Guitar players capture most of the glory in the blues, but they’re hung out to dry without a solid rhythm section behind them, and there’s no cog in the industry keeping a steadier beat than Jimi Bott.
It’s been about 32 years since San Francisco native Jimi hit the road at age 19 as a member of Hummel’s Blues Survivors, and what an impressive journey it’s been with a ten-year run in Rod Piazza’s Mighty Flyers, eight years each in The Fabulous Thunderbirds and The Mannish Boys – and currently as a founder of the supergroup The Proven Ones, too.
Bott’s a 20-time nominee as percussionist of the year in the Blues Music Awards. But he remains one of the most personable, well-grounded folks in the business – an attitude he’s managed to maintain through all the high points that have come with such an illustrious career that includes operating Roseleaf Recording in Portland, Ore., one of the best studios in the Pacific Northwest.
But winning trophies has never been Jimi’s focus, as Blues Blast learned in a lengthy, extensive interview. His life bares proof that, as he says, the only goal he’s ever had is to play the music he loves — something he’s managed to accomplish despite back problems so severe that doctors have told him on three occasions that he’d never be able to play again.
“A lot of people don’t understand that it’s not something you do and then retire,” he added, noting that – for the first time since Oregon shut down last fall, he was eager to get back on stage that evening with Kevin Selfe & the Tornadoes. “If you’re lucky, you just keep doing it.
“Music has saved me more than once when I’ve been the very lowest. It’s always been the thing that flips the switch back on for me…that energizes me. And it can be something as simple as one little part of some song or a chord change that does it…and not necessarily in blues.”
Bott feels blessed that he figured out what he wanted to do in life in his teens. “It seems kinda crazy that I decided that in one night,” he says. “And here I am now, 40-something years later, and I’m still doing it.
“The friends that I had in high school who wanted to be playing music to get girls or get rich, they aren’t playing music any more. I never was about that. And it’s one of the things that (longtime T-Birds’ keyboard player) Gene Taylor and I bonded on: It’s not for the money or the kicks. You do this because you love it.
“Gene’s take on it really stuck with me – and it’s valid no matter what you do in life: It’s the music you make, the people you make it with and the money that you make. Those three things have to equal ‘yes’ to you – and not in any particular order – or else you’re in the wrong business.”
Born on Aug. 13, 1965, and raised in Los Gatos, Calif., Bott’s love for the blues came early through his general contractor dad Ken, a World War II vet who played guitar and sang on the porch he’d built every evening to chill out after a hard day constructing buildings. “I was so excited when I watched him that I’d start out laughing,” Jimi says. “I thought it was so amazing.”
A genuine character, Bott says, his father could play just about any instrument you handed him if you gave him a couple of minutes to figure it out. He played in a style all his own – something akin to Lightnin’ Hopkins meets Leon Redbone, delivering word-heavy originals that he never sang the same way twice.
Music ran in the family, although they didn’t realize it until Jimi was already grown when his mom Lee discovered that she and jazz trombone great Jack Teagarden were cousins. It was a real shocker for her because she and dad Ken used to see him in action when they were courting. Both an uncle and Jimi’s brother Jere exhibited musical talent, too.
It was a family tradition that all of the Bott children took piano lessons for a year when they reached fifth grade. Even then, Jimi was more interested in boogie-woogie than the classical instruction he was receiving – something he demonstrated in his only recital, when he veered from straight delivery and jazzed up “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Around the same time, Jimi’s dad brought home a 1938 Slingerland Radio King drum. It sat in the garage for years, but eventually played a small, but vital role in Jimi’s musical development. In junior high, Jimi’s friend Curtis Smith and his older brother, Eric wanted to start a band, knew the Botts owned the solitary drum and told Jimi he could be the drummer.
They suggested Bott buy a kit that a neighbor was offering to sell for $80. Jimi’s dad was encouraging about his son’s desire to play, but quickly rejected the set because of its obvious poor condition. “He said: ‘If you want to buy an instrument, you should get something much better than that! You should work and save your money,’” Jimi says.
“So that’s what I did…heavy construction with him…just like I did every summer from the time I was little,” noting “there were times when he pulled my brother and me out of class during the school year to finish a house, too.”
Bott eventually purchased his first drum set, a CB 700, and started jamming with his friends even though he didn’t know how to play it. Lessons soon followed – but not from any run-of-the-mill neighborhood drummer. One of Jimi earliest teachers was the Forrest Elledge, a legendary teacher in the Bay Area whose career included stints with both Carmen McRae and Billie Holiday.
Eric Smith was the guitarist in the band, and it was he who turned Jimi on to the blues.
“We went from listening to AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd to The Allman Brothers Band at the Fillmore East LP,” he remembers. “They became a huge influence. We started looking at who wrote the songs – Blind Willie McTell, T-Bone Walker and others – and jumped all the way from that record, which was released in ’71, to (the music of the songwriters in) the ‘50s.
“Eric also had his finger on the pulse of what was happening. He caught wind of the band The Mighty Flyers – it was before Rod got top billing — and that they were coming through town, playing Mountain Charley’s in Los Gatos.
“We went down there, snuck in and sat at a table two or three hours before show time. The waitress kept asking us if we wanted something, and we kept saying no. About ten minutes before they were supposed to go on, she said: ‘I hope you’re not planning to stay for the show.’
“The club was packed, and I don’t know what kinda look we had on our face, but I’m sure it was pretty deflated. She said: ‘Hold on a second,’ and we thought we were in trouble. She talked to the bartender, told us ‘Come with me’ and then us up at the back of the bar so that we could see over the heads of everybody. She also brought us free Cokes and said: ‘If any cops come in the front door, you go out the back.’
“That really was the defining moment of my life,” Bott says. “When I saw that band and saw that drummer – Willie Schwartz, I decided: ‘This is what I’m going to do!’
“I literally went back to school on Monday and told my algebra teacher: ‘If I sit here, don’t bother you and pass the final at the end of the semester, but don’t do any more homework, will you pass me?’
“She said: ‘I guess so. Why?’ I said: ‘Because I don’t need algebra for what I’m going to do in my life. I’m going to be a drummer – specifically a blues drummer.’”
For the final two school years, Jimi worked ahead and took all of his hard courses during summer school to reduce his class load even though he didn’t have to. During his junior and senior years, he only took three easy classes, freeing himself at 11:15 every morning, allowing him all afternoon to practice drumming before heading off to work as a busboy at a burger joint at night.
“By no means was I a brain,” he insists. “Quite honestly, I was in the stoner crowd – but I was a very responsible stoner!”
A high school graduate at age 17, Bott started playing in the Monday night jams at Mountain Charley’s led by guitarist/harp player Paul Durkett and his band, the House Rockers, the same unit that West Coast harmonica legend Gary Smith fronted for years after his departure. Jimi was playing with bassist Mark Carino – a future member of both the Hummel and T-Bird bands, when they encountered Durkett in a record store one day. He invited them to the jam, and subsequently became a major influence, expanding their knowledge by sharing and trading LPs with them.
Still underage, Jimi arrived early each evening and helped with the load in despite having to watch the action through a window until getting the chance to play. Once finished, he returned to the window for the rest of the night before assisting the load out, too.
When Durkett eventually hired him on as a member of the house band, Bott’s relatives watched on proudly from the audience. “And I folded,” he says. “I don’t know if it was the pressure of being the drummer on the gig or what, but it did not go well. Paul took me aside after it was over and said: ‘You’re just not ready yet. But I want you to come back next week’ – and I did again and again.
“I wasn’t a natural on stage. It was something that I had to work on over the years.”
When he finally was good enough, Durkett took him on full-time, but it didn’t last long. Another harp player came in and stole the gig by offering to do it for half the price. “Welcome to the music business!” Jimi exclaims, noting that the new jam leader crashed and burned a short while later.
Bott subsequently hooked up with Mark Hummel while playing behind Byrd Hale, another harp player who’s best known today as the longtime host of a blues show on Stanford University’s radio station, KZSU-FM. Hummel dropped in to a club to see Byrd’s band and catch a performer who was billing himself as Guitar Gable – a name he’d “borrowed” from the genuine artist – in action.
“Mark sat in for three songs,” Jimi recalls. “His drummer had just quit, and he gave me his number and told me he was going on tour…would I call him?
“He was going to the Southwest and up to Colorado, and he needed a drummer. That was my first big decision in life. I was just about turning 19, and didn’t know what to do. I called my dad and Byrd for advice – and obviously went with Hummel.
“Mark took me out on the road, and figured out pretty quickly that I just wasn’t that good. I didn’t have the stamina, and I’d never been anywhere. We showed up in the first time, and ‘oh, my God! There’s a Main Street! I can’t believe it! There’s a Main Street back home, too!’”
Reflecting back, Jimi’s grateful that Hummel – still a good friend after all these years — was as hard on him as he was, insisting that Bott needed to practice. “His criticism seemed like the end of the world, and I was pretty dejected, but whatever he told me to do, I did double or triple.”
That included taking a full set of practice pads on the road – something that drove his roommate, bassist Tim Wagar, crazy because he gave them a constant workout. The time he spent as a Blues Survivor was an education in another way, too, Jimi says, because he got to play behind Luther Tucker, Charlie Musselwhite, Brownie McGhee, Jimmy McCracklin, Rick Estrin, Joe Louis Walker and others on tour and at the band’s regular Tuesday sets at the Chi Chi Club in San Francisco.
“It was a great education,” he notes. “I had to rise up to play with these people, studying their records ahead of time when I knew they’d be playing. I wanted to be like Fred Below, Billy Stepney and all these drummers that they’d played with. They were my heroes.”
Two years later, however, Jimi landed the job of his dreams thanks to his friendship with Ed Mann, who’d taken Schwartz’s spot in the Mighty Flyers. Mann met Bott during Jimi’s first Hummel tour when their bands had played consecutive nights at Terry & Zeke’s in Tucson, Ariz., and Ed and Junior Watson dropped in for the show and sat in after playing the club the night before.
“Ed and I got along really well, and we kept in touch,” Bott remembers. “Flash forward to ’86 and I was going through a life crisis, ready for a change and looking for a sign about what to do. I called Ed, and he said: ‘I was just about to call you!’
“I always had called him in the past. He never called me. And he had my number – but it was off by one digit. He says: ‘I’m quitting the Flyers. I want to try something different…and I think you should be the one to try out for the band.’”
Apparently, Piazza was reluctant to offer an invitation to try out out of professional courtesy to Hummel, but relented after Mann’s insistence that he do it. Jimi made the 500-mile drive from the Bay Area to Southern California. His parents had relocated to Victorville, about 50 miles from Rod’s home in Riverside, after his graduation, and the audition took place on Aug. 13, 1986 – Jimi’s 21st birthday!
“I threw up on the way, and it was just Rod and (his pianist wife) Honey in a little studio in back of their house,” Bott recalls. “Rod had just had his driveway poured, and Richard Innis (another world-class percussionist who’d worked with Piazza in the ‘60s) had done the concrete. I thought that I’d never get the gig – that every drummer in the world would want it.
“Looking back now, though, I don’t think he had a lot of other choices then.”
Fortunately, “I did really well,” Jimi says, noting that one song they played was Little Walter’s “Rocker” – a song for which he’d already written down the drum part and knew completely from the way Piazza played in on record. Rod complimented him when they finished, but claimed that Bott had left out a portion of the tune. Jimi politely told him that it had been Piazza who’d omitted an entire section – something that Honey confirmed a few moments later after they’d played it back from their LP.
Rod hired him on the spot, and Hummel – who was about to embark with Jimi on Bott’s first European tour – wasn’t happy when Jimi broke the news.
In short order, Bott relocated to Southern California, believing Rod “probably hired me until somebody else came along,” he says. “But I just made myself better – until I became indispensable.” Their relationship endured for a decade despite Jimi quickly realizing that it’s important to be careful what you wish for because band politics – like family relationships — can be far more than what you bargain for.
Jimi’s playing started jumping major levels during that period when Mann suggested he start taking lessons from his teacher, Murray Spivack. Then 88 and the man who created King Kong’s roar as a sound technician, Spivack’s prior students had included Joe Morello (Dave Brubeck), Louie Bellson (Tonight Show) and David Garibaldi (Tower of Power) among others.
Bott waited for what seemed like an eternity before Murray had an opening, but eventually picked up his impeccable stick control techniques and sense of rhythm from him. He also converted Jimi from playing both-palms-down, matched grip to traditional grip with one palm up and the other down – something that took a year to accomplish before feeling comfortable to do it on stage.
Always a dedicated student where the drums are involved, Jimi rolled out of bed every morning and practiced for 30 minutes before allowing himself a bathroom break, and he used a stopwatch to make certain he got in the eight full hours of practice he wanted to accomplish every day.
Today, a photo of Spivack holding his 1969 Oscar for Hello, Dolly looks down upon him from above the desk in Bott’s studio. As he spoke, he fondled one of his most prized possessions: a pair of Murray’s sticks – one of only five in existence – that he passed down through his assistant after his death to his favorite students.
When blues exploded internationally in the late ‘80s, Jimi toured the world with the Flyers, playing major festivals in Norway and Australia, where he also toured with the Blind Boys of Alabama after their regular drummer failed to make the flight for the Byron Bay festival. Bott subsequently was invited to join the Blind Boys full-time — something he considers a huge honor, but something he had to decline.
But Jimi’s comfortable away from the blues, having spent time in the band Mad Hattie, which blended jazz, punk, country and bluegrass, and Federale, which he co-founded with Mark Ford (Black Crowes), longtime friend Luther Russell and other heavyweights. Playing music he describes as The Band meets Neil Young, they landed a huge contract with Geffen Records before disbanding.
“Every step of the way, I’ve got luckier and luckier about who I got to play with,” Jimi insists, noting that he left Piazza in ’96, feeling he needed another change. Almost immediately he replaced another childhood hero, Fran Christina, in The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
“When I joined them, it was Kim Wilson, Kid Ramos, Gene Taylor and Willie J. Campbell (now his partner in The Proven Ones). Kim started talking about the particulars about getting paid and rooms on the road and whatnot, and I’m the one who stopped him and said: ‘Hey, we haven’t even played together yet!’”
Bott was living out of a 1979 Dodge camper van at the time, quickly passed an audition and began an eight-year run that was a real life-changer. One of the most successful bands ever in the blues, the T-Birds allowed members to live anywhere they wanted and provided door-to-door travel to the jumping-off point of tours.
Even better: instead of cramming into a van with all their gear, the group relaxed on a tour bus and employed roadies as they played huge events with Buddy Guy and other major acts at concerts attended by as many as 20,000 people.
“I felt bad at having roadies at first,” Jimi admits. “But I got over it quick. And seeing me on a tour bus for the first time finally gave my parents a chance to relax!”
The T-Birds had been Jimi’s second favorite band in school and the lineup was pretty close to the original with the addition of keys. He and Taylor hit it off from the jump. A pair of young wild men, their first gig together came at a resort in Arizona, where they stole a golf cart, drove through the property late at night and then crashed and abandoned it – not realizing that every move they made was being watched on closed-circuit cameras.
“We were kinda known as the ‘Toxic Twins,’” he says, growing somber momentarily as he reflected on the beloved friend and would-class keyboard player who’d died unexpectedly without any underlying medical conditions in frigid Austin this past February during the Texas power failure.
Jimi’s initial stay with the T-Birds lasted two years. He quit the band and relocated to Portland, where Federale was based, in the late ‘90s and has been there ever since. Always interested in the recording side of the business, he’s been deeply involved in it since that era, beginning with The Blues from Bottsville, his father’s debut CD, which was captured on eight-track cassette at his parents’ home in Victorville and then modified with tracks from Ford and others in Oregon.
Federale recorded one album and were planning another, but disbanded after a two-year run. Jimi rejoined the T-Birds and stayed another six years. Recently married to wife Laura and wanting kids, he exited in 2006, settling in with Woodbrain, a local band, which released the album Swimming in Turpentine on Memphis’ Yellow Dog Records.
“I’ve been recording since before I got to Portland in ’98, using a Mackie 24×8 board and ADATs (Alesis Digital Audio Tape recorders),” he says. “When I moved here, I had a portable studio at my first house, but wanted to put one in the basement. But the ceiling was too low, so I jacked the whole house up by myself.”
Somehow, a promoter in the Netherlands got ahold of the CD, called Jimi directly and booked the band to open their 25th annual Moulin Blues Festival. And Randy Chortkoff — bandleader of The Mannish Boys and owner of Delta Groove Records, heard it and wanted to sign the group to his label.
Although Woodbrain never made that jump, Jimi was soon touring as a member of Chortkoff’s band. It was another major change for Bott, who’s now the proud father of a teenage daughter and twin sons. Unlike Piazza or the T-Birds, the Mannish Boys were truly an ensemble operation with a revolving lineup that included multiple people at each position. Check out the credits of Double Dynamite – the BMA traditional album of the year in 2013 — and you’ll find that there are about more than 30 different artists in the 26 cuts, but Jimi’s the only drummer.
The Boys disbanded after Chortkoff’s death in 2015. Ever since, Bott’s been busy recording with others, operating his Roseleaf studio out of a stand-alone building next to his home. Fashioned after Wire Recording in Austin, he did all the work on the building, which features cedar-lined walls, no right angles, a treated ceiling, four isolation booths and equipment that ranges from vintage to modern.
It was there that his latest, wide-spread supergroup, The Proven Ones, truly took shape. The lineup includes keyboard player Anthony Geraci from Massachusetts, guitarist Kid Ramos from Southern California, bassist Willie J. Campbell from Missouri and vocalist Brian Templeton — former front man for The Radio Kings and Delta Generators – from New Hampshire.
They initially came together with Sugaray Rayford on vocals at what Jimi describes as a “crazy New Year’s gig” way out in the country near Campbell’s home. It proved to be so much fun, they decided to get together to record at Roseleaf and booked a series of gigs in the Portland area.
The core band recorded ten tracks in April 2018, and Sugaray was going to come in later to lay down vocals. But his solo career got so red-hot that, even though he wanted to, he couldn’t do it and, at Anthony’s suggestion, Brian was brought in to replace him.
“We sent tracks out to a few different singers,” Jimi says. “Brian’s came back, and he’d recorded it in his son’s bedroom – and it was the only one I needed to hear. This is the guy!
“So Brian booked a ticket, few out to Portland and stayed with me and my family. We clicked like that even though we’d never met before. And he nailed all the vocals.”
Their first CD, Wild Again, was released on Bott’s Roseleaf Records imprint, earning a BMA nomination for contemporary album of the year. “Our first big show was on July 4 at 5 o’clock on the main stage of the Waterfront Blues Festival to a sold-out 25,000-person crowd,” he remembers. “What else could you ask for? It was the first time we all walked on stage together.”
The remainder of the year was pretty quiet, but things picked up dramatically the next spring when they appeared at Moulin. “We hadn’t played together in months,” Jimi says. “But Willie J. and I and Mike Zito were touring Europe with The Blues Giants with Albert Castiglia around the same time. Mike was there when we were at Moulin. And, honestly, I thought it was a disaster.
“But Mike was like: ‘Oh, my God! This is a band!’ He was so excited that, a few weeks later, he invited us to record for Gulf Coast Records, his new label – and you couldn’t ask for a better one because they’re in it for the musicians…something I believed then and still believe now.”
Their new album, You Ain’t Done, was released at the height of the coronavirus last summer. The disc hit the No. 1 spot on Billboard charts and No. 3 on Apple Music during the summer – ironically at the same time Jimi was filling out paperwork for a PPP loan for gig workers.
“I was happy to mix it and do the post-production in my studio at home,” Bott says, “but just as happy not to record it myself. After all these years, I’d rather be just the engineer or the drummer. I don’t enjoy being both because, almost inevitably, something slips by you and you don’t find out about it until later – when everybody’s flown home.”
The actual recording occurred at Zito’s Dockside Studios in Maurice, La., under the direction of Dave Farrell, the producer who worked on one of the first LPs Bott recorded with the Flyers for Black Top decades ago.
Recording, he notes, is problem solving – much like construction, and it’s always important for everyone involved to be able to concentrate solely on their own tasks and to build from a sound foundation.
COVID-19 has been both a blessing and a curse, Jimi says. “For the first time in my life, I’m going to bed at the same time every night, which isn’t a bad thing. But I felt right away that I needed to be doing something that was productive and do things with the kids.”
They’ve been home-schooling for the entire school year and helping Bott with rigorous physical projects around the house, learning the same skills about working with tools that Jimi picked up from his father decades ago.
And The Proven Ones recorded a rock-‘n’-roll version of “Blue Christmas” long distance for the A Gulf Coast Christmas compilation album in the fall – “something that wasn’t an easy feat with all of us in different states,” Jimi says. “Brian and I came up with the arrangement, and I laid down the drums here by myself, then had a couple of close friends come in and do some scratch piano and vocals before sending it around piece by piece to get it recorded.
“As an engineer, I’m always up for a challenge,” he says. “I really enjoy that part of it. The technical part of lining things up and making things happen is a little laborious, but it’s the way of the world right now – and the only way we can make magic happen with everyone working for their own homes.
“And what I do as an engineer is synonymous with producing. Whether I’m producing or not, there’s a lot of production in running the actual program. If folks bring in their own producer, I’m fine with that. But often, it’s people who are looking for your opinion – whether they use your idea or not.
“I prefer to have the whole band playing together, which is one of the benefits of my studio, where everybody can be in the same room, but with separation. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible – especially in the past year when everybody wanted to continue recording during the pandemic.”
His current setup is suitable for full-band, 24-track recordings to overdubs using three Universal Audio Apollo 8 interfaces and Neve 1073, API, Manley VOXBOX, UA 610 and Hamptone tube pre amps.
“I usually work by word-of-mouth,” he says, “but people from around the world send me things to either have people here in Portland or to have me – as a drummer – to record on. I’m always all mic-ed up and ready to go.”
His clientele has included Paul deLay, Hummel, the Mannish Boys All-Stars and a multitude of others, including award-winning albums for Kevin Selfe and Ben Rice’s Wish the World Away, an album that earned Rice three BMA nominations. A follow-up is already in the works.
As comfortable and happy he is in the studio, Bott’s also eager to get back on the road again with The Proven Ones – hopefully for the Notodden Blues Festival in Norway, which is the only gig they currently have on the books for 2021. He’s especially grateful for all the support he’s received through the years and for everything fans have done for national acts through contribution to online performances during the shutdown, and stresses the importance of supporting local artists, too.
“I’d like to encourage everyone to be good and kind to each other in this time of such opposition and divide,” he insists. “If we try to see things we all have in common – to provide for our families, to keep them safe and for them to be treated equally – if we could keep these things in the forefront, it would be my hope that we could talk to one another more openly and freely with compassion, understanding and, possibly, without judgment.”