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Al Jackson

In the 1960s, when the term "soul" music was born, much of the attention focused on the South, home of its gospel and R&B roots. In Memphis, the Stax studio house band, Booker T. & the MGs (short for "Memphis Group," not the car), featuring Al Jackson, Jr. on drums, churned out hits like "Green Onions" (1962 - #1 R&B, #3 Pop) and Rufus Thomas's "Walkin' the Dog" (1963 - #5 R&B, #10 Pop). Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" (#1 R&B, #21 Pop), recorded at Stax in 1965, broke the scene wide open.

I met Al Jackson when I visited Stax in 1969. He was very congenial and friendly as he arrived for the day's session. His drumset was situated on a riser which was leveled off to compensate for the slanted floor of the old movie theater which served as the Stax studio. It was a very simple set with, I believe, a 20-inch bass drum, one rack tom, one floor tom and two small cymbals-the largest was about 18-inches and very dead sounding.

A grand piano, a Hammond B-3 organ, guitar and bass amps were spread out fairly close to the drum set with some temporary baffles set up for the horns. Just two microphones were in place for the drums. The control room was situated on the old stage, enclosed behind a wall with the usual soundproof glass window. Mixing was done on Seeburg jukebox speakers; the gold ones that stood about 3 feet high and included horns on the top.
Songwriters Isaac Hayes, David Porter and Homer Banks all had small rooms near the front of the theater, usually with an upright piano, and they were constantly writing and trying out new ideas.

When Al sat down to warm up he played some very fast rolls and fills, and I realized that what he played on records was just the tip of the iceberg.

As the following selected discography shows, Memphis born Al Jackson, Jr. became one of the most important and influential drummers of the entire soul era. He played on all of the classic soul hits that came out of the Stax studios-hits by artists such as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett and many more. In the '70s, before his death, he was responsible for the drumming and part of the songwriting on most of Al Green's greatest hits, recorded at Willie Mitchell's Hi Studio on the other side of town.

Al was the son of big band leader Al Jackson, Sr. He began playing drums on stage with his father's band at the age of five. After playing with Willie Mitchell's band, he was recruited by Booker T. Jones in 1962 to play his first session at Stax. As guitarist Steve Cropper relates in the following interview, "It didn't take but about one or two sessions for everybody to realize the potential of Al Jackson and how good he was."

Al was a few years older than the other members of the Stax session team Steve Cropper (guitar), Duck Dunn (bass, who replaced Lewis Steinberg) and Booker T. Jones (keyboards, sometimes replaced by Isaac Hayes when schoolwork called). The younger players respected his experience and looked up to him. They relied on him to "put a pocket on it," as he called it-find the appropriate groove that would transform a good song into a great song, one that would also become a dance hit. This he did with a regularity that has yet to be surpassed.

His style was powerful, groove-oriented and deceptively simple. Many have imitated his playing but few have captured its strength and feel. For the better part of 10 years he came to work everyday cranking out solid, creative grooves. His drumming became easily recognizable and an integral part of '60s and '70s soul.

Al Jackson was tragically murdered in 1975, at age 39. His long time partner at Stax, Steve Cropper, graciously consented to do the following interview about Al so that the public can learn more about the life and spirit of this great drummer.

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