Curtis, that led to other fairly high profile studio work?
Yeah, that’s what really put me on the map, doing the Atlantic dates. When you go from one studio to the other – I was working between Atlantic, Columbia, and Jerry Ragovoy and doing jingles. I was doing commercials and film and doing some Broadway gigs. I had my hands full. In those days, that was the time when the studios were happening. They kind of died out in 1975, so I caught the last end of it, the fat part actually. To hear people say doing that era of music, 1960s and 1970s music, it was the best music ever made, and I was really fortunate to be part of it.
Staying on the studio for a minute, was it tough to go from a Thad Jones and Mel Lewis session to an Aretha or an Wilson session or did you just soak it all up?
Oh no, that was the joy. That’s what I lived for was to be able to do that and be called for that. That was one of the best highlights of my career working with Thad and Mel and I worked with both of them doing jingles and doing record things. They heard me play. They knew what my stuff was about, so it was really one of the honors, highlights of my career to be asked to play on their recordings. That was what I lived for.
Then traveling down amongst the shows, that was part of that whole gunslinger mentality that I had as a studio musician, because for me, that what it was about. Dealing with the unknown, coming in, laying down what you had to do in those three hours or four hours. The pressure, the concentration, the focus, the excitement of producing a product then hearing it later on the radio or somewhere. That’s part of the thrill. It’s one thing to write a song but whether anybody’s going to hear it or not, sometimes that doesn’t happen, but when you’re recording, the possibility is increased many fold. Especially when you record it with a name act. Some artists you record with you never even hear the stuff. Some stuff we did we didn’t even know who the artist was. We just played tracks. We just made up parts. We never even heard vocals sometimes. Some sessions were like that.
So to do the regular Aretha sessions, King Curtis sessions, Wilson Pickett, the name artist sessions, those were really exciting, because you knew it was going to be released at some point. Some stuff never even gets released and some stuff they would record they would put in the can. You might not hear it for maybe two or three years, but that’s OK. It eventually comes out.
Over the years, as a bass player myself, one of my thrills is working with drummers I like that I can lock in with, and I just wanted to find out from you who some of your favorite drummers are that you’ve worked with or that you just admire? What is it about them that attracted you to them?
I made a list.
And why are you attracted to those particular drummers?
Herb Lovelle was my favorite drummer in the studio. He just passed away a month ago. He was incredible. He had quite a career. My whole trip in the studio was the cats I would listen to coming up as a kid from when I started listening to jazz at the age of 10 and started playing from the age of 11, started working at the age of 12. All the cats I listened to, I ended up working with in the studio. These are guys they hired to play in the studio, but they were flexible. They could play any rhythm, any style. The horn part, the string part. I played with Harry Lakosky. It was mind-blowing. I played with Ron Carter, George Levivier, Richard Davis, Bill Hinton. Being around that caliber of musician, it has to do something for you.
As far as drummers go, there was Herb Lovelle, and prior to that at the studio there was Charles “Honeyboy” Otis. He’s from New Orleans and of course I mentioned before Idris Muhammad, who was actually Leo Morris when I met him. These cats were so flexible and so loose. They all, Herb, Charles, Idris, Arrow Corn, he was also from New Orleans. I find in general New Orleans drummers. Charles Kohlmeyer. That’s his name. I had a guy in my band, kid in my band. I had to let him go, but he was a great drummer. He was from New Orleans. Steve Barrios. People know him for playing in Latin bands, playing trumpet, but he was my first drummer when I went out on my own. Great drummer, great musician.
Steve Jordan, Omar Hakim, and of late I’ve been playing with Derek Martin, Little Richard’s drummer. All these cats have the same kind of thing. What I like about them is they’re flexible. They’re not stuck playing what they know. They will create a part instantly on the stop, as opposed to coming in and laying down something, what they play, and you’ve got to work around them. Which is cool. I can do that too. That’s part of the challenge.
Gary Chester was another great drummer. He was flexible. All the cats I worked with, they were flexible. My favorite drummers – the ones that were flexible.
Do you keep up with the modern stuff that’s going on in blues and soul?
Now that I live in Mississippi the home of the blues. Are you kidding? I’m inundated with it. It’s like coming back to something I never knew about. I didn’t know the blues. You have to remember, Don, because I’m a jazz player, I had the mindset to play anything and being a studio musician I had to put myself on the line to play something creative. They would call me generally, I mean, you could look in the union book and get somebody to play bass and write a part out for them, but in my case, they wanted me to play what was in my head and it wasn’t necessarily truly blues. They were making a record. They wanted something unusual, something different, so that was what my career was based upon. Calls like that. I really wasn’t a blues cat. I did stuff with B.B. King. I didn’t even know who B.B. King was. I knew the name, but I could never identify the name with the sound.
The first time I heard him the studio you know what I said? I said, “Damn, he sounds like Ray Shinnery who was a B.B. King imitator. That was my frame of reference. They didn’t want the boompy doomp a doomp. They didn’t want the shuffle. That’s all he played was a shuffle, but I knew by that time they wanted me to play something different, so I had to make up something different to go up with his boopa doompa doompa groove, because that’s the only groove he played. Or bah bah bah, the straight eighth groove. It’s either the triplet, the shuffle or the straight eighth-note shuffle, you know, the rock type. That’s cool. I wasn’t going to change him. I was there to lift him up. That worked out really well as history will show.
Yes, indeed. Do you remember that session doing “The Thrill’s Gone”?
Oh, Herb Lovelle was the contractor. He was the one who said put the strings on the “The Thrill is Gone.” He was actually the producer. Herb and Lenny Gaskin, they worked as a team for years. They did Bob Dylan. They did all the dates with Dylan. They were him, Leonard, and Paul Griffin, they were back and forth between, they was there. They had been there. He was the one who had the ears. In fact, all those cats had ears. Paul and Herb were the ones who got Jerry Wexler to go get Aretha from Columbia, because her contract was up. They let him know what was going on. That’s how she got to Atlantic because of Paul and Herb. These cats were on the inside. They knew the deal.
So when Bill Simpson got the call to produce a live gig, he met Herb doing the Bob Dylan stuff and saw what he was doing with Bob Dylan and Leonard and we got the call to produce B.B. He did a live thing where B.B. did his own thing, but they didn’t have enough time. They said this was something in the studio. That’s what the company said, so Bill got the call to be the producer and what Bill does, he calls Herb and Herb calls me and Paul Harris and Hugh McCracken and we got it on, but Herb was calling the shots.
A song that will live for all time.
Yeah. B.B. will tell you the same thing. He’ll tell you that’s the best band he ever played with.
Are there artists out there now that you truly admire for what their doing?
I love music. If it’s got a beat, the melody’s good, the story’s good. Back to your question about the blues, there’s a local blues artists, one of my drummer’s partners, I think his name is Dexter Allen. He gave me his CD just a couple days ago and I put it on today. I got some fresh meat right here. So you listen to the radio and down here, the music, the depth of music is incredible, not only the radio, but the musicianship down here in Mississippi. I mean the brothers down here they be playing everything, and people come out and dance. They sing. It’s really rich and they’re used to hearing good music. The blues, they love the blues down here, so basically, the blues is telling a story. That’s to confirm but that’s my feelings about it. I was talking to him and he said it was just about telling a story.
You have a different audience now. Different instruments. Different strings of music coming through, so the blues it’s evolving. The music is changing, but something about the basic blues and the basic rhythm and blues. Now, rhythm and blues is something else. Rhythm and blues can be almost anything when it comes down to it. It changes. They use jazz progressions. Blues uses basically just blues progression. You might hear a little horn thing here but you stick with the blues, it’s kind of simple and everybody, they know where it’s going. Rhythm and blues, you don’t know what you might here. It’s more of a mind-altering experience, whereas the blues are more comfortable. It’s more accessible and people want to be taken for a ride, so if it’s in the concept of the show, you want to have blues material in the within the contents of your show, because it’s something everybody can relate to. The blues will be here forever.
My take on the current scene? Down here it’s alive and well. It’s alive and well down here. You hear it on the radio. You hear it when you go out. When I lived in New York, I didn’t go out that much but when I had to play. It’s a distant memory, believe me.
How did you end up in Mississippi?
My family did civil rights work back in the 1960s and they ended up coming back here and revisiting and got some property down here and it got too much for them to handle at one point and they asked me to come down and take over the house, which I did for two years, and now I’m in the process of moving. We decided to turn it into not a retreat, not a group, something to do project work and have people stay here from out of state. They have other plans for the house now and they got to pay the mortgage now. So we’re in the process of looking for a house as we speak. That’s why I’m calling you when I’m calling you. I try to do things on time. Much about playing, the groove is about being on time.
Back to the Muscle Shoals days, how do you describe that Muscle Shoals sound and what created it? Was it just a rare thing in time that it happened?
Not only Muscle Shoals, but Herb Lovelle. I keep going back to Herb, and I was really fortunate to know him as a friend, as opposed to just being in the studio, because a lot of people you run in and you run out. You remember their name, but you don’t have any social contact with them. But in the last 10 years, we’ve had a lot of contact and he would tell me stories about something went on and filled in some dots. So this is a really profound question you’re asking me about, because the Muscle Shoals came from the result of Jerry Wexler and Jerry Ragovoy being friends and Jerry Ragovoy as a songwriter, he’d make a lot of demos and he would send them over. He’d try to get his artists on Atlantic records.
What he would do is send his stuff over to Jerry and they were made by cats like Herb, Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey, myself, Richard Chi, Hugh McCracken, Cornell Dupree, and he would send this stuff over to Jerry and Jerry would send the stuff down to Rick Hall. He got the idea if he could get the guys to play like this and have them work for half scale! He could make some money and lower his overhead. So they would work all day for the same fee, and a lot of places in Memphis. They had good musicians down there.
One of the greatest bass players ever, Tommy Cogbill, he was there. He was actually, I found out recently, he actually was a guitar player who was a heavy bebop player. Tommy to play, the way you hear it, Tommy had sharps and he had ideas and he was very flexible, so when you see it, you hear the stories and go alright. He still played bass. He didn’t play bass like a guitar player, that’s for sure, but he was a heavy bebop guitar player.
So him hearing the ideas we had and he was able to make sense out of it and that’s how the Muscle Shoals sound began. Tommy, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins, (Bruno?) Odem, and I think one of, I think it was Marvin. One of them was Marvell Thomas, I think, Brooklyn. He played keyboards.
Then Wexler started sending me down there, me and Duane. To answer your question of how this came, they had the idea, they got the sophistication thing from New York and then it wasn’t as slick and didn’t need to be as slick. It was a little looser, but they had more time to work with this stuff. You came to a session, you’re knocking stuff out in three or four hours. They’d spent all day on one tune. That’s how you get the Muscle Shoals sound. After awhile they got doing it faster. Didn’t take all day to get it done. They got a formula. They got people together who played the music. But it developed over a period of time.
Same thing happened with Motown. The first record they had was “Dancing in the Streets.” Barry Gordy’s sister came to New York and bought tracks from one of the local publishing company they had come in contact with, and that’s when “Dancing the Streets” came about. Herb Lovelle and Bernard Purdy are both playing drums on it. They had a track with no words. They had a lot of stuff like this. It was Leiber and Stoller who knew what they were doing. It was cranking stuff out, cranking stuff out. They went and ask if they had any tracks and they sold them the tracks. So that’s how they got to Motown.
I hadn’t heard that before.
Well, then you’re hearing it from the horse’s mouth. Herb is no longer here but he was there and Bernard’s still here.
I talk to him every now and then. He comes through Portland. You see him once in awhile around here.
That’s right. I think he has a band up in Portland, among other places.
Yeah, And I think a girlfriend or something.
That’s how the Muscle Shoals sound got started. People communicating – Jerry Wexler, Jerry Ragovoy, Rick Hall. You get a network. You get a team. Nobody knew this at the time this was going, but this is what happened.
It stands the test of time too, which you can’t deny.
Absolutely. Would you rather play technically perfect or in the groove, in the pocket?
That’s a good question and my answer is always with taste. Whatever it takes. What is technique used for? To promote an idea, and it has to be promoted at a specific point in time to be tasteful, for one thing. Technique supports the pocket. Mental technique, mental perfection is what really makes this happen as opposed to the physical. It’s more of a mental application of the abilities, at the right time and the right place, right volume. My sound I mixed myself. You don’t play everything at the same volume. It’s a trade up. You compensate. You make compromises. Technically, I’d just rather make good music. My idea is to get it on the first take. That’s when it’s fresh.
It’s a combination of you want to make it as tightly perfect but you want it to feel right. The main thing is the feel. That’s what Roland Kirk said to Dutch Reese when he first played with him. He had heard about Rahsaan. He was playing at the Apollo. I’m quoting his story now. He heard about this man who played three horns at the same time. Well, he wanted to go see it. He went down at the Five Spot and he was so enthralled he asked the drummer could he sit in, and so he sat in and Rahsaan turned around and said, “Who’s that playing drums?” He said, “Leo Marks.” “Keep that beat. Keep that beat.” And he played the whole set.
That’s how the first take. You hear something the first time, you want to keep on doing it. So you want it get it on the first take, so the things is be prepared and go in and do the rundown and when the recording light comes on, you want to get it on the first take.
So you want to do things you can do on the first take. You want to do something that is within your reach and then you’re going to over extend that idea at some point thinking you’re going to take a chance at some point and hope that you are able to pull it off, because you never know what’s going to happen, but you’re going to have to play. When that light’s on, somebody’ll play something that’ll change your part completely. Especially if you’re not reading a written part. If it’s a written part, that’s another story, but if you’re creating, you want to get it on the first take. If it’s a written part, it don’t even matter. You keep on working at it, they’ll fix it in the mix. Don’t sweat it. That’s the technology.
That’s very common too. That relaxes you. You can punch in. You can do this. You can do that. But the idea is you want that first take. You want to get it on the first take. It has to feel good, sound good. That first take is a monster.
Did you ever surprise yourself in the studio and nail a first take?
Oh yeah. Oh hell, yeah. Don’t ask me to do it again, either! It’s like, man, if you blow that first take and it’s like everybody else is popping. It’s like a plane crash. It’s serious. I remember this story about this pilot of the plane that crashed in February 12 was iced up and the pilot did the natural thing but in the situation, he didn’t have the training to do the abnormal thing which would’ve corrected the situation. He was pulling the nose of the plane up because it’s going down fast and the power stalled out, as opposed to pushing forward. It’s a technique but it requires repetition or getting used to do it to do it naturally. He did what was a natural thing and plane crashed. The people are gone, but that’s training. You want to be prepared and I practice things that are impossible to play and so I’m prepared to play it if it comes into my head. I’ve always had that mindset, technically, to play things that were difficult, so if I ever came across the need to play it, it wouldn’t be difficult for me. You have challenges though. You have to challenge yourself and everybody has different challenges.
How has your playing changed over the years, or has it?
Oh yeah, it’s changed a lot. It’s gotten better, actually. You do get better with age. People playing 30 years look forward to the next 20. Really. It gets better and you get into a better position to play where you don’t have to play as long and endurance is no longer the factor and hopefully you’re making more money while you’re doing it. It works out that way. I’ve seen other people’s career and the longer you play, you get smarter, you don’t work as hard and you get paid more. It plays out. It’s gotten better. It’s gotten more focused. It’s all about the music. It’s not so much the playing. It’s more like it’s more about the music really making a good musical statement.
Tell me about a couple of these bands you’ve got, Souler Energy for one and then I want to talk about your stuff with the Gregg Allman Band as well.
Souler Energy’s been around since 1978. I started the band in 1978. I work under that title basically. Anything I do is Jerry Jemmott and Souler Energy. I’m doing a Soho gig and it’s billed that way. I always bill myself that way. I’m never by myself in that sense. So I’ve had a lot of different configurations of the band and basically, the only difference in Souler Energy and other bands is they play all of my music. And they play the hits I played with other artists. I play about five or six of those in the course of a night which might be two sets. Now I’m a six-minute maximum. That’s basically what I do.
It’s mostly original material and right now it’s kind of in hiatus, so to speak. I’m not pushing anything. There’s no demand for me to appear anyplace right now. I don’t have a hit, so that happens. I’ll crank it back up again as a group situation. I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping my books will spark that flame and people will want to see me play with my group.
I’m expecting that to happen, so for me it’s about getting my books, my educational products up on line. That’s what my focus has been for the last, oh gee, about 35 years. This is my 35th year of working on this book. It’s now an e-book and I have a series of books planned. Planned to put out hopefully with the help of Warner Bros. That’s a regular large entity because it was too much of a project to do myself. And I’ve gone it alone long enough. It’s good to get help.
As far as Gregg, we have a ball. We have great shows. It’s a great experience. You ask me one question and I skipped over, but something about playing with Aretha, King Curtis. Oh yeah, this is the same question. When I was with King Curtis’s band in 1967, we were riding around in a station wagon. When I was with Aretha in 1971, on the Fillmore dates, we’d ride in an airplane, so the whole scope of the situation changed as a result. The music had moved up four years. It was a different group completely, working in that environment. My only road experience was actually with King Curtis and Lionel Hampton. After that, went back in the studio, because Lionel Hampton had a bus and we would do one-nighters. That was hard. King Curtis had a station wagon, a U-Haul and an El Dorado and a Mark IV. He was living in style. We rode in the station wagon with Norman, but that was cool. No problem with that.
Worked with Gregg, great touring like that with the tour buses and that. All the amenities that go with it. It was a good gig. Good leader. Good boss. Good man. He’s overcome a lot of difficulties. I happened to come along at the time when he was overcoming. It was his seventh year of being sober I joined the band, so it was good.
Did he approach you about joining the band or did you talk to him first?
It’s funny. I have a friend of mine. This is going beyond the interview. Probably gone past our time too, but a friend of mine wanted me to, him and Oteill [Burbidge] who was the Allman Brothers’ bass player, they go back to college days, and they had the vision to bring the older musicians to get with the younger musicians. They had this vision and my soon-to-become friend, so I was playing with a group in New York called Betty Dylan, basically the white rock group, and I had been working with them for about eight years off and on, and I hooked up with the band that became Betty Dylan.
My soon-to-become friend, Jack, he saw me playing. He saw my name on a poster and he says, “Jerry, I thought you was dead. You’re still alive?” So he sought me out and we became friends and we started doing things like did a gig with me and Bernie. We did a thing with one of his festivals. He was producer also, so we did the festival and one thing led to another and then I had a birthday. He threw a surprise birthday party and he invited the brothers to come down to the party and then I went and hung out with him and Melvin Sparks, actually. He tricked me into coming down to B.B. King’s and turned out to be a birthday party for me and Melvin. That week we celebrated going to different places that Melvin and I, people we’d play with, like Lou Donaldson, Grayboy Allstars, B.B. King, Allman Brothers. I hadn’t played with the Allman Brothers, but I played with Duane.
I came and sat in and then Gregg called me in a couple of weeks to join the band. Then at the same time he tells me the story that when the Allman Brothers first got together, Duane had called them. I had a conversation with Duane and we had both gotten tired of running back and forth to Muscle Shoals and doing that thing. That’s the last time I saw Duane, that was the last time right before when we stopped going down there. That’s when I saw him at the airport. I did work with him after that with Herbie Mann, which I had forgotten about.
I said, “Man, I’m going back to New York. I’m just going to do jingles, Duane. I’m tired of doing these things that are blowing my brain.” You’re still not getting paid enough so let’s do jingles. I asked what he was going to do and he said, “I’m going to start a band with brother, and I said, cool. That was it. So you fast forward 38 years and I’m talking with Gregg and he’s all back in the day, when I first came around and started chewing the fat. He said when Duane called him to come start a band, he was in California, and he told me he had this great bass player with long fingers who was going to be in the band, and when he got there, he had to hitchhike to get there. He said, “Where’s the bass player with the long fingers?” Well, man, he’s up in New York. He’s making some money doing jingles.
So you almost could’ve been an Allman Brother?
Yeah. Well, you know, I am occasionally when I come and sit in with them.
How do you personally keep growing as a musician? Do you have tricks for doing that? Do you just keep yourself engaged and moving forward?
Getting into education has been an emphasis to prepare other people to play music. It’s actually to be fresh. I’m expanding. I have something I quote – the logic emotes reality and that’s the wisdom to bring any phenomena into existence using different methods. That’s what keeps me going. I play something one way. It’s like playing a scale on one string, then playing it on two strings. Then you play the same scale on three strings, then you play it on four strings. I use the same concept. If I hear something I’ll play it three or four or five different ways and say, ah, this is the way, but I’ll play the other ways just for the heck of it. Just for the execution. Just for the process of being able to do it, because you never know. My head, being an improviser of what’s going to come into my head, I’ve got to be able to grab it and go on to the next. My playing can’t be defined by what I’m able to do technically or mentally. It has to be defined by what I’m able to reproduce at the moment. So I familiarize myself with playing things different ways, different tempos, different feels, whatever it’s going to take to make it sound different before I know. That’s how I stay fresh.
I listen to other people. I listen to people more now. I never listened to people before but the singers and the instrumentals. My favorite instrumentalist is Erroll Garner. Him and my favorite composer was Charles Mingus, so between the two of them, they keep me humble. I could never play as good as Erroll. I will be as good as Charles, but they keep like this is where it’s at for me. Between those two, basically.
Do you stop and think about your place in popular music? I’m thinking about this in terms of me idolizing what you’ve done in your career. Do you stop and think about what you’ve done all of your career?
Not really, Don. It’s like nobody told me not to listen. I never thought of myself of being that good and I was always striving, because the people who were my heroes were so crazy innovators that I never put the time in, never had the mindset or the patience, I would say, to put the time in like they did. Or to put it this way, even better, I don’t have that natural ability that some people have. Music is hard for me. I’m tone deaf. I’m legally blind. And my ability to focus is very bad. I’ve had to overcome those obstacles to get to where I did. So for me it’s always a measure of like trepidation and excitement. I’ve never thought of myself as being great. I’ve never been that great technically. I’ve never been that great anyway, but I’ve just been fortunate to be among good people at the right time who elevated me and I was able to elevate them and be there for them. Really a lot of good fortunate in this. Not so much the technical thing. It’s more about the person.
Not that I’m a great person, but I’ve been fortunate. I’m looking at myself as really being truly fortunate.
Well, you’ve been a source of inspiration for a bunch of us bass players out here on the West Coast.
Well, I hope to keep it going. I’m not stopping.
Visit online at www.jerryjemmott.com