by Jimmi Mayes with V.C. Speek
It is rare to find someone who actually played and toured with blues legends like Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Robert Junior Lockwood, and Earl Hooker. Over the course of his career, drummer Jimmi Mayes played with all of them and many more. His autobiography stretches from his birth in Jackson, Mississippi to modern day Chicago with whirlwind of a story filled with legendary singers & musicians, women, drugs, alcohol, and gangsters coupled with a never-give-up attitude that allowed Mayes to persevere during the dark times.
Like many musicians of his generation, Mayes learned to play drums and read music in high school. The latter skill served him well, allowing him to get session work throughout his career. Once he finished high school, Mayes headed for Chicago where he worked at a publishing house by day, then playing the blues clubs at night. One of his mentors was Sam Lay, who was getting ready to switch over to working with Howlin’ Wolf. Lay asked Mayes to fill his spot in Little Walter’s band. After a brief audition, the teenage drummer was backing the giant of blues harmonica in a band that often included Lockwood and Hooker on guitar plus Perkins on piano. Through Walter, Mayes met more members of the blues royalty like Fred Below, Junior Wells, and Muddy Waters.
While small in stature, Mayes was a handsome man with a sense of style. He proudly describes attracting the attention of one of Muddy’s girlfriends and making time with her without generating any suspicion. The drummer soon develops into a “player”, establishing relationships with working girls who cater to him physically and financially. Growing tired of scuffling for gigs in Chicago, Mayes yearns to make it in New York City. One night at the Regal Theater a mutual friend introduces Mayes to singer Tommy Hunt, formerly of the Flamingos. Hunt hires the drummer and in short order the dream comes true.
Soon Mayes is backing Marvin Gaye at Small’s Paradise, making it with more women and increasing his drug use. Opportunity comes knocking again in 1964 when he is asked to join Joey Dee & the Starliters, a hot act due to their monster hit, “Peppermint Twist”. Eventually Mayes becomes the bandleader and one day, desperately needing a guitar player, he is directed to the Alvin Hotel where he meets Maurice James, soon to be known around the world as Jimi Hendrix. It might be hard to imagine the famed guitarist doing twist dance tunes but during his four month tenure, Mayes and Hendrix become good friends, practicing in the hotel room when they aren’t entertaining various girlfriends. Included in the sixteen pages of photos spanning Mayes career is a shot of the two musicians in go-go dresses clowning for the audience at the end of a show with Dee on drums.
Once he left the Starliters, Mayes continued to find work with acts like the Shirelles until another big break rolls around. He forms his own band, Mill Street Depo, cuts a few records and then is offered a long-term gig at one of the top clubs in Mexico City. The band quickly becomes the toast of the town, cutting tracks for a movie soundtrack and a compilation album on CBS Records. Their success is short-lived and the band eventually implodes, leaving Mayes broke and in debt.
That is the start of the dark times for the intrepid drummer. He returns to Chicago where he gets hired to back Jimmy Reed for several shows, starting with the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Fest. Ten years later Mayes starts suffering from problems with his right hip that surgery fails to correct, which lead to hip replacement. For almost two decades he was unable to work much due to the constant pain. Finally, opportunity rolls around one more time when he meets a die-hard blues fan and musician who is also a notable orthopedic surgeon, with the skills to finally repair the hip. The rejuvenated Mayes ends up filling the drum chair behind “Big Eyes” Smith, sharing the stage with Perkins and on many occasions, Hubert Sumlin.
As you read this book, it is easy to envision the story of Jimmi Mayes being retold on the big screen. All the elements are there for a movie production – the lure of bright lights, compelling music, sex, drugs and plenty of star power. At the end, you wish that Mayes had been more forthcoming with his tales so that the book stretched out for another hundred pages. This fascinating sage makes it clear that Mayes was indeed a sideman to the stars. Definitely recommended!