Al Jackson Jr.


Al Jackson Jr.

Soul Man

by Jeff Potter

It’s almost unbearable. Otis Redding’s immortal recording of “Try a Little Tenderness” sustains a nearly paralyzing groove tension, helping make it perhaps the quintessential record by the soul legend and a perennial entry on “greatest songs of all time” lists. The track also perfectly encapsulates Al Jackson Jr.’s profound gifts of musical intuition and masterly restraint, anchored by an astonishingly deep time feel that can be felt on hundreds of classic tracks. In a 1977 interview with Valerie Wilmer for the U.K. magazine Black Music, guitarist session mate Steve Cropper said Jackson “could always pocket it.”

But back to “Try a Little Tenderness.” After Redding soulfully pleads the first ballad verse, Jackson enters with an unexpected double-time rimclick on all fours, buoyed with subtle, almost ghosted hi-hat 8ths. The feel is perfection. The lean, locked part stays there…and stays there…and stays there. The suspense sizzles like a slow fuse on a stick of dynamite.

The rhythm section gradually peppers in its parts, dancing off Jackson’s tight, forward-moving yet relaxed time-sunk groove. Redding climbs the pulpit until he can withhold no longer and—boom!—Jackson cracks his first minimal snare fill into a cathartic downbeat. It’s explosive, transporting.

And it doesn’t stop there. Jackson continues with all fours on the snare and a strategically funky foot. There’s nary a fill while the cut escalates ever higher into the stratosphere through the last faded seconds of the outro.

Yet it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. At first the band assumed a mistake had occurred, because Jackson was slated to enter much later than he had. Intuition, though, inspired the drummer to jump on the groove, and it was the perfect, magic call.

As the house drummer for Stax Records and its subsidiary, Volt, Al Jackson Jr. played a central role in defining the sound and feel of ’60s and ’70s soul and R&B. In addition to being a star session player, he was active in producing and songwriting.

Jackson was born on November 27, 1935, and grew up surrounded by jazz. His bassist father led a popular big band in Memphis, and starting at age five Al Jr. often sat in with the group as a novelty. By age fourteen he took over the seat, and later he joined trumpeter Willie Mitchell’s band, which circulated through Memphis’s wee-hour clubs.

But it was at his eventual “full-time job” at Stax Records where Jackson would make history. His initial Stax session was in 1962, for Carla Thomas’s single “Cause I Love You.” When the tracking was complete, label cofounder Jim Stewart proclaimed that he’d found the ultimate Stax drummer. From that point on, especially between the peak years of 1962 to 1972, Jackson played on practically every Stax hit. The legendary house band, which also included bassist Lewie Steinberg (and later Donald “Duck” Dunn), Cropper, and organist Booker T. Jones, defined “the Memphis Sound,” a stripped-down, grittier counterpart to the style that Motown, Stax’s larger competitor, was known for.

The list of watershed recordings fueled by Jackson is staggering and includes Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour”; Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood” (the four “knocks” were Jackson’s idea); bluesman Albert King’s “Crosscut Saw” and “Born Under a Bad Sign”; Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” and “I Thank You”; and a catalog of Otis Redding charters, including “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” “Respect,” “Mr. Pitiful,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (to Stop Now),” and “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.”

Jackson and his mates took advantage of open studio slots during a rigorous road schedule to cut their own instrumental numbers. On the first shot, they hit the R&B charts’ number-one slot with “Green Onions,” a torrid blues shuffle so named because they needed a “stinky” title. Jackson’s key approach was to lean a simple, hard, straight-edged feel against the other players’ “swingier” parts. With that hit, Booker T. & the MGs were born.

The group continued rolling out its own discs, resulting in twenty-three singles and eleven albums between 1962 and 1971. Further groove-heaven signature hits included “Hip Hug-Her,” “Hang ’Em High,” and the infectious “Time Is Tight.”

During sessions, Jackson was amusingly unparticular regarding equipment. Preparing his kit meant tossing a fat wallet on the snare. He rarely fussed over tuning and changed heads on his well-worn Rogers drumset (with a Ludwig snare) only if they split. Yet he undeniably delivered a sound.

The busy drummer also managed to moonlight at neighboring label Hi Records, lending his groove to many of Al Green’s hits. He even co-penned some of Green’s biggest chart-toppers, including “I’m Still in Love With You,” “You Ought to Be With Me,” and the radio staple “Let’s Stay Together.” Jackson’s penchant for a behind-the beat feel was even more prominent on the Green tracks. He laid down a relaxed, sexy lope with a detuned-snare backbeat that was beefed up by Howard Grimes’ open conga tones, creating a fat sound that became a highly imitated Green trademark.

By the end of 1971, the MGs had parted ways, while Donald Dunn and Jackson stayed on the Stax staff for continued session work. Through the early ’70s, Jackson also recorded outside the label with stars such as Eric Clapton, Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway, and Rod Stewart.

In 1975, the MGs gathered for a meeting and heartily agreed to a triumphant reunion. Nine days later, on October 1, Jackson walked into his Memphis home to discover intruders and was brutally shot dead. He was thirty-nine years old. In the same year, Stax collapsed. Yet Jackson left an immeasurable imprint on a genre and on the future of groove-oriented music.

At the top of Stax master tapes, Jackson is routinely heard in an exchange that became a house ritual. The engineer hollers, “Hey, Al! How are we gonna cut this”? To which he replies, “We’re gonna cut the shit out of it!” And they did.