This Interview took place in Clinton, Mississippi in 2018. Many thanks go to Peggy Brown of Hit The Road Entertainment and to Carol and Ron Marble of Mississippi Delta Blues, Inc. for all of their help and support.
“It all started in Jackson, Mississippi where I was born, and playing the drums in the high school band, and I was fortunate enough to get jobs as a child playing in the juke joints. A real juke joint is when they start when it gets dark and they play until daylight and back then you didn’t have shots of whiskey, everybody had half a pint. It started with a three piece band, and when I joined they didn’t have bass, they had two guitars and one was tuned down, that’s the phrase they used. I played with those guys and I picked up the blues shuffle. The main guy I played with back then was Jacob Moore and he was like number one guitar player in Jackson at that time, back in the sixties, and he left and went on tour with the World Caribbean Fair. They had a band and a singing group called The 5 Pennies and Jacob went on the road with them and got sick, but that’s where I started out from. Jacob Moore put me with Duke Huddleston, who had a dance band, and in that band were school teachers. Jimmy King that ran the Subway Lounge was the singer and there was the band director for Jackson State in the band, so I was surrounded by all these guys and I was still a kid. I had a walk-in scholarship with Jackson State because I was practicing with the Jackson State band. My director was named Mr. Holly, who was Sherrill Holly’s, the sax player who plays with Dorothy Moore, father, and he had a motto that you had to learn how to read your instrument. So I got a chance of a scholarship from Jackson State and also with Tennessee State, but I couldn’t wait to get to Chicago. I couldn’t wait to get out of high school, and I said to myself, as soon as I get out I’m leaving, so I walked away from both of those scholarships but I would encourage kids now to get an education first before you jump off into this music field, because it’s rough out here.”
“I got to Chicago in 1960 and I went around to a few clubs but they wouldn’t let me in because at the time you had to be twenty one, so my mother knew a precinct captain and he knew the world famous Red Saunders, so Red would let me up under his wing and when all the guys found out that Red had took me under his wing I started getting jobs as a drummer. I was playing in this club called The Blue Flame and this guy with a big afro used to come in and sit in all the time and it was the great Sam Lay, who was Little Walter’s drummer at the time. So Sam would come every weekend when Walter wasn’t working. This one night Sam came into the club all in a hurry and asked me if I wanted to play with Little Walter because he was going with Howlin’ Wolf, so I agreed to that and Sam took me to Little Walter’s house. Walter stayed in his bedroom but eventually came out with his silk stuff on and gave me a look over and saw I was a kid and he asked me if I could play blues and I said I did and he gave me some drumsticks and asked me to play a shuffle on his coffee table. So when I did that, he gave me an album and told me to go home and learn the songs and he would call me when he was going to pick me up. Just like that I had a job with Little Walter and I stayed with him almost a year. By me playing with Little Walter I was able to meet all these guys that were in his band, like Robert Junior Lockwood, Pinetop Perkins and my favorite was Earl Hooker, I just loved him. I also met Dave and Louis Myers and all of these guys. Dave and Louis used to be in Walter’s band before Junior Wells took them over. Fred Below was my teacher and Sam Lay and, lately, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, before he passed. When I first started to play with Little Walter all these blues cats didn’t know my name, they just called me Junior because Walter told everyone I was his son so they didn’t worry about me being a kid.”
“After Walter, I went back with some local guys in Chicago and one night I went to the Regal Theatre in Chicago and they had a show there every week, and this guy from The Drifters and one from the Shirelles asked me if I wanted to go backstage, which I did, and they said that this guy Tommy Hunt needed a drummer and that he had just left The Flamingos and he had a record called ‘Human’. He had never heard me play or anything and he gave me a job and I went home and told my mother and father and told them I was going to New York. My father didn’t want me to go but my mother was ok with it and that was the beginning of a different career for me. So I went from being Little Walter’s son to Tommy Hunt’s brother. I was Jimmy Hunt when we got to New York. Tommy didn’t know how to drive so I was spoilt as I was Tommy Hunt’s brother and I was driving a brand new Riviera and living in New York. It didn’t get any better than that, but I wasn’t making much money. So that was the beginning of the New York trip and with playing with Tommy I met so many people like Smokey Robinson And The Miracles, The Shirelles, Martha And The Vandellas, The Supremes, Patti Labelle And The Bluebells, The Contours, just everybody. We played seven days a week, five shows a day, so everybody got to be like family. This was a package tour. I was with Tommy for a year.”
“I left Tommy and I hung around New York for a while and I didn’t have nothing to do, so this girl came and got me and told me that Marvin Gaye was looking for me. So Marvin had me play a week with him at Small’s Paradise but he lied to me, as he said he was going to give me a regular job and he had his road manager pay me and he flew back to Detroit. I kept calling Motown in Detroit until I realized that he wasn’t going to hire me. Strange as it may seem I ended up with Motown anyway. Martha And The Vandellas needed a drummer and I ran into her in New York and she asked me if I wanted to go to Harvard, Connecticut with her. When we got there I had played behind Martha so I was watching the show and this man walked up to the side of me and started talking and said he liked my style and asked me if they paid good money at Motown and he said that he pays his guys $300 a week, so I wanted to know who this guy is. After a while I discovered it was Roy Orbison so I was standing there talking to him and didn’t even know it. He was so friendly and not acting like a star or nothing. On the way back to New York Martha said we were going to Pittsburgh and the next thing I knew I was on the Motown Revue bus. So I got a chance to be part of that revue and Motown history. I was part of the Choker Campbell Band and it was an eighteen piece orchestra and then different acts would go out at different times and any given review it could be Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson And The Miracles, The Contours, The Four Tops, The Marvelettes and all these people were like family, and out of all of the acts David Ruffin asked me to sit with him on the bus and then I became part of Motown. When I was on the bus, all the women would be in the front and all the guys would be in the back, shooting dice, playing cards and having fun. We were all on the tour bus and sometimes they would send out two tour buses, depending on how many acts they had out there. Berry’s sister she would pick out who was going to go where and she would line up the acts and call everybody and tell you what time you were going to be picked up. At first it was Choker Campbell supporting these acts and then as the acts had bigger hit records they started having their own rhythm section. On the return trip to New York we were at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre and everybody was there on that show. Smokey Robinson was headliner and the likes of Gerry And The Pacemakers, just about everybody. It was a Murray The K, the disc jockey, show and that is when I met Bernard Purdie, one of the greatest drummers in the world, and we got to be tight. I just met him again in Memphis recently. The Brooklyn Fox was such a large place that Murray The K had to have two drummers, so you had Earl Palmer and Bernard Purdie and Earl would decide what acts he was going to play with and Bernard would decide what acts he was going to play with, and when Martha started practicing Bernard said he was going to play with me and that made me feel good. I did ten days playing with him. This was in the mid sixties”
“Then after the Motown thing I moved back to New York and started back with Joey Dee and that was my second time I was with him and he had that record ‘Peppermint Twist’. Joey needed a drummer and also a guitar player, as the guitar player had left. He asked me to find him a guitar player and I went all over New York and I run into Johnny Starr and told him I needed a guitar player real bad and he said that he had this guitar player that was playing with the Isley Brothers and he is not happy. His name was Maurice James Hendrix so I went to the hotel to see this guy and I explained to him that Joey Dee wanted a guitar player and Joey sent his nephew to pick us up and Joey got Jimi Hendrix to play some different stuff and what got Jimi the job with Joey was he could play Curtis Mayfield stuff. So he got the job and then he changed his name to Jimi James and then when he went overseas he used his real name. So that is how I met Jimi Hendrix, by me introducing him to Joey Dee and The Starliters and that introduced him to a whole new world because playing with a white group was a whole new world for me as well. Prior to that I had been with the brothers and the sisters. We saved Jimi’s life one night too; we were in Boston at a club owned by the mafia and Jimi kept fooling with this girl and everybody was saying that she was going with one of the owners. So after about the fourth night they sent word to us that this hothead was going to kill the guitar player, so we headed to New York. Back then you could shoot someone and get away with it if it was mafia controlled. When I was in New York I was with this agency and I backed up Ruby And The Romantics and Patti LaBelle and for a couple of weeks we backed up Little Anthony And The Imperials, they could really sing”
“The next step for me after Joey Dee was I formed my own band and I had a hit record out called ‘Drums For Sale’ in 1965 on Jubilee Records and that was a big label at the time and the flip side was a blues called ‘Pluckin’. The name of my band was Jimmi Mayes And The Soul Breed. Every time you had a big record that got in the charts there was this big record store in New York called The Colony and they would try and get the artists in there and I made it there and that meant you were on the move. So I thought I was on my way with that record and my auntie called me one day from New Orleans as she had heard that record there. One day this man called me and he had this TV show in San Francisco every Saturday and he had me on a set of drums and pantomime that we had drums for sale, so I knew I was on my way to being a star but it didn’t happen, but that record did make a lot of noise.”
“After being in New York and playing different places I was so proud that I got a chance to play with my hero, who was Frankie Lymon. He did that ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ number. He started using my band to play behind him. After that this guy called me and asked me if I wanted to go to Mexico City. So we had a six month contract in Mexico City in 1970 and it lasted for two years. I did two movies and I did a scene in one movie and the second movie called ‘Fine De Fiesta’, I produced and arranged all the songs. I also recorded for CBS International so we had a hit record and we were voted number one group in Mexico City at that time and I received an honorary degree from The University Of America In Mexico City. They stopped the show one night and brought the certificate and awarded it to me. So after being in Mexico City for two years I had a choice of going back to New York, going to California, or going to Chicago. I came back home to Chicago after seven years in New York and two years in Mexico. I came back to Chicago in 1972.”
“The biggest thing I did in Chicago was to play behind another hero, Jimmy Reed. He needed a band and King Edward and Nolan Struck turned the gig down to play with him, so I took the gig and I had a great guitar player that everybody loved and his name was Lacy Gibson, and I had Jimmy Pryor on bass and Jimi ‘Prime Time’ Smith, he was in the band because his mother was Jimmy Reed’s girlfriend at the time. We did the Ann Arbor blues and jazz festival when Ray Charles was the headliner. We did the 1973 festival with Jimmy Reed and he was so well received because he had been away for some years. In Michigan we did the High Chaparral and we did a gig in Detroit, all with Jimmy. Right after that Jimmy took off and we went our separate ways and we kept moving. In Chicago I also had a regular job backing Gerald Sims, he did a lot of recording sessions at Chess Records. After that I had my own band, Jimmi Mayes And The Mill Street Depo. I named that band after the train station in Jackson on Capitol and Mill. We went all over the country touring and we had a record out on Bang And Shot Records out of Atlanta, Georgia, called ‘Social Security Number’ and it made a little noise and after that the group broke up and I was then still in Chicago doing nothing for a few years. At that time I was disgusted with music. Then I got lucky. This man called me and asked me if I wanted to go to Des Moines, Iowa with him, but I had to go to New York as this promoter had used me three years in a row on Jimi Hendrix’s birthday. He would fly me to New York to do a show which was making a thing out of Jimi’s birthday. When I got back the guy had waited on me and that was Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith and that turned my whole career around. Willie gave me the job because he said I could play like him, as he was famous for his shuffle. So I played with Willie and in that band we backed up Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin. I did that for three years, 2009, 2010 and 2011. Bob Stroger was in there and we had Little Frank on guitar and Willie had groomed him from when he was a kid. Willie was on harp. Everything was going great, Willie and Pinetop got a Grammy, so when you get a Grammy your money goes up. We were going to go to Panama City but Pinetop passed away and a few months later Honeyboy Edwards passed, and we had done some things with him, then Willie passed and then Hubert. That was some of the last of the great bluesmen and when they passed a whole era of blues music went with them.”
“When I was in Chicago that second time I played with Little Bobby Neely. He was a well known sax player and I knew Lonnie Brooks and Jimmy Johnson when they were playing the Chicago clubs and McKinley Mitchell called me to say he was coming back to Chicago and he wanted a band and I stayed with him right up to when he died. I was his bandleader and I helped him record his last record ‘All Of A Sudden’ and ‘Need To See You’. He was a real nice guy and King Edward was his main guitar player. I did one song for Vee Jay Records in Chicago with a singing group called The Sheppards and I did a session with this keyboard player and drummer called Bobby ‘Top Hat’ Davis for One-derful Records. He put me on the drums and he played the keyboards. It was produced by Andre Williams and he is my buddy and, just after I moved to Jackson, Wolf Records put out a CD and one of the songs on there, ‘Something About You I Like’, was written by him and my brother. Some of the clubs I played when in Chicago were The Blue Flame, the world famous Place Lounge and I helped start it off and I owned a piece of it at one time. I played Club Arden on 63rd and Dorchester, and that’s where McKinley Mitchell used to sing, and I had the band. On the corner of 63rd and Dorchester was the Cool Club and they had jazz, and close by was Club 13 where Lacy Gibson and his band played blues and jazz. There were clubs everywhere back then. Across the street was the World Famous Scott Brothers Band and all of this was in one block. That was Walter and Howard Scott and I knew them when the whole family moved from Indiana and came to Chicago, and one of my favorite entertainers was Buddy Scott. He could really play and he had this record called ‘Have You Ever Seen A One Eyed Woman Cry’. I used to hang out with these guys and if you went into a club where Buddy was playing he would call you up on the stage right away. I played one night with Junior Wells and I got the chance to play with James Cotton also. Chicago had so much music back then, there was the Tivoli Hotel and the Tivoli Theatre and I got the chance to see Pearl Bailey and Louis Milton and Jackie Wilson all on one show, and that was on 63rd and Cottage and down the street on 47th and South Park was the Regal Theatre, and that’s where I played with Tommy Hunt and Martha And The Vandellas. I played with Alvin Cash who had ‘Twine Time’ and I met the group The Five Du-Tones.”
“I have been so fortunate and I give thanks to the Lord. I have played blues, rock, the twist, r&b, Motown and church music. I sat in with my church band when I was in Chicago if the drummer was late. Maceo Woods was in the church The New Tabernacle on 48th and Prairie and he had a hit record out on Vee Jay Records, ‘Amazing Grace’. I played with some jazz bands as well but none to speak of. When I was coming up you had to play everything if you wanted a job. Folks may want to hear ‘Misty’ or they may want to hear ‘What’d I Say’ so you had to mix it up.”
“When I was in Chicago I also used to hang out with other drummers such as Jimmy Tillman, Ray ‘Killer’ Allison., and he made me mad as he could play drums so good, I knew Fred Below and I knew Odie Payne, who I met through Red Saunders. I met so many people over the years.”
“I have been working with Carol and Ron Marble here in Jackson recently and they have said that they are going to get me as a front man and get my name known as a singer, as everybody has known me as a drummer. So they helped put together my new album ‘My Whole Life’s A Shuffle’ on Mississippi Delta Blues Records. I moved back to Jackson the later part of 2015 and been here since. I moved here from Chicago. I was in and out of Chicago and Jackson as my mother lived here and I would hang out here for various amounts of time. I’ve been playing at times at Blue Monday, at Hal & Mal’s here in Jackson. I was in Houston, Texas, recording with the B.B. King band called The Original Legends Of The Blues and I got a call to say my mother was sick so I came back to Jackson immediately and stayed with her for four months until she passed and after that I thought there was no reason for me to go back to Chicago, as there wasn’t much happening for me there.”
“I also have a book out on me titled ‘Sideman To The Stars’ and people have been telling me to do this for years. So I started on the book but I didn’t know what I was doing. I started dictating the book and several publishing companies showed an interest but they told me it needed a total rewrite. A friend of mine in Chicago sent the book to her friend who used to be the president of the Rock & Roll museum in Cleveland. So we sent the manuscript to him and he sent it back and said there is good potential but don’t make it all about Jimi Hendrix. He said make it more about your experience with the blues musicians. So after that I met this lady Vickie Speek and we talked about it and she said we needed to start over with the book and that took nearly two years. Every Tuesday and Thursday we would talk and she would tape the conversation. She would then work on the conversation and then let me listen to it. She just stopped her life for the book and after the manuscript was finished we sent it out and somebody suggested we send it to the University Press Of Mississippi, which we did and they turned it down, and then they called back and said a professor in Tennessee wanted to read it. I’m not sure who he was, but after that they decided to go ahead and publish, and the rest is history. We were going to call the book ‘The Turning Point’ but I thought the current title was better and the publishing company came up with ‘The Amazing Jimmi Mayes’. The book came out in 2014 but it didn’t start moving until 2015.”
Find out more about Jimmi Mayes by visiting his website: www.jimmimayes.com.