However, if not for the budget issues that plagued the band programs at these two schools, Mayes may never have picked up a pair of drumsticks and eventually played alongside legendary Chicago blues musicians, and he probably would never have enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of the 1960’s Chicago music scene. Kermit Holly was the longtime music director at both Jim Hill and Lanier, the only other black high school in the area. Mayes remembers beginning his band lessons during the summer when he went to Holly’s initial summer rehearsal with intentions of playing the trumpet. He was promptly told there were no trumpets for loaning, nor his second choice of saxophone. Holly pointed Mayes to a bass drum, and, and on that marching bass drum, Jimmi Mayes perfected the skill that would make him a sideman to the stars. Mayes’ natural talent on the drums spread like wildfire in the fledgling Jackson music scene, and he quickly gained favor with Jackson bandleader Duke Hudson and Lanier student musicians Freddy Waits and Jacob Moore.
Mayes said he well remembers the long nights in roadhouses and juke joints along the Chitlin’ Circuit, followed by long, tired days in the classroom. “We would go in and set up and play until daylight. In the 11th grade, I was playing all over the South, sometimes two nights a week. And these were rough places where everybody had a half pint sitting on the table.” The late-night gigs also allowed Mayes to hone his shuffling style of drumming.
“I take pride in my shuffle. A lot of drummers can play, but they can’t shuffle,” he said. Mayes had little idea that the shuffle would be the backbone of his playing style. It wasn’t long before Mayes decided to take his talent north to Chicago, where the migration of bluesmen from Mississippi had begun just a few years earlier. Sweet Home in Chicago • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • Mayes’ arrival on the south side of Chicago in 1960 could not have been better timed.
The 16-year-old, already an accomplished drummer in and around his native Mississippi, was thrust among other Mississippi blues musicians who had already taken their talents to what would become the epicenter for the Chicago Blues movement. Through his mother, Mayes was introduced to famous bandleader Red Saunders, who had already established himself as a major powerhouse through his professional relationships with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Through the connection with Saunders, Mayes was introduced to artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and he soon found himself playing a regular gig at Big Duke’s Blue Flame Lounge, now recognized as one of the most prominent blues clubs in Chicago blues history - all before his 18th birthday. “In order for me to play at The Flame, I would have to sit in the office during breaks because I was underage.” As was common among the musicians on Chicago’s south side, musicians traded gigs and touring musicians, and soon after establishing himself as a regular player at the Blue Flame, Mayes was asked to audition for blues harmonica player and band leader Little Walter, whose drummer had recently joined Howlin’ Wolf.
Through mutual friends, Little Walter learned of Mayes’ talent and his uncanny penchant for playing the style of blues other Mississippians were making famous in and around Chicago. “I drove over to Walter’s house … and he strolled out smoking a cigarette and said, ‘Do something on this coffee table.’ So I played a quick shuffle, and that got me the job,” Mayes said. “ He gave me a new LP and said, ‘Go home and learn all these songs,’ and that’s what I did.” Although Mayes could already hold his own around more seasoned professionals, his association with Little Walter provided him credibility among the top musicians on the scene, and he quickly found himself playing gigs on both the south and north sides of town with the likes of Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Fred Below, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Tall Paul and Chess Records recording artist and session guitar player, Gerald Sims. “Muddy Waters loved Little Walter, and whenever Muddy was in town, he came to see Little Walter play,” he said. At the age of 19, Mayes found himself living in the upscale Wedgewood Hotel, playing in the hottest clubs to the largest crowds in Chicago. In the Big Apple • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • In Mayes’ words, “If you’ve been to the Apollo, you’ve been to the top of the music world.” During a show at Chicago’s Wrigley Theater, Mayes met Tommy Hunt, the front man for The Flamingos.
Hunt had recently topped the charts with “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and Mayes was hired to replace the band’s drummer. In the middle of the night, Hunt, the band’s manager, and Mayes (with his parent’s reluctant blessing) left Chicago for New York. Not long after Mayes and Hunt parted ways, Mayes was picked up by Joey Dee and the Starliters, which soon became the house band at the famous Peppermint Lounge, and which was beginning to make waves in New York, Boston and other major cities in the northeast. Joey Dee and the Starliters, with Mayes on drums, had several hits, reaching the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Peppermint Twist” in 1962.
Joey Dee recognized Mayes’ eye for talent, and when the band’s regular guitar player became ill in 1965, Mayes was trusted with finding a quick and capable replacement. Through mutual friends in the New York club scene, Mayes found guitar player Maurice James searching for new gigs after a brief stint with Little Richard and a short stint with the Isley Brothers, who had enjoyed chart success with “Shout” (1959) and “Twist and Shout” (1962). The guitarist had developed stage antics that rivaled Little Richard’s, and James began to take issue with Richard’s constant boasting of being “The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll.” After an audition, James was hired. Mayes and James formed a fast and furious friendship, hanging out together between gigs and sharing a room on long road trips across the country.
However, James’ tenure with Joey Dee and the Starliters would not last more than a couple months. Recognized by Rolling Stones guitar player Keith Richards, James traveled to England, he changed his name and image. In less than a year, Maurice James remade the song “Hey Joe” under the name Jimi Hendrix. Mayes career continued a successful track as he performed with blues and soul icons such as Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Jimmy Reed, as well as with his own band, Mill Street Depot, named after the famous depot station in his hometown of Jackson. Mayes maintained a close relationship with Hendrix until his death in 1970, playing drums on “My Friend” (1968) from the Electric Ladyland album and “Georgia Blues,” a blues-inspired track previously unreleased until Martin Scorsese produced the tribute album, “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Jimi Hendrix in 2003.” Most recently, Mayes played with friends from his days in Chicago, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin, all former members of Muddy Waters’ band in the 1960’s and 1970’s who have since died.
Mayes toured with Perkins, also a Mississippi Native, and Smith as part of the “Legends of the Blues” tour beginning in 2002, and whose album garnered a Grammy Award in 2011. “The Amazing” Jimmi Mayes is still actively touring the nation, playing clubs and festivals throughout the country, and his most recent release, “All My Best” (Wolf Records) received rave reviews in the August 2012 issue of Living Blues. And he still teaches drumming, stressing what his high school band teacher taught him: Learn to read. Learn the fundamentals. A biography of Mayes’ music career will soon be published by University Press of Mississippi.
“Sideman to the Stars” will undoubtedly tell the story of this Mississippi music legend, who can trace his success to the influence of a dedicated music teacher who, almost by pure accident, created one of the most iconic Chicago Blues drummers of all time. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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