Playing in Time

Legendary drummer Howard Grimes explains it all for you

For more than 40 years drummer Howard Grimes has had several fingers in the Memphis blues, soul and R&B scene. A key player in the legendary Memphis Stax Records crew, he’s best known as a member of the famed Hi Records rhythm section that graced essential sides by Al Green, Ann Peebles and many others. Recent days have seen Grimes supplying his easy-loping funk for Memphis R&B revivalists the Bo-Keys.

Grimes never strays too far from his roots. He lives in Memphis, where he was born and raised on August 22, 1941. The oldest of nine children, he was the son of a mother whose eclectic tastes in hard-swinging music wielded profound influence on his musical path.

“My mother was the one who instilled the music in me,” he says. “She had a set of blues, jazz and gospel records around the house, and I was hearing that big band music –– Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Bessie Smith, Glen Miller.” Bill Dogget’s “Honky Tonk” played the piper, too, as did jazzers the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones.

The big band drummers he saw on TV made a big impression on the youthful Grimes.

“The first one I saw was Gene Krupa,” he says. “I’d never seen a drummer play like that. The other drummer was Cozy Cole, when his `Topsy’ came out –– that was the first black drummer I saw.”

Though the basically self-taught Grimes considers his drum chops “a gift from God,” his style did develop via fortuitous meetings with a few crucial people, including one at age 6 with a taxi driver named Murray who was going
with Grimes’ cousin.

“When he wasn’t picking up fares in his cab, he played on Beale Street at Club Handy. He used to come
see my cousin, and I saw these sticks in his back pocket. So I asked him one day what they were, and he told
me they were drum sticks. And I asked him, What you do with ‘em? He placed them in my hand, and he
taught me a rhythm called Daddy Roll,’ which was left-right left-right mama daddy mama daddy mama daddy…”

Sounds suspiciously like a paradiddle.

“Yeah,” he says with a laugh. “That was to develop my rhythm and coordination, and I slowly
increased on what he showed me. Then one day something happened in my body, man, and my left leg
was placed on the hi-hat, my right hand was on the ride, and it was like an octopus, everything just moved
inside my body and I didn’t know what it was.”

Grimes got his start playing professionally with singer Rufus Thomas at the age of 12, and, still in
his mid-teens, scored his first paying job with a recording gig for Memphis’ renowned Satellite Records
(which became Stax Records), where he played on Carla Thomas’ “’Cause I Love You” and on
innumerable R&B/soul hits over the next several years.

From an early age, Grimes had an ability to quickly absorb and master a wide variety of
drumming styles, a gift that got him a lot of steady work. The ever-studious Grimes soaked in
wisdom from a lot of great players, and he didn’t limit that influence to drummers’.

“I played with Ben Branch’s group at Curry’s Tropicana club in Memphis, and at that club
I saw everybody, from Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Bill Doggett, everybody.” Several of the
artists who played at the Tropicana hailed from New Orleans, and Grimes was fascinated by their
drummers’ oddly flavored playing styles. His time spent with jazzman Branch and Dean Bowlegs Miller’s
band gained him further insight into cracking the eternal mysteries of steamy swamp & roll.

If any one event most impacted Grimes’ famously spare and relaxed drum style, it was the day he got
the call from Willie Mitchell. The Hi Records producer needed a drummer to substitute for Hi’s house man Al

“During that time Willie was working with me, he was teaching me how to play feels,” says Grimes. “He
showed me how to play cut time, how to play things that could be played without what most drummers do in their
wrists; he showed me how to sit in the pocket in the groove. He’d say, ‘Howard, how would you make that hi-hat
run away from you?’ And I knew what he was talking about. ‘The hi-hat, give it some air, some suction. Sshhp!’”

Grimes went on to play on most of the Mitchell-produced Al Green albums and innumerable other staple
soul gems of the ‘70s. When Hi eventually went belly-up, Grimes and Hi bassist Leroy Hodges stayed together to
back blues and soul artists all the way into the '90s.

Grimes is happy getting back to basics with the Bo-Keys, whose members include Hodges and several other key
players from the Memphis ‘60s-‘70s heyday. Things are a bit different for Grimes now, though, such as the fact
that he doesn’t practice.

“Nah, I haven’t practiced in over 47 years. Ever since Willie Mitchell taught me the time, everything’s up
in my head and in my heart.”

Grimes has long since shelved his old Ludwig blue clear see-thru set, preferring to do his best on
whatever they put in front of him in the studio or onstage –– as long as it comes with a felt beater for his
signature double-time kick work, which he performs both heels-up and -down.

“I play mostly on my toes,” he says. “I learned that from Joe Dukes. It’s for the syncopation; the stuff
that I was doing with Willie Mitchell was mostly was in 2/4 and you had to get that double beat, the beat that
Al Jackson played on Booker T’s ‘Green Onions.’”

Grimes’ chief concern is the drums’ tuneability, about which he’s very particular, tuning each drum as if
it were the same key on a bass. And in the studio, he wears no headphones, preferring to hear the band sound
mixed in the air –– he credits Willie Mitchell for that approach, too, as he does his easy facility with click tracks.

“Clicks are very difficult to play over, but Willie taught me that you have to be really listening to that
time; it’s the most valuable key to play in music, and all these teachers I was with, that’s what they was about:
time, man.

“I came up under the masters,” says Grimes, “and I always go back to my roots. All of the blues artists
and and the jazz artists and gospel people, that’s where it all comes from. I never leave them, and that’s
where I go.”

photo: Jacob Blickenstaff