|I’d been at Kenney’s house the day before. Back then we had lived near each other out in The Richmond. He knew a secretary at Warner’s that would send him new releases every month. Like clock work. Kinda pissed me off but we would sit and listen to some stuff while we talked and drank coffee. I tried to smile and appreciate his good fortune. He’s a lucky guy.
There was a new Rodney Crowell recording that piqued my curiosity. A piano solo I assumed was Glenn D Hardin but mildly surprised to read that it was Barry Beckett. It was really good but I didn’t think too much about it.
The next day I flew to Detroit to do a gig with Etta James. Playing with her was always an adventure and at the same time nostalgic in it’s way. It was that old time thing where she didn’t tell anybody anything more than what you needed to know.
There was one week where I played with Etta at The Stud on Folsom Street in San Francisco- truly an icon of the slap and tickle South of Market scene- then flew to Nashville and played at a country showcase club, then rode the tour bus to St Louis and played The Coliseum, even back then it was an amazing chitlin circuit return to 1965, back again on the bus to Minneapolis to play for the swells at The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
She was the embodiment of diversity. Everybody loved her.
Etta had been trying to get the record company to let me record with her. Typically producers use their own people. I get that but she was insistent. Her first record in years, “her comeback” record was Seven Year Itch for Island Records. I was shocked one day to open the mail and find an itinerary and a round trip ticket to Compass Point. A phone call to her manager, Lupe DeLeon, what the hell Lupe? Sure enough she’d convinced the powers that be for me to fly with her to the Bahamas and record with a band comprised of Keith Richards, Art Neville and Roger Hawkins. “Just be ready Jim”.
Day before I was to leave it all came unraveled and they ended up doing it Nashville with a whole different bunch of folks. A year or so later it’s time for her to make another record for Island. I wasn’t pushing her to do it but she insisted again. This time their response was a solid “No”.
So here we are in Detroit and we get to the sound check at the Silver Dome. There’s Etta’s producer- Barry Beckett- sitting on stage, seated at the organ. “Would you mind if I played organ with you guys?” He asked me. Sure! We sat together, he at the organ and me at the piano sharing a bench. I was a little nervous because he was one of my idols. Nice guy but kinda gruff or so I thought.
After a while I said, “I really like your solo on that new Rodney Crowell record.” He looked surprised, “Thanks man that’s the first piano solo I’ve ever done on a record.” Right then Etta walks by and says, “Hey Barry would you mind if Jimmy came to Nashville on Monday and recorded with us?”. “Well no I don’t….” Looking at me now considering things, “Jim I play all the keyboards on records I produce but….” He paused considering things, “what the hell, Ok”.
I had been to Kenney’s house and heard his solo on that Rodney Crowell record, flown to Detroit and shared an organ bench with him, mentioned in passing his solo right before Etta passed by and asked him to let me record with her. I’m not saying that my compliment influenced his decision but it didn’t hurt. More than anything it was serendipitous. Most serendipitous.
Monday morning, “Oh that’s right. Look you can play piano but if you make a mistake raise your hand, I ain’t got time to check it. If I find any mistakes I’ll redo the whole damn thing myself”.
Roger Hawkins – Drums
Barry Beckett – Hammond B3
Reggie Young- Guitar
Mabon “Teenie” Hodges – Guitar
Michael Rhodes – Bass
Etta James- Vocals
10:00 am to 1:00 pm, then 2:00pm to 5:00 pm we recorded for three days at Digital Studio on Music Row in Nashville.
The first song was a classic Memphis way behind the beat, butt drag, Otis like ballad that in places required that I play eighth note chords right along with Roger Hawkins. After the first take Barry frowned and looked up at me, “Try to be musical son.”
And he was right and so I did the age old “Think about all the things you want to play and then forget about it and just play” trick with varying degrees of success but slowly I was able to be musical in a situation that was frankly really stressful for me. Stress and playing behind the beat with Roger Hawkins don’t go together too well but it got better as we went along. Not great but better. I really tried to take in as much as I could. It was a defining learning moment in my career.
Barry was a tremendous musician in that he played simple yet unique parts with so much clarity and soul that I think it revised everything in my approach to not just studio keyboard playing but in all aspects of my playing.
We ate lunch a couple times and talked a little but not much. Just sat and ate. After those three days I never saw Barry Beckett again and few years later I had heard that he passed.
When it comes to in the pocket, simple yet interesting piano and organ playing I’ve never heard anybody better.
He was the best.