“Forty-five years is a long time, man,” Jai Johanny Johanson says. That’s how long the musician, better known as Jaimoe, occupied the Allman Brothers’ iconic two-man drum section alongside Butch Trucks. “Butch was a great musician. And he was my friend, and brother.”
Before joining the Allman Brothers in 1969—he recalls that it was guitarist Duane Allman’s idea to employ two drummers—the Mississippi-born Johanson played with soul stars like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Joe Tex. His love of jazz revealed itself on Allmans jams like “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” and it was just this type of multi-genre mastery, shared by all of the group’s members, that led to the Allmans becoming not only the face of contemporary Southern music, but, by many people’s estimation, the most influential American band of the classic-rock era.
Today the seventy-three-year-old Johanson maintains a regular performance schedule with his current group, Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band. All told, he’s made his living behind the kit for more than fifty years. “Time,” he muses. “Where in the hell did it go?”
Jaimoe: There are two things I wished could have happened: for Otis Redding to have heard the Allman Brothers Band—he would have gone crazy—and for Butch and I to have played behind James Brown. Man, that would have been too much. Because basically he was the set drummer and I pretty much played percussions, which had a hell of a lot to do with making it work. The drumset is a percussion section, and there’s a thousand ways to use it. And we did.
MD: You were more about putting the spice on top.
Jaimoe: Yeah, because…I used to listen a lot to the radio that came out of Cuba; Washington, D.C.; Europe—the short-wave radio. I heard all kinds of music, music that they certainly didn’t play in the United States, not like that. I mean, continuously playing it. A lot of the stuff that I played came from listening to Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton. Because they had some of those cats in their big bands—conga players, timbale players. I got my introduction to basic percussions from having listened to those parts. When you start doing that, stuff in your head starts coming out.
From day one, Butch knew when to play, and he had his way of approaching the drums and I had my way of approaching the drums. He had the ability to play things that I certainly couldn’t, and there were things I could play that he couldn’t play. And it was just a matter of making it work.
MD: Talk about first meeting Butch.
Jaimoe: Duane and I were in St. Louis. We got into what we called the Dog Sled—a ’69 Ford—and shot straight to Jacksonville, no stopping for anything. We got down there about two or three o’clock in the morning, and all Duane had to do was come to town and everybody in the world got up.
So the next day he took me over to this place. I had no idea where we were going. But we get there, and he knocks, and this guy comes to the door. He goes, “Hey, man, how you doing?” Duane said, “This is my old drummer, Butch Trucks. This is my new drummer, Jai Johanny Johanson.” That’s how we met. About ten minutes after that, Duane left, and Butch and I was in love from that point on. We didn’t know it yet, but it only took us about a day and a half, two days, and we never left each other’s side.
We were trying to figure out where I would live, and Butch says, “Well, you might as well stay with me.” And I did. A couple days later we took my drums out of the cases and set up in his dining room, and he set his drums up, and the rest of it is history. People say, “Did you practice this? Did you practice that?” We didn’t practice anything. We do like doctors practice. We practiced what we do. It wasn’t no rehearsal, this or that and the other.
He knew how to play, and I knew how to play, and it was a matter of…you’re listening. You have a conversation and you listen to what somebody has to say, and the conversation goes on. You’ve got a part and I’ve got a part. Just like first trumpet, second trumpet, first tenor, second tenor, two guitars—one plays lead, one plays rhythm. There’s a million things you can play. There’s parts, there’s parts that don’t have to be the same. There’s plenty of stuff there that you can play without playing the very same thing. We played the way we played; anything you hear, we played like that from day one.
MD: So there wasn’t much talking about specific parts.
Jaimoe: No. This is the map. With a map, you’re going from point A to point B. But what the map don’t tell you is what’s going to happen between point A and point B. A lot of shit can happen between A and B. So that’s what the map was for, to get from A to B, and ever what came in between there, ever what you ran into, you dealt with, just like life.
MD: Did you approach recordings the same way, or did you think any differently in the studio?
Jaimoe: Same concept. Butch had experience playing in the studio, but I had no idea what the hell I was doing. So Butch played the way he played, and I just played less, you know. I got to the point where I made it fit, and they were happy with it, and that’s pretty much that. But the ear had developed.
One way of dealing with it for me was, I started playing, like, left-handed. Because I figured out that I couldn’t function as well playing left-handed. I didn’t have the ability to do a lot of the things that were going on in my head if I played left-handed. And that’s what I did on a whole lot of that stuff that we recorded in the studio. And that accomplished two things. It taught me another way to play and develop, and I got an idea about how to play in a studio band, making records, recording music. We never made a record—we recorded music.
MD: Did you two talk about the balance? It sounded like one person.
Jaimoe: It was supposed to. If you have a unit of any kind, regardless of how many great minds, if you don’t think “one” about a project, you’re going to have a lot of confusion. You have to think “one,” just like a marriage or anything else. It can be rough sometimes, but that’s how you make things like that work. The whole band was like one.
MD: And you were all mixing in your heads, on the spot.
Jaimoe: Yeah, you just played, and all of that took care of itself. The only complaint I ever had about the Allman Brothers Band: They were too goddam loud. I hate loud music. Other than that, shit…I’ll take four or five lifetimes of that.