The first time Howard Grimes met Al Green, he wasn’t sure the singer was who he claimed to be. Grimes was touring with Willie Mitchell’s band as a drummer when a man approached the ensemble at a show in Fort Worth, Texas, asking to perform a song. At the time, Green had released “Back Up Train,” a modest hit, but he was hardly a household name. Mitchell didn’t want to be conned, so he checked with the club owner to see if the singer was legit. Once Green’s identity was confirmed, he quickly taught Grimes and his other band members “Back Up Train” in the dressing room before they performed it for the crowd.
“The whole house went up,” Grimes recalls. “Willie recognized that. So the deal was made to bring [Green] to Hi Records.”
Al Green’s run on that Memphis-based label from 1972 to 1977 is on par with years-long gushers of brilliance from Prince or Willie Colón; he released nine albums during this period, at least six of which are exquisite. Grimes contributed some form of snap, crackle, and pop to nearly all of them, enlivening tracks with front-porch funk rhythms, slippery New Orleans–influenced patterns, or soft pitter-patter on congas when he wasn’t holding ballads to stately, unswerving tempos. The veteran drummer discusses much of this history in Timekeeper, a slim but enlightening memoir written with Preston Lauterbach and published earlier this year.
“Nobody ever thought about interviewing me, man,” Grimes says, speaking over the phone with a soft drawl that turns “company” into “comp’ny” and “guitar” into “gui-tah.” “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.
But recognizing the drummer’s skill takes nothing away from Green, a vocal mastermind with a unicorn of a falsetto, a grainy, galvanizing mid-range, and the ability to blurt like a horn or wobble like an organ or peal like a church bell. He had stand-at-attention power, but often hooked listeners instead with wistful murmurs, even whispers, and dreamy overtures that seemed to wander lovingly up your neck and into your ear. This tender approach made Green’s casually piercing upper register all the more stunning.
While Green’s talents are undeniable, he worked closely with Mitchell, his producer and sometimes co-writer, and the same crew of studio musicians, including Grimes, on every great LP he made except The Belle Album from 1977. The Hi Records team needed Green to make their best music. He needed them, too.
Together, the men put a handsome new suit on the molten, rugged model of Southern soul. In their hands, guitars were liquid rather than stabbing; drums were subtler, partially because of Grimes’ experience playing in dinner clubs where he says he had to “avoid playing too loud.” As a result, the music tended to glide — the gently hovering pre-chorus of “I’m Still in Love With You” seems to anticipate the weightlessness of late-Seventies Quincy Jones productions — rather than stomp.
If Otis Redding did much to map the extremes of agony and ecstasy through his recordings at another Memphis studio, Stax, the music of Green and his band often conjured in-between feelings. His best albums are bittersweet and languorous, full of questions (“Have you been making out OK?”) and hypotheticals (“If I gave you my love …”). They are noticeably different not only from the Southern soul that preceded them, but from the Southern soul being made elsewhere in Memphis at the same time — Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” for example, or Isaac Hayes’ “Joy” — and even the music that the Hi Records band cut with other musicians (Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson) in the same studio where they worked with Green. And as one wing of R&B’s mainstream took a turn toward the opulently funky, Green’s Hi albums held their own next to remarkable records beaming out of Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
Grimes came to Hi after years of gigging relentlessly around Memphis. He drummed on early Stax singles like William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and Carla Thomas’ “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes).” (He would’ve manned the kit on Booker T. and the M.G.’s’ now-iconic “Green Onions,” too, but Stax couldn’t find him on the day of the session.) Grimes played countless club gigs as well, banging away on his drums from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. nightly. Still, he had to adjust his style to get Mitchell’s endorsement.
“When I first came to Willie I had played with so many different bands, and the tempos were sliding ahead,” Grimes remembers. “The day I came to play for him I started off running. He stopped me: ‘Slow down — we’re gonna all get there at the same time.’ He was so laid back.”
Grimes adjusted accordingly, and along with another drummer, Al Jackson Jr., he became the bedrock of the Hi Records sound. The percussion components of each track were recorded first, before the Hodges brothers — Leroy on bass, Teenie on guitar, Charles on organ and piano — cut their parts. Mitchell was exacting even before he hit “record.” “He’d want the toms half-dead, with no overtones … no reverb,” Grimes writes. He’d work with Mitchell for around two hours to make sure they were getting the right drum sound. Then a session could begin.
Mitchell was no less stringent with tape rolling. While recording Green’s “Love and Happiness,” an organ-smeared soul romp brightened with barrages of brass, the producer pulled Jackson off the drum kit during the session and put Grimes in his place. “Willie told me later, ‘Al got angry with me [for that],’ ” Grimes recalls. But Mitchell told Jackson, “You wanted to play pretty. I wanted the track funky.”
But Mitchell didn’t always know what he wanted. And part of what made Grimes crucial to these sessions was his ability to whip together something on the spot that would please the bandleader. “He knew that I was good on creativity,” Grimes explains. While recording “I’m Glad You’re Mine,” “Willie wanted something on the front, something kinda crazy,” Grimes says. “I got the idea [for my drum pattern] from Lee Dorsey, ‘Working in the Coal Mine.’ I heard that rhythm so much out of New Orleans.”
This intro remains one of Grimes’ most sublime creations, an intricate, stutter-stepping pattern that ends humbly, with the gentlest of cymbal flourishes. (Grimes doesn’t even mention this rhythm in his book, positing that “my best tune” is O.V. Wright’s “Blind, Crippled and Crazy.”) The moment is brief, around 12 seconds, but endlessly loopable, and it’s been sampled at least 184 times, according to the site Whosampled, though Grimes “really never knew” about his hip-hop presence. The most notable use of the “I’m Glad You’re Mine” intro probably belongs to the Notorious B.I.G., who employed it not once but twice on his opus Life After Death.
This is a unit of rhythm — much like Ernie Isley’s drumming on the Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark,” which shares some of the same tricky, clicking DNA — so good that it causes cognitive dissonance. (You can also hear a different take on Grimes’ slip-slap pattern around five minutes into Green’s “Beware,” an unheralded song that remains one of the singer’s funkiest, though the drummer doesn’t care much for it, calling the Livin’ for You closer “weird.”) After hearing Biggie rap over Grimes’ loop, you can’t help but feel that the drummer was more than two decades ahead of his time.
There’s a jarring reality at the heart of Timekeeper: As Grimes is working with Green and others to create some of the most beautiful soul music ever cut to tape, he is increasingly a victim of exploitation and backstabbing. Teenie Hodges was one of the only band members added as a writer to some of Green’s songs, entitling him to publishing income, even though Grimes notes that “he didn’t do more than us to where he could say he wrote the song.” “Leroy and Charles got money on the side,” Grimes writes in Timekeeper. “But I never did.”
Later in the book, he adds, “I worked to make everybody else rich. When it was time for me to get something, I got nothing.” At one point in the book, Grimes is homeless, despite his crucial contributions to million-selling records.
The atmosphere around Hi Records also became increasingly violent as the label encountered success. (It was sold off in 1977, and Grimes hoped to make at least $100,000 from the sale; he ended up with around $9,000.) Many R&B lovers know that a former flame of Green’s once poured hot grits on him in the bathtub, which spurred him to abandon secular music for decades. What’s often lost in that story is that the same woman shot and killed herself that night. Jackson Jr. took to carrying a Luger pistol around with him, according to Timekeeper; he was shot to death in his home in 1975. Grimes’ brother was murdered; the drummer himself was stabbed in the leg by his then-wife but survived.
Grimes says he maintains no grudges, despite it all. “I went through a lot of incidents,” he allows, but “it didn’t bother me because I had Jesus Christ with me.” He adds, “I’m free and I’m happy and I’m at peace.”
He kindly submitted to a 75-minute interview. In truth it could have been much longer — time spent unpacking, for example, the perky, playful clitter-clatter that almost seems out of place yet works so well in Green’s “I’m Still in Love With You”; the perfectly unobtrusive ballad time-keeping in “I Didn’t Know” and “Jesus Is Waiting”; the sudden energy shifts that light up “Free at Last” and “Simply Beautiful”; and especially “Home Again.” Grimes tends to deflect credit — “it all comes from Willie Mitchell,” he says.
But this can’t be entirely true. When recording “I’m Glad You’re Mine,” the drummer recalls Mitchell asking him, “Can you hear anything” that could work for the intro? Grimes responded by channeling Dorsey.
“When I started playing it, [Mitchell] started laughing,” the drummer says. At first, Grimes wasn’t sure why. “That’s exactly what I want,” Mitchell told him. Then he added, “Man, you play some of the craziest drums I ever heard in my life.”