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God’s Own Drummer

“The rhythm of this city runs through my heart.”
Howard Grimes – Timekeeper

…and now that heart, that kind and generous heart, beats no more. I know the Memphis Beat that Howard helped to create will live on, but I, and the city he so loved, will miss this gentle and steadfast man who gave his entire Heart and Soul to his music… Memphis will be a smaller place without him in it.

I first met Howard in 2008 as we made preparations for the O.V. Wright Night benefit concert that Preston Lauterbach and I were organizing to help O.V.’s family defray the costs of placing a headstone on his then unmarked grave. Soft spoken, humble, yet somehow ‘Bulldog’ connected all the dots, and was holding down the fat bottom of what was left of The Soul of Memphis. He was just so thrilled that we were doing this, and would tell us again and again how much it meant to Memphis to be re-claiming the all but forgotten legacy of O.V. and the magic they had forged there on South Lauderdale. It was an incredible night.

Just living History, every time I spoke with Howard I learned something new, and began to understand the unique place he held in all of this. He knew everyone in town, and went out of his way to make sure I did too, opening so many doors for me that I never knew existed. God-based, spiritual, Howard made his way in this world with a quiet light that shone through his being and filled the room. His laugh was infectious. Of all the people he introduced me to, there were two men that he held close to his heart – two men who shared his spirituality, and understood his deep relationship with God, Darryl Carter and Otis Clay.

As we’ve talked about in the past, Sir Lattimore Brown had that same kind of profound connection with something greater than ourselves and, when I brought him to hang out with Howard and Darryl on McLemore Avenue in 2009, I began to understand the meaning of the phrase ‘Joy is the infallible sign of the Presence of God.’ We had us a time up in there, rocking at full volume to the Gospel tunes the inseparable friends had been working on, with lines like “I’d be nowhere, I’d be lost, if He hadn’t died upon The Cross…” I was in Heaven that night, man!

When Willie Mitchell passed in January of 2010, I drove to Memphis and gave Howard a ride to the Funeral Home for the wake. I walked beside him to the casket, and will never forget the moment when he placed his hand gently on Poppa Willie’s chest and said goodbye…

The next day at the Memorial Concert, Howard was back on the drum kit where he belonged, backing up everyone from J. Blackfoot, Preston Shannon and Willie Clayton to Don Bryant, Solomon Burke and, yes, Otis Clay. Once again, thanks to the Bulldog, I found myself hanging out with all these amazing people whom I had been listening to for years – God was definitely in ‘da house! It was Carla Thomas who said to me later that evening, “Why do you think they call it SOUL music?” I was beginning to understand.

“Kelly,” Howard said (that’s what he called me, ‘Kelly’), “God told me to go and see Scott at Electraphonic Recording. When I got down there, I knew. He had the same feel for the music that Willie had. I knew I was in the right place.” As the drummer for The Bo-Keys, Bulldog was once again on the cutting edge of what was happening in Memphis. Along with legendary band-mates like Floyd Newman, Skip Pitts, Ben Cauley and Archie Turner, The Bo-Keys’ great 2011 album Got To Get Back! would feature Memphis giants William Bell, Don Bryant, Percy Wiggins, Charlie Musselwhite and Howard’s main man, Otis Clay. As they toured that year in support of the record, Howard made sure I got backstage, and felt like ‘one of the boys’.

In 2012, Scott Bomar was kind enough to allow us to bring the Soul Detective Road Trip & Fact Finding Mission to Electraphonic to film interviews with Howard, The Masqueraders and Darryl Carter. It was our graphic design guy Paul Pollman (a ‘stick man’ himself) who hatched the idea of surprising Bulldog with an ‘International Award’ for what was then almost sixty years as a Memphis Soul drummer. Presented here for the first time ever is some of the footage that Chase Thompson shot that sweltering August afternoon…

GOD’S OWN DRUMMER

Focusing chiefly on his early recording career with Chips Moman at Satellite, and his continued involvement as part of ‘The Stax Family,’ we learned a lot that day that we knew nothing about. I don’t think we were prepared for how much the award would mean to Howard, and you couldn’t help but be touched by the genuine tears that welled up in his eyes. “Praise God,” he said, and everyone in the room agreed. It had all turned out even better than we expected and, as The Bulldog climbed into his prized mid-seventies Mercury Marquis, he drove away one happy man.

At the American Studio historic marker dedication at Chelsea and Thomas in 2014, Scott Bomar helped me accomplish something I had been trying to do for a couple of years, to re-unite Howard with Chips Moman, the man who had believed in him, and given him the ‘thumbs up’ as his go-to drummer at Stax. They hadn’t seen each other in almost fifty years. Chips had been slowed down a bit recently by a stroke and some health complications, but the minute he saw Bulldog he perked right up, “Howard!” Chips recognized him right away, and they were both so genuinely glad to see each other again, after all those years. These two men right here were there at the very birth of Memphis Soul. It simply would not have existed without them… Say Amen, Somebody!

I couldn’t help but notice that day that Howard had traded in his NY Yankees cap for one that said ‘Jesus’… from that moment on, I never saw him without it. “My wife bought me that that cap,” he told me, “I didn’t even know she bought it… but God told me, wear that cap for people to see. God’s people ask me questions when they see it… that’s when I get a chance to give someone a testimony and share God Jesus with them.”

Howard had had what he called an ‘out of body experience’ in which he knew that he had died and passed from this world. He had a profound vision in which he had seen the face of God, yet returned to this life on Earth. As you may imagine, this left him with little doubt about the reality of some kind of life after death, and that unwavering Faith had become his guiding principle. Both Otis and Darryl had told him that God must have sent him back here for a reason, and that he had yet to fulfill his purpose here on Earth… I soon came to believe that as well.

At Ponderosa Stomp #12 in 2015, I was asked to moderate an interview and presentation at The Music History Conference with Willie Hightower, who had all but vanished from the public eye. The next day, it was Preston Lauterbach’s turn to interview Howard Grimes. Both events were packed to the rafters, and resulted in standing ovations for both men. Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys (now featuring real-deal guitarist Joe Restivo and the Memphis Horns of my pals Kirk Smothers and Marc Franklin) were called upon to be the backing band for the first night of the Rock ‘n’ Bowl shows, playing behind Mabel John, Betty Harris, Brenda Holloway, and the man who absolutely stole the show that night, Willie Hightower. Check out the 74 year old Bulldog just killing it on the drums… wow!

It just doesn’t get much better than this, folks!

When Darryl Carter called and told me that Otis Clay had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack in January of 2016, I couldn’t believe it. Here was a man who was just so full of the Spirit, who didn’t just talk the talk, but worked hard to make the world a better place. We had seen him sing When The Gates Swing Open at Poppa Willie’s funeral, and now they had opened for him. I called Howard, and I think I was more upset than he was. He had Faith. He knew Otis was with God. Shortly after that I heard that Darryl had pulled up stakes, left Memphis, and headed to Clarksdale, Tennessee (of all places). That Summer my wife and I made it a point to go visit, and see how he was doing. Although he played the part of the same old gruff ‘Tell Me About It!’ Darryl, it felt like something had shifted… there was a sadness there that I hadn’t noticed before.

Howard meanwhile, besides continuing his great work at Electraphonic, had become Soul Detective’s secret weapon. Any question I had about the development of Memphis music, I knew I could call him and he’d talk for hours (if I let him) about everybody from Bowlegs and Ben Branch to Earl The Pearl, Flick and Frog. He had been there and back, with a rare and remarkable memory for names and dates. He had become our Ace in the Hole. On the way to the next Ponderosa Stomp in October of 2017, John Broven and I stopped off in Memphis to chew the fat with Howard (the Jesus cap) and his old boss Floyd Newman on Beale Street. We were planning to meet up with Bulldog again at The Stomp, as The Bo-Keys were scheduled to back up Don Bryant, with whom they had just cut Don’s phenomenal come-back album Don’t Give Up On Love. A mandatory curfew and evacuation order by a nervous New Orleans mayor as non-hurricane Nate approached during the blood red moon put the kabosh on that, and unlucky Stomp #13 would, sadly, turn out to be the last.

Percy Wiggins, Scott Bomar, Tex Wrightsill, Harold Thomas, Boo Mitchell, Rev. Charles Hodges, Howard Grimes and Don Bryant

Darryl Carter always sent us a Christmas card, that’s the way he rolled. I had just gotten ours that December when I heard the news. He had died there in Clarksdale, alone. I couldn’t quite take it in. The special bond that I had witnessed between Otis, Howard and Darryl went so deep, and now Howard was the only one left. I called him, essentially in tears. Once again, somehow his unshakeable Faith in the reality of the God they knew carried him through. He was so strong.

They brought Darryl home to Memphis and laid him to rest in January, surrounded by the people who loved him. If there was any possible way, I would have been there too. I began speaking with Howard a lot more.“Kelly,” he would say, “God told me to call you…” Uh-Oh… I was always a little nervous about what God might have wanted, but it was always good. Howard spoke the truth.

On yet another road trip, this time to Arkansas to honor Reggie Young at The Osceola Heritage Music Fest in May of 2018, it dawned on me that Memphis was kinda on the way. I took a quick detour down Highway 51, past the Family Dollar that used to be American Sound, and made a few phone calls. Howard (and the Jesus cap) came through for me again, and that morning we had breakfast at The Cupboard with the fabled brothers that put the SOUL in soul brother, Percy and Spencer Wiggins, who were looking forward to their upcoming appearance at The Porretta Soul Festival that July… amazing!

In 2019, Praise the Jesus cap, I got to hang out with Howard twice. The first time was at the end of July as we stopped in Memphis on our way back from The Handy Fest in Muscle Shoals. Once again Scott Bomar invited me down to Electraphonic where he was punching in the horns on the new album he had just cut on Don Bryant. The next time was in November when I finally did get to see Bulldog and the Bo-Keys back up Don at his induction into The Memphis Music Hall of Fame. The next day, Broven and I took him to lunch at Soulfish. He had a picture with him that he wanted to show us. It was an artist’s depiction, he said, of the vision he had during that out-of-body experience… I hugged him there in the driveway of his house on McLemore. “Don’t you die on me, Howard,” I said, “What would I do without you?” “I ain’t dying, Kelly,” he answered, and that was the last time I saw him.

I talked to him around Christmas, but after that his phone just rang and rang. As Covid began to take hold in the Spring of 2020, I started to worry. He finally picked up the phone in May.

“I been in the hospital, Kelly… they had me on the fourth floor, where the Corona patients were. All the thoughts I had were what Otis and Darryl had said to me on that porch before they passed away. They had already given me the signs of what I was gonna see and what was gonna be happening, what God was going to use me for. So really, I heard it, but I didn’t truly understand it but, after they passed away, it happened to me. It started in that hospital, because Jesus was with me day and night in that hospital. God touched me, man. ‘I give it to you the first time you was 12,’ He said, ‘now you 78. He said, I’m gonna give it to you again… you said you didn’t get paid, but you’re going to get paid. You’re gonna work with the right people.”‘

After that, it all started to fall into place.

In November, You Make Me Feel, the great Don Bryant album Scott had produced at Electraphonic, with Howard on the drums, was nominated for a Grammy.

Bulldog had been working on the idea of a book with Preston Lauterbach for years, and that dream had finally come true in the Spring of 2021 when Timekeeper: My Life In Rhythm was released to rave reviews on both sides of The Atlantic. On July 21st, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music hosted a book release event, which included an interview by Preston followed by a Bulldog and The Bo-Keys show featuring some of those early Stax/Volt instrumentals, and both Percy Wiggins and Don Bryant joining them on vocals. Howard was then presented with a Mayoral proclamation declaring July 21, 2021 Howard Lee Grimes Day in Memphis and Shelby County. Imagine?

Bulldog’s Final Performance – July 21, 2021 – Still Deep In The Pocket!

Our man Howard, who would be turning EIGHTY within a month still delivered the goods that day. He was as great as ever, man.

I talked to Howard just before Christmas, the way I always did. He told me he had been contacted by The Rolling Stones. I was like, ‘hey, they’re short a drummer right now…’ – but, as it turned out, it was for an in-depth interview for Rolling Stone, the magazine: “‘Nobody ever thought about interviewing me, man,Grimes says, speaking over the phone with a soft drawl… ‘I stopped worrying about it. I stayed in my place. I did what I was told. I played my heart out.Grimes appears to have the inverse of an ego; he is self-effacing to the point that he almost becomes invisible in his own story,” Elias Leight wrote, and I think that’s exactly right. Howard was never about Howard, about being the ‘big man’ in the story… maybe that’s why God loved him so much

He was finally getting paid.

On January 6th, I was working on episode six of the Reggie Young Discography Project, and I came across something in some CD liner notes that didn’t seem to add up. As usual, I picked up the phone and called my Ace in the Hole. “You know, Kelly, like Darryl Carter told me, and Otis told me back in the day, they used to tell me all the time, ‘Howard, they can’t find and trace all the records you recorded ’cause you started out so young recording in the studio,’ he said ‘they don’t even have a record of how many records you actually cut!'” I told him I was gonna send him down a CD of those tracks for him to listen to, and see if he thought that was him on the drums.

After about three weeks, I called him. His wife Juanita answered, and told me Howard was back in the hospital with kidney problems, but that he seemed to be improving. He came home shortly after that, and held Juanita tight.

The next day his son-in-law was driving him to his dialysis treatment, and Howard turned to him and said “I’m tired, man. I just want to go home and rest.” …and that’s just what he did. Preston called me February 12th. Howard had been called home

At the funeral a week later, Reverend Charles Hodges delivered a powerful, heartfelt eulogy to the man he called his brother. “You don’t have to wonder if Howard is with Jesus now that he’s passed, he was already with Jesus while he was here!” Amen.

I walked slowly up to Howard’s casket, placed my hand gently on his chest and said goodbye, just as I had seen him do with Willie a decade before…

I’m gonna miss you, Bulldog… a lot.

Special Thanks to: Juanita Grimes, Scott Bomar, Kerri Mahoney, Preston Lauterbach, Floyd Newman, Carla Thomas, Percy Wiggins, Spencer Wiggins, Don Bryant, Joe Restivo, Archie Turner, Kirk Smothers, Marc Franklin, Reverend Charles Hodges, Tex Wrightsill, Harold Thomas, Sam Hutchins, Bruce Branoweth, Boo Mitchell, Ira Padnos, Willie Hightower, John Broven, Paul Pollman, Chase Thompson, Mark Nicholson and Robin Tomlin

In Loving Memory: Otis Clay, Darryl Carter, Chips Moman, Skip Pitts, Ben Cauley, Sir Lattimore Brown, Willie Mitchell, J. Blackfoot, Preston Shannon and Solomon Burke

THE MUSIC:

I just want to say a word here about how great and influential a talent Howard Grimes was. In the Rolling Stone article, they talk about how many times he was ‘sampled’ and all that, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface. The conversation usually goes something like this: “Yeah, he was Al Green’s drummer.” “Really? Wow… like on Let’s Stay Together?” “Um, no, well kinda, but… it’s a long story.” – and the take-away from that is that people think he played on some of his records. That’s crap. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like Al Jackson and everything, but Bulldog was the Hi Records drummer – period.

I wanted to put together this playlist of some of the early, lesser known material Howard mentioned in our 2012 interview, along with some of my personal favorites of his work from later on… without even mentioning Al Green.

God’s Own Drummer

Categories: Uncategorized

3 replies »

  1. A loving and fitting tribute to the greatest drummer of all time. Thank you Red. You are a mensch. And so wonderful reading about our mutual friends Otis and Darryl. Miss them too.

    Like

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