You don’t see his name in the list of the absolute greats often enough – but drummers know. And people with stacks of, er, Stax Records records know – Al Jackson, Jr. was one of the all-time greatest, a better drummer you couldn’t hope to find. You want someone to just sit on the groove all day and ride that thing and own it – Al Jackson, Jr.
He played with Booker T & The M.G.’s – so that’s him you hear on Green Onions. And all those wonderful instrumentals from that group, the swirling organ and the chomp and snarl of Steve Crooper’s guitar – and just where you needed it always Al Jackson’s drums. A lovely light touch (Rinky Dink) and so often appearing to be just riding along but actually driving that groove hard. Running things. As soon as you hear Green Onions you hear the “chick” of his hi-hat. And the way he – so perfectly – was marking time.
Jackson’s playing first really appealed to me when I took on board the level of restraint – that he could (regularly) sit through whole songs without playing a fill. As a young drummer – wrestling with toms and hoping to hit whatever would get in my way it was almost unfathomable that someone could ride a 4/4 rock/stock groove and make that fucker swing. Make it count. Make it mean not just something – but everything.
Later on that’s about all you’re interested in – you realise that fills and spills and thrills are cool in the right place, at the right time. But you want to hear groove. And you hear that every time you hear Al Jackson, Jr playing.
There’s the jazziness in his touch (I Got A Woman) which he learned from his dad no doubt – Al Jackson Sr ran a swing/jazz band, played the dances and in what might have simply been a case of genetics he handed down that sound to his son.
I also love that Jackson played a basic kit – one crash, one ride, one tom (okay, sometimes two) and a floor-tom, bass-drum and snare. You don’t need anything else. And if you think you do you need to spend some (more) time listening to him – hearing his playing, what he could do (and of course what he left out) and you’ll realise (hopefully, eventually) that he played all the kit you could ever need.
The Booker T instrumentals sit there perfectly. To this day they burst with colour, they seem fresh, they sound exciting. And sitting in the back of all of them, driving from that backseat is Al Jackson.
But that’s only half the story – or not even half.
The M.G.’s were the house band for Stax – so that’s them on so many albums that you’ve maybe heard and owned. And maybe you knew that and perhaps, to begin with at least, you just took that for granted. I know I kinda did.
I first started hearing the M.G.’s outside of their own records when I became obsessed with Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign. One of the best blues albums I know – well, for the blues of that kind. And the band is Booker T and his men. And again you hear not a note out of place from Jackson (from the whole band too, of course). Such wonderful economy. As King stings those guitar lines, shakes them from his axe you have the reassuring snare of Al Jackson sitting in behind the horns. Then he gets a little playful on Crosscut Saw and Kansas City before returning to the blues boom-bap for Oh Pretty Woman.
After that I was off – finding all the albums I could. Finding out I’d been listening to his playing already: Sam & Dave’s Hold On, I’m Comin’ and Soul Man and those Otis Redding songs. Man, those Otis Redding songs. Add in Rufus Thomas and Wilson Pickett and Don Covay and, well, there are just so many names. And you can spot his playing. And if it isn’t him often it’s Roger Hawkins and he’s a guy that I could have raved about here also – and maybe I will another day.
Al Jackson’s story ended in 1975 – he was shot by his wife, they were estranged, in the middle of divorce proceedings. He survived. A few months on he was shot again – murdered. Shot in the back. It was later found that the suspected gunman was the boyfriend of Jackson’s wife’s friend. Seems she really wanted him dead.
A sad end – but that music survives. He’s there on Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together album. He’s there across some of the very best soul and pop music of the 1960s. And so much of it endures. And you can listen to it as closely as you like – and you should – but I’ll tell you now you will never ever hear an example of Al Jackson, Jr overplaying. He only ever gave each song exactly what it required – and always what it deserved.
Drummers You Just Can’t Beat started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page