Bluesman ‘Uncle’ Eric Whitehouse recalls an unexpected guest member of his band from America…
I’ve spent my entire adult life messing with music – live music – and that takes you to some strange and wondrous places, both mentally and physically. For me, it’s the joy of performance and meeting of minds and skills that produces a real fusion of talents that transcends the sum of the parts and, sometimes, sires a new greater whole beyond. I love bands.
I love the camaraderie, the rivalry, the egocentricity, the comradeship, the “us against the world” mentality of a travelling band. I love the gigs ( first there, last to leave), the van (broken down?), the dodgy managements, crazy people, mad cap japes, and, oh yes, the boring bits (usually waiting). Just occasionally, something happens that is way beyond the everyday and bordering on the bizarre.
Thirty years ago, for a short time, I was privileged to know someone who was a musical hero to me, to have this guy play in my band as a rank-and-file member, to hear at first hand his modest stories of his part in musical history, and to realise his story was social as well as musical history. It was a bit like meeting The Beatles. His name was Wayne Jackson ( WHO?…. go on, GOOGLE IT!).
Wayne was the trumpet player with Otis Redding and all the 1960’s Soul Stars, a Stax session man, leader of the Markeys and Memphis Horns, Rufus Thomas, Aretha Franklin, ‘Dusty in Memphis’, James Taylor (Who he really hated), Robert Cray, he’s on U2’s ‘Angel of Harlem’ and, Peter Gabriel’s’ ‘Sledgehammer’, Oh, and a small matter of twenty eight tunes recorded with Elvis for his comeback in ‘68. MY GOD!!! THIS MAN KNEW ELVIS!!! He was also Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin!
It happened like this. In the mid 80’s the Black Lion (now the Wig & Pen) was the hub of the local music scene and my band, The Backstairs Creepers, played a gig/jam night every Thursday. The band were all young men in their 20’s so I called them all ‘brother’, to emphasise the co-operative nature of the venture, but they were twenty years younger than me and so responded by christening me ‘Uncle’.
There was a regular crowd of hippies, punks, rockabillies and odd people in funny clothes who came to see us and one of them, an American girl called Kynde (Cindy!) asked Steve New, our bass player a favour. “My uncle’s coming over from The States next week, he’s a trumpet player and he’d like to play with your band”, she said. Steve said “OK”.
The next Thursday, on my way to the gig, I went to pick up Stan Bowles, our keyboardist, and when I got to his flat he was playing a tape of the ‘67 Stax/Volt Tour. Although the stock in trade of our band was down home boogie, we also covered jump jive and even soul.
I looked at the personnel on the record and there he was – Wayne Jackson – my latest ‘soul brother’! Then it got surreal. At The Lion, we launched into our first number and I saw Cindy pushing through the crowd with a guy in a leather jacket, carrying a trumpet in a sling. “Can I play?”, he asked in a southern drawl. “Sure” said I. “What key?” said he. “A” said I …….”Cool, man…sooo cool!!!”
We got to the last number and I called ‘Cant Turn You Lose’. The sax player asked Wayne if he knew the riff – “ I wrote it”, says Wayne. At the end of the gig, I introduced the band…”And from Memphis, Tennessee, on Trumpet, Wayne Jackson”.
The crowd roared their approval, although I realised no one knew that they were in the company of a rock’n’roll legend. I may have kissed his feet!
Afterwards we got to talk and have a pint and Wayne said he would like to play with us while he was in England doing some recording (it turned out to be ‘Sledgehammer’) and some radio shows. I eventually gave in and said “yes”.
He was staying at Cindy’s flat in Jimmy’s End, and I remember going round one night to pick hjm up for a gig, being invited in, and when he opened the wardrobe, seeing a row of immaculate mohair suits, just like Otis and the Stax Band wore! Also, one night we had a gig in St Albans and he flew back from a radio show in Paris, got a taxi from Heathrow, and was on stage on time for us in the pub. One day, Steve New went to see him recording in Peter Grbriel’s studio, outside Bath, and Wayne excused himself from the company (which included Kate Bush) “because Steve and I have a gig with our band tonight” (Uncle Eric’s Backstairs Creepers, Black Lion, Northampton).
This lasted about five weeks and Wayne did every gig and also played round town with Fred Chase and Rockin’ Roger Sayer. It was at this time that the social significance of who this man was began to dawn on me. Like me, he treated all band mates as equals, and consequently all men as equals, regardless of ethnic origin. Steve Cropper said when you entered Stax Records you left your colour at the door. I frivolously inducted him as a ‘brother’, only to find out that he really was!
Of course, it couldn’t last, and Wayne announced he was going home next week. Pete Bowles? took some pictures of us at the King Billy, and Wayne’s last gig was a Black Lion Thursday. At the end, we shook hands and agreed to have a last drink in the middle room. Wayne drank draught Guiness with vodka chasers (he liked a drink!) and he told me his story.
How his high school band, ‘The Royal Spades’, morphed into the ‘Markeys’ and then into the ‘Stax Band’. Playing the Chitlin’ Circuit in a segregated south where, not only could you get barred for having black musicians in the band, but also for having white men in black venues; about Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, and about how he moved to Nashville in the 70’s for the studio work when the Memphis scene petered out.
He told me about Elvis and how he and Booker T. and Co. made the great comeback sessions and ‘In the Ghetto’, before being sidelined for Californian musicians. He gave me his address and phone number and said “Come and see me sometime”.
I’ve never been too good at forward planning and I have never been sycophant, but for the first time since I was six, I asked for his autograph on a old piece of card which happened to be at hand. He wrote: “Eric – you keep right on rockin’ I love you – Wayne Jackson”. We said our goodbyes as the sun came up and I never saw him again.
Wayne Jackson died last year, but I am sure his memory must live on. His autograph hangs on the wall in my flat and sometimes, when it’s cold and dark or when I’m feeling low, I look at it and tell myself “Brother Wayne says I gotta keep right on rockin’………..That’s what I’m gonna do.
For this is the word!!
NQ “Uncle” Eric Whitehouse