He might not share quite the same name recognition as some of his contemporaries, but his deep grooves grace many of the heaviest and most well-known soul recordings of all time.
At twelve years old, Howard Grimes was already performing with local Memphis combos several nights a week. The young drummer couldn’t even reach the kick pedal very well yet. But what he could do was figure out, on the fly, how to play the early pop and R&B hits of the day, and even the occasional rumba, samba, calypso, and bossa nova. Before long Grimes was known as an in-demand drumming wunderkind.
“God had given me something,” the seventy-three-year-old musician says from his Memphis home. “I didn’t even know how, but I could pick up on a rhythm—and so fast. I knew I had something. I’d never heard these songs they were throwing at me, but I felt real relaxed and comfortable playing them. I just followed the count-in, fast or slow. I was learning just by being around music 24/7. Playing drums and listening to the radio…WDIA in Memphis gave me a great education. I was picking up everything—what music was about and how it was played. I wanted to know all of it. I never had time for playing or hanging out with my friends.”
One of those WDIA disc jockeys would go on to more directly help Grimes advance his burgeoning career. At seventeen Grimes was already earning $12 a night—hardly chump change for a kid in the ’50s. But when the upstart R&B singer Rufus Thomas, who was working as a DJ at the radio station at the time, came out to see the promising young musician, he was impressed enough to invite Grimes to record with him at the Satellite Records studio, in the company of seasoned pros. The offer was accepted—though Grimes’ mom had one stipulation. “Rufus came to my house,” Howard recalls with a laugh, “and my mother says, ‘I’m going to let you have my son—but you’re going to be responsible for him.’” Thomas assured Mrs. Grimes, and her son’s long and sometimes bumpy journey as a drummer on the Memphis studio scene was under way.
During that first session, Grimes played on a brassy R&B number called “’Cause I Love You,” a duet written by Thomas and performed with the singer’s daughter Carla. As it turns out, the Thomases weren’t the only R&B royalty on the session; Chips Moman (Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson) produced, and a teenage Booker T. Jones honked the baritone sax. Grimes was wide-eyed at being in a recording studio for the first time but remained poised enough to reach into the deep bag of tricks he’d developed on the club circuit, to give the song just the right kick.
“I was nervous sitting behind those drums,” Grimes remembers. “The microphones and stuff—it was all new to me. They even put me on a smaller wood stool, so my feet could reach the pedals. And this rhythm they were trying to come up with—we couldn’t find it at first. So the upright bass player, Wilbur Steinberg, said to me, ‘Play that rhythm you play at the club on [early New Orleans R&B hit] “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.”’ Rufus went into the song again, and I played that rhythm. Chips looked at me and said, ‘That’s it.’”
Championed by Moman, Grimes worked steadily in the early ’60s, cutting iconic sides like Carla Thomas’s top-ten pop single “Gee Whiz” and William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” As Satellite morphed into Stax Records, Grimes played on sessions with popular soul acts including the Mar-Keys, the Triumphs, Barbara Stephens, the Mad Lads, and Prince Conley. He also played on saxophonist Floyd Newman’s finger-popping instrumental “Frog Stomp,” which featured a young Isaac Hayes on organ. “Frog Stomp” is the first of those early tunes where Grimes really digs into the 8th notes on the hi-hat, a feel that would become a staple on many of the tracks he’d later cut for Hi Records.
Things started to dry up for Grimes at Stax around 1962, when the older and more seasoned Al Jackson Jr. entered the picture. Jackson was already working in the local clubs with legendary Memphis bandleader Willie Mitchell and serving as the house drummer at Mitchell’s Hi Records. Jackson was recruited to play on Booker T. & the MGs’ classic instrumental “Green Onions,” after which he never ceded the throne at Stax unless he was on the road. Grimes says that despite being the odd man out after Jackson’s arrival, the pair “had a great relationship” and were the “best of friends.” Still, their friendship didn’t make the situation any easier to process.
“I didn’t know what was going down,” Grimes says. “It was almost like they pulled games on you. Nobody tells you that they’re making a switch. New musicians come in and you’re left standing outside like you don’t know what’s going on. You feel bad, because you thought you were doing the job. You thought everything was satisfactory. I’d heard about this kind of stuff from the older guys. I was getting my first lesson in it, and it was difficult. I just didn’t understand it.”
Grimes kept working as the ’60s progressed, gigging and recording locally and touring with the rock band Flash & the Board of Directors. As fate would have it, Willie Mitchell eventually needed a drummer to fill in when Al Jackson was on the road with Booker T. & the MGs. Hi house guitarist Teenie Hodges recommended Grimes, who landed the gig after auditioning with Mitchell. With Grimes and Jackson splitting drumming duties, the Hi rhythm section, which also featured Hodges’ brothers Leroy on bass and Charles on organ, as well as pianist Archie Turner, would establish itself as one of the great studio crews of the era. And under Mitchell’s tutelage, Grimes’ already deep pocket became even deeper, with a distinct sound that was all driving hi-hat, fat snare, and, on tracks like Ann Peebles’ “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” and Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” very little in the way of cymbal crashes chewing up space between the groove, the vocal, and the elegant chord structures Mitchell favored.
“Willie was definitely into what Leroy and I were doing, because it was all built around us,” Grimes says. “He locked me in on the hi-hat, kick, and snare—he loved that deep snare. Willie never liked crashes too much. He thought they interfered. He always wanted everything to groove. Willie carried a feel in him…he was never in a hurry for anything. He was so laid back, he pulled me into him. He trained me on this. He could pretty much get anything out of me, because he had me so laid back—it was so easy. He didn’t like all that rolling on the drums. He liked the dynamic and the build, but rolling on the drums? He’d say, ‘Man, don’t play that shit. I don’t want that.’”
Grimes enjoyed success at Hi, but sharing the workload with Jackson remained uncomfortable at times. Mitchell navigated this territory diplomatically by using different drummers for different feels. He liked to use Jackson on the smoother grooves—Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” is Jackson on kit with Grimes on conga, a pairing the producer used often—and he called on Grimes when something needed a little more grit, like on Green’s “Take Me to the River” and Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain.”
Unfortunately Green wasn’t so diplomatic, according to Grimes, who claims the singer wanted to have the last word on who was playing drums on his songs—and eventually didn’t want to use Grimes at all. “We were alright at first, but then he really started nitpicking at me,” Howard says. “He really shifted on me. At one point while we were doing ‘Love and Happiness,’ Al said, ‘I don’t want Howard to play no more. Call Al Jackson.’ He told me, ‘You’re fired.’ I told him, ‘You can’t fire me, man. I work for Willie Mitchell.’ Willie heard this—I didn’t know he had the talkback button on in the control room. He came out and said, ‘Howard, what’s wrong?’ I said, ‘Al Green said he’s going to fire me,’ but Willie told Al, ‘I do the hiring, and I do the firing.’ I stayed and ended up cutting the track.”
Despite the falling out with Green, Grimes continued to work at Hi, cutting hits with singers like Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, and O.V. Wright. The Hi rhythm section, under the name Hi Rhythm, even made its own album in 1976, a funky curiosity called On the Loose, which is one of the highlights of Fat Possum Records’ recent Hi reissue campaign. When work slowed down at Hi in the late ’70s, Grimes and the rhythm section scratched out a living touring with Peebles, Clay, and Wright while doing occasional shows of their own. Grimes and Leroy Hodges have continued to work together over the years, backing a number of blues and soul artists live and on record, touring and recording with fellow ’60s and ’70s Memphis music vets in the Bo-Keys, and recording with Cyndi Lauper for her 2010 tribute album, Memphis Blues. Grimes describes the Lauper sessions as rough going initially—until, he says, a voice from the past helped him find the groove: the late Willie Mitchell.
“Lauper was giving me trouble about the tempo,” Grimes says. “I don’t even think she knew who I was. Her producer had to tell her what I’d done. But I went easy with it because I needed the work. Then I heard Willie’s voice in my head. He told me, ‘Look, you know what you’re supposed to do. Let her know who in the hell you are. You’re a pro. All them hit records you been on…nobody runs over you.’ And the moment I heard him, I kicked in and we started clicking.”
It wasn’t the first time, or the last, that Grimes’ mentors would provide motivation and inspiration over his long and winding career. “Guys like Willie and Chips Moman were so kind to me,” Howard says. “Chips really got me believing I could do this, that it could be a career for me. And Willie taught me so much through his feel and his wisdom. It lives in me today.”