Jaimoe Johnie Johnson or Jaimoe, as he’s known to fans today, was on his way to New York to play in the jazz clubs when friend and soul musician Jackie Avery convinced him to stop in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
Jaimoe had already lived through plenty of highs and lows in the music business by then, after backing legends Otis Redding and Percy Sledge across the United States at venues like Harlem’s Apollo Theater and the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. He knew he was done with R&B — but something special was happening in Muscle Shoals.
“The next morning when the sun rose, I was getting off the bus in Muscle Shoals,” Jaimoe said. “I went to the studio and I said, ‘I’m looking for Sky Man.’ He was over in a studio getting ready to do a session.
“I go over there, and just like Jackie told me, you’ve never seen anybody look like he look and play like he play. You’ve never heard anybody play like that.”
Sky Man was famed guitarist Duane Allman, and that fateful meeting was the beginning of The Allman Brothers Band.
Born in Ocean Springs in 1944, Jaimoe spent his youth in Mississippi City, a town on the Gulf Coast in what is now Gulfport. One of his earliest and most pivotal memories was seeing the Keesler Air Force Base drum corps performing on the brick streets in Biloxi. The sound of the drums reverberating off the bricks made a lasting impression.
“Mother would give me 50 cents a week to get piano lessons,” Jaimoe remembered, “and I figured out that, if I saved that 50 cents a week, I could buy myself a drum.”
By the time he advanced to 10th grade at Thirty-Third Avenue High School, an all-black segregated school, he was playing drums in the school marching band. But he was the only drummer who wasn’t also on the football team. One day, the band director pressed him to choose between sports and music.
“I was standing there looking at the football going on, not paying attention [to the band], and he goes, ‘Whatcha gonna do?’ He said, ‘Why don’t you go head over there? You’re not doing anything here right now.’”
Jaimoe did and lasted just four days playing football before returning to the marching band. In 1961, his mother bought him a Slingerland drum kit, and, before long, he was gigging locally at yacht clubs and dance halls along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
He joined Otis Redding’s band in 1966. While the performances made him a stronger player, the business side wasn’t quite as strong. He had his first taste of music-business math —his weekly salary arrived minus deductions for travel, lodging and food — but not his last.
“You know, people get a break, they sell a few records, they start getting paid better, and some of ’em become so knocked out by what’s going on they forget what the hell is going on,” he said.
Some artists treated him well, such as Percy Sledge, who covered all those ancillary costs of touring life. But his experience performing with Clarence Carter over the 1968-69 holiday season decided his fate. Roger Redding — Otis’ brother, who had signed on to manage Carter — docked $25 from his wages the first week for “driving costs,” a fee charged to musicians to pay for their transportation from gig to gig.
“I couldn’t believe that,” he laughed. “I didn’t come up in that kind of school. That’s what led to the phone call, going down to Alabama. That incident right there.”
After two days in Muscle Shoals, in late January 1969, when Jaimoe thought he’d be on his way to New York, he had his drums set up in studio B at Fame Recording. Between sessions, Duane Allman would bring his amplifier over to jam. The combination of Jaimoe’s Max Roach- and Tony Williams-inspired drumming and Allman’s slide-guitar work and jazz phrasings showed him he had arrived exactly where he wanted to be.
“He’d roll that [Fender] Twin out of the studio over to where I was, and I found out what jazz is. Music that comes out of this country is jazz,” he said. “Music that makes you happy, sad and the rest of it. Jazz is American music — hillbilly, hip-hop, rhythm and blues — it’s all jazz. And I learned it in search of jazz.”
Within a week, bassist Berry Oakley arrived and joined the jam sessions. Allman had invited some of the studio’s other session players to jam, but the group’s improvisations scared them away, according to Jaimoe.
“Basically, how we played was improvising on what is, you know? That’s what we did, and that’s what I do now. Improvising on what is,” he said.
The Allman Brothers Band coalesced and moved to Macon, Ga., and began building a reputation as a free-thinking, multi-racial jazz-influenced rock band. The group’s 1971 live set, At Fillmore East, is considered one of the most important live albums of all time, and a founding document of the jam-band scene. The album was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1999.
The Allmans lasted a decade, enduring the deaths of Duane Allman and Oakley along the way, before breaking up in the early ‘80s. When the band regrouped in 1989, Jaimoe became a stabilizing force until the band played its final four-hour gig at the Beacon Theater in New York in October 2014.
The Allman Brothers Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and, the next year, received a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for their hit song “Jessica.” Jaimoe, who will receive one of the state’s top arts honors with a Governor’s Arts Award for Excellence in Music, is credited as the drummer for four of Rolling Stone magazine’s top 100 guitarists of all time: Duane Allman, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes and Dickey Betts.
“Jaimoe’s lasting contributions to American music and his place in GRAMMY history prove he has no intentions of slowing down, and I will continue to support his work with great admiration,” said GRAMMY Museum at L.A. Live Executive Director Bob Santelli in his letter of support for Jaimoe’s Governor’s Arts Award nomination. “For his almost half-century body of work that has created enjoyment for music lovers all over the world, I can think of no other Mississippian more deserving of this award.”
Today, Jaimoe, who has family on the Coast and visits often, lives in Connecticut and stays active in music with Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band. His band combines aspects of his R&B past with freewheeling jazz and jam song structures. With a brass section, keys, guitar and bass, the band covers everything from The Allman Brothers Band to John Coltrane and standards.
“I ask myself a lot of times, why did I go east instead of west?” he said, referring to where most of the music business was centered then. “But when I look back at it, it’s all lined up. Like A-B-C.”