Dubbed “The Human Timekeeper” for his impeccable rhythm and timing, Al Jackson, Jr. was a member of the seminal Stax Records house band Booker T. and the MG’s and provided the beat for the likes of Al Green, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, and Albert King during his brief yet illustrious career. Now recognized as one of the most important drummers in the history of recorded music, Jackson played a vital role in defining the “Memphis sound” and has served as a model of excellence for generations of drummers.
Born in Memphis in 1935, Al Jackson, Jr. began playing the drums at an astoundingly young age. His father was a popular bassist and band leader for a large jazz band who fostered Junior’s early love of music, even inviting him to join his band on stage at the age of five. Another member of the band was trumpeter Willie Mitchell, who proposed that fourteen-year-old Jackson join the band as a full-time member. “He could play Gene Krupa and all that stuff. And he was reading charts when he was 12 years old. He had to, because his daddy’s band had three trumpets, two trombones, and four saxophones, and when they hit, he’d better hit with them,” Mitchell told Drum! Magazine. After leaving the Army in the mid-1950s, Willie Mitchell returned to Memphis to start his own band and quickly offered the drum chair to Al Jackson, Jr.
Another young member of Mitchell’s band was the multi-instrumentalist Booker T. Jones, who was instantly impressed with Jackson’s talent and pursuit of excellence: “He would hit you over the head with the drumstick if one eighth note or a sixteenth note was off. I mean, he was up and cussing. Al Jackson’s place onstage was behind me and the important thing for me was to keep on time so I didn’t get hit…that’s pretty good incentive for a fourteen-year-old.” In 1962, Jones was working as a session musician at the upstart Stax label and knew exactly the drummer he wanted to come and join him.
Booker T. & the MG’s promo photo (L-R) Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson Jr., Lewie Steinberg
On what is believed to be Jackson’s first day at Stax Records, the drummer was booked for a recording session with Billy Lee Riley, along with Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, and Lewie Steinberg . When Riley failed to appear, the assembled foursome began jamming together and producer Jim Stewart wisely began to record. The impromptu session resulted in the timeless singles “Green Onions” (which soon climbed to number one on the R&B charts) and “Behave Yourself,” ushering in the era of soul music.
Photo © API Bill Carrier, API Photographers
Eventually settling on the name Booker T. and the MG’s, the integrated foursome provided Stax with something invaluable: a great house band. “Before Al Jackson, we did not have a unit. We had Steve [Cropper], and different guys that we used on a regular basis,” said Jim Stewart. The addition of Booker T. and the MG’s to the roster provided the label with a well-defined identity, one that would later become known as the “Memphis sound.” As the oldest member of Booker T. and the MG’s, Jackson was seen as a de-facto leader within the group and the other members often looked to him for leadership. More often than not, Jackson’s advice was humble and straightforward: keep things simple.
Photo © API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers
“He would hit you over the head with the drumstick if one eighth note or a sixteenth note was off.”
As drummer, Al Jackson, Jr. expertly provided the band with their groove, seamlessly transitioning from fat backbeats to more nuanced tones depending on what the song called for. "With Al you just had to kind of wait on him and wait till he'd come down on the beat to catch him. He'd just keep it right where he thought it should be and he'd make you look like a fool. But he was right ninety per cent of the time,” explained Duck Dunn, the bassist who replaced Lewie Steinberg in the MG’s in 1964.
In addition to his full-time role at Stax, Al Jackson, Jr. also maintained his relationship with Willie Mitchell, who was now producing hits at the local Hi Records. At Hi, Jackson played drums on some of Al Green’s biggest hits, including “Let’s Stay Together,” “Call Me,” and “I’m Still in Love with You.” As Al Green told Rolling Stone in 1973, “Jackson will go to Jamaica or the Bahamas and stay there for three or four days just to pick up on some kind of rhythm. Then he'll come to the studio and get back there on the drums, in his corner by himself. He'll stay back there for hours, just beating the drums with his eyes closed.” In addition to providing the backbeat to some of the most iconic songs in R&B, Al Jackson, Jr. was also an accomplished songwriter. He wrote or co-wrote such massive hits as Albert King’s “The Hunter,” Ann Peebles’ “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” and Al Green’s aforementioned greatest hits.
“Jackson will go to Jamaica or the Bahamas and stay there for three or four days just to pick up on some kind of rhythm.”
Following the release of their 1971 album Melting Pot, Booker T. and the MG’s parted ways, ending a truly magical era at Stax that earned the group the reputation as the world’s greatest house band. Al Jackson, Jr. became a session musician, performing with many of the industry’s biggest names. For the next four years, Jackson played rhythm for the likes of Tina Turner, Bill Withers, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Donny Hathaway.
Four years after their breakup, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Booker T. Jones, and Al Jackson, Jr. held a meeting where they discussed plans to reunite under the name Booker T. Jones and the Memphis Group. Only nine days later, Al Jackson, Jr. was tragically murdered in his home at the age of 39. In a fitting epitaph, Steve Cropper said “He defined the groove, the beat, the mood, everything. You listen to Al Jackson and you played accordingly… One time I got a letter from someone who was writing about drummers and such. He said someone had told him that Stax was the first studio to use a drum machine. I wrote back, saying, 'That’s true. His name was Al Jackson.” We will never know what else Al Jackson, Jr. would have accomplished had his life not been cut short, but his contributions to Memphis music and to the art of drumming alone justify his status as an all-time great.
Celebrating publishing of the book ”The Sound of Soul” (L-R) Albert King, author Phyllis Garland, Dunn & Jackson, 1969 Stax Museum of American Soul Music
(L-R) Jackson, engineer/producer Tom Dowd, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn © 2015 Center for Southern Folklore Archives From The Deanie Parker Collection
Jackson with fellow STAX artist Carla Thomas
Stax Museum of American Soul Music