Howard Grimes with Preston Lauterbach – Timekeeper: My Life In Rhythm
149 pages Paperback edition
Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of blues and soul music recorded over the last sixty years has heard the work of Howard Grimes, but many listeners still fail to grasp the impact that he has had with his stellar work behind the drum kit on one hit record after another, and then some. Right from the start, on a song by Carla and Rufus Thomas entitled “Cause I Love You,” released on Satellite Records in 1960, Grimes has been the unerring backbone of rhythm that flows through records by Al Green, O.V. Wright, Otis Clay, Ann Peebles, Denise LaSalle, and Syl Johnson. For many of those recordings, he was part of the famed Hi Rhythm Section along with the Hodges’ brothers – Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar, Charles on organ, and Leroy on bass guitar.
Born in Memphis in 1941, Grimes was raised in a loving family situation, living with his mother at her father’s home. There were a number of clubs featuring blues music in the neighborhood, including one where B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland held Blue Monday shows. Despite blues music permeating the air, Grimes credits his experiences in church as the key to his understanding of rhythm. He notes, “My ear got tuned to people rocking their feet……I heard that through the floor. Soul came out of that floor. That’s what carried the beat. Everything fit into the rhythm”.
Eventually a friend of his cousin begins to teach him the rudimentary skills like how to hold the sticks in addition to developing the coordination of hands and feet to play basic drum patterns. After a stint in a drum and bugle corps, his real education begins at Manassas High School, under the watchful eye of Mr. Emerson Able, who stressed the need to hold the beat, lock in and stay there no matter what. Commenting on his student, Able said, “But I knew one thing, he’s a human metronome, Wherever he start the beat, that’s where it’s gonna end up.”
From there, Grimes tells his story in chronological fashion, mixing vivid memories with colorful stories and thoughtful comments to create a lively story-line that easily holds your attention. He makes a point of crediting those musicians who helped him find his way, and some who did him dirty. Descriptions of colorful neighborhood characters like Mama Yaya, Sissie Charles, Peaches, and Ms. Shake Right draw readers into his community. Meanwhile, he is backing artists like Rufus Thomas in clubs and on the road as a teenager, gaining invaluable experience.
While the drummer had great experiences on the road, there were moments when the inevitable racism threatened his safety, as it did during a tour he did with Paul Revere and the Raiders in the Deep South, culminating in a show of strength that carried the day. And he is there for the formative years of the Stax record label, working with organist Booker T. Jones. One memorable story answers the question of how Al Jackson Jr. ended up playing on the “Green Onions” recording session in place of Grimes.
As Jackson began to hold sway at the Stax sessions as part of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Grimes eventually takes over for him with Willie Mitchell, the recording guru of Hi Records, who teams him with the Hodges brothers to form the second killer studio assemble on the Memphis scene. That jump-starts the era of hit after hit, with his work with Al Green redefining soul music, with the drummer crediting Mitchell with teaching him to relax the beat, to make people happy through the groove, a hallmark of Green’s style.
As good as things were, the money wasn’t always right, and egos started coming into play. The worst news came in 1977, when Hi Records was sold, and despite promises that all would remain the same, Grimes soon finds himself no longer needed in the studio, leading to a downward spiral that left him destitute and living with his mother, forgotten by many friends, fading away in the mists of musical history. Through his abiding faith in God, the love of a woman, and the helping hand of Rev. Green, he is able to get right with life, and once again enjoy the respect and admiration of the music world for his considerable contributions.
Many readers may find themselves wishing Grimes had shared more of the stories from his life, given the easy-going approach that he and Lauterbach utilize, one that would make a book twice as long just as captivating. The drummer tells it like it is, sharing the ups and downs, the joys and the moments of regret, speaking from his heart at every turn.
As he states at the end, “The Memphis sound will return. When it does, my time will come again. That’s my dream”.