This is the second part of the Jimi Smith Interview (part one ran in the October issue of the Twin Cities Blues News). The Prime Time Players consist of Jimi Smith, Donald Hye Pockets Robertson, Michael Pendergast and Mick Massoff
Ray: Jimi, who were some of the people you played with as a teenager in Chicago?
Jimi: I played with Sam Lay, Jimmy Reed, Big Walter Horton, Big Moose Walker, and all those guys. They let me in the clubs. I've always been big for my age, they never questioned me, but they knew I was a young kid. I always had the facial hair so I looked older than I was. Even though I had the little babyish stuff, the little chipmunk cheeks and stuff.
Pockets: Had to get a note from his mom to play (laughs).
Jimi: The place I had problems was when I was playing with Jimmy Reed. At the time I didn't have the facial hair, everybody was like, ah he's a young boy. When I played in Detroit at Ethyl's Lounge they made me come right from the dressing room to the stage and after I was done I had to go right back to the dressing room. That made me mad, because I was a young kid and I wanted to see what the grown folks were doing out there. That and the Hi Chaparral in Chicago, I had to rush right back to the dressing room there. But I never had a problem with all the other clubs in town. I even played at Theresa's and Checkerboard Lounge. I played with Fenton Robinson and Buster Benton, can't remember the name of the club, it was on the L track over on the south side of Chicago, a little small dingy room. That was one of the highlights of my life playing with those cats. Whether I got paid or not I was happy because I was like, man, hey I'm playing with these cats, I can't believe that. I played with all those cats. And the thing about it with Buddy Guy, when he sees me he tries to act like he doesn't know me. But see, I remind Buddy Guy of how old he really is (laugh). He and Junior Wells and my mom used to play together, and how I'd get him is I'd tell him old stories that my mom told me about him. And he goes, "how'd you know that." I'd say I'm Johnnie Mae's boy. He say "huh, you was a little boy last time I saw you." I pattern myself too sometimes after some of the stuff Buddy does. Some of the show stuff I do, the walking through the audience, messing with people and stuff, that's some of the stuff I learned from watching him. Buddy Guy's a hell of a showman.
Ray: And he took his stuff from Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones).
Jimi: Yeah, you know everybody has somebody that they patterned themselves after. My mom would have liked it that I patterned myself more after Jimmy Reed. I do feel indebted to him. He was like a father to me, because I had known him ever since I've been knee high to a duck. So for me to dismiss him wouldn't be right. He put so much into me. I'm the only person that he actually sat down and taught how to play. He didn't even teach his own son how to play. His son picked it up on his own and then his son didn't want to play his music either. His son played with him when he could, but he was more into funk. I played with Eddie Taylor's son, Tim Taylor and Carey Bells son Lurie Bell.
I ran into Tim on the Blues Cruise last year, when I ran into Little Ed. We had been looking at each other through the whole cruise and we finally talked, I said what's your name? He said Tim Taylor (Eddie Taylor's son). I said do you know who I am. He said you look familiar. I said I'm James Smith, Johnnie Mae's boy, your dad taught me some guitar. I said, man we grew up together. You and your brothers and sisters were at my house all the time. Eddie Taylor Jr. now I understand is playing like his dad
Ray: How about Michael Coleman?
Jimi: Michael Coleman, now that was a boy that taught me some stuff too. When I met Michael he was playing with James Cotton. We did a show in Canada with James Cotton and that's when I ran into Michael Coleman. I went, man, that's what I want my guitar to sound like. He was playing a guitar like a 335. I bought my 335 when I first moved here. When I ran into Mike he had a hollowed body Music Man 112 and he was just smokin'. He could play anything. Michael was showing me a tune and he showed me the guitar part and the drummer couldn't get. So Michael put his guitar down and grabbed the drumsticks and said this is how you play it man, just like this. I was like - look at that dude, he plays drums too. Michael Coleman is a very talented musician. I ran into him again back in 1989 when we were in Chicago for the blues festival, he had is own band the (playing with Zora Young). You'd be surprised at the number of people that started out playing drums. Albert King started playing drums. Son Seals. So was Michael Pendergast. He was a drummer for many years.
Michael: 4 years drumming with Tommy Smothers. Met Kenny Rogers when he was a bass player. Smothers is a very good friend of mine. He sponsored two bands, the First Edition and the Second Edition. Kenny Rogers was bass player with the First Edition, he never sang a note. I met him several times before he became Kenny Rogers, well he's always been Kenny Rogers but I knew him when he was down here. After that I switched to organ. It cost a lot of money to be a drummer on the road.
Ray: Michael, how long have you been playing the organ, how did you get started?
Michael: I was originally a drummer and one day I just wanted to play organ. I always listened to different organ players around town. Somebody delivered an organ one day over to the house and that's how it started. Been fooling around with it ever since.
Ray: How long ago was that?
Michael: About 25 years ago. At one time I played organ on some jobs and drums on others, so it was a transition, finally I just switched over to the organ. Basically just self-taught.
at Blues Alley 1998
Photo © 1998 by Tom Asp. All rights reserved
Ray: Who were some of your influences?
Michael: Bobby Lyle, Billy Holloman, Jack McDuff (I was best man at his wedding), Jack and I have been friends ever since he moved here. Whenever he's in town he's down here (Blues Alley). Jack brings a lot of organ players down here when they are in town. We see a lot of national acts. Jimmy Smith has been here; he was here for a whole Saturday night and played with us.
Jimi: That's why I had to do something with my name, there was always some confusion when I started out. When I was playing years ago, when I took over the Lynwood Slim band, it was the Jimmy Smith Band. People would come in and expect to see the organ player Jimmy Smith. So now I changed the spelling on my name to Jimi. The Prime Time came from one of the old bartenders that used to work here (at Blues Alley) bald headed Pat. I was always dressing up for the shows so one night I came in and he yells out "Hey, Prime Time." So it just kind of stuck. That was about 6 or 7 years ago. Through the years it's been a running joke that people would call me "Prime Time." But then after the Rhythm Doctors and the Famous Dave's thing, it kind of stuck.
Michael: There was a whole host of bands that started out here at Blues Alley. The Rhythm Doctors, True Blue, Down Right Tight - lot of people stated out down here. I played with different combinations of True Blue.
Jimi: I met Michael and the guys through Big Walter (Smith). I had seen Michael and Paul Manske play with Big Walter so that's kind of how I knew of the club and them. I knew them when it was Reds Roost (former name of Blues Alley) but I didn't associate Reds Roost with these guys until we got to the club and started playing together. I said "oh, yeah" you were the keyboard player that was with them. Paul Manske and Michael were in a band together at that time (True Blue).
Michael: Yeah, at one time we backed up Big Walter who was in transition, he was between bands and we just stayed with him for a year until he finally assembled his own band and we went back on our thing.
Ray: Had you played with Walter too?
Jimi: I played with Walter after Michael did, I was in the new version of the Groove Merchants. After the Groove Merchants I moved on to other stuff, I was playing with Joel Johnson and after that I was down here and started playing with Michael through Mike DuBois. I've been knowing DuBois for years because he played with me off and on with different bands. I came down here to jam one night and he said they were looking for another guitar player to add to the routine. So Paul Mayasich, we just kind of jelled. When I played we didn't know who each other was but we had been missing each other all the time. We had been subbing for each other in different bands. When we hit stage together him and I just kind of jelled, because when he was playing one thing I'd play the totally opposite of what he was playing.
Ray: You and Paul do work real well together. So the Rhythm Doctors came out of that meeting?
Jimi: I was playing with Walter in the late 80's and I got out of that because I had to have shoulder surgery. By the time I was back the job was filled and Walter didn't want to make changes. I understand that, I just move on and do other things. I figure everything happens for a reason. If that wouldn't have happen I wouldn't have met these guys down here at Blues Alley. I wouldn't have been able to come down here and do this routine. With this routine I got now with these guys (his current band) it's probably about the best band I've been in other than the Rhythm Doctors. They were a really good band and I can't take nothing' away from that.
Ray: How is your mother doing (Johnnie Mae Dunson)?
Jimi: She's still writing. There's Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby Rush, all the guys still calling her and she's still writing some tunes for them now. She can't play anymore because of her heart. She does sing. But she hasn't been out performing in a long time. She has some stuff cooking at the house. She's still got the voice, she's still doing it. There are guys in Chicago that's after her to do a recording and some shows. She said well I'll do it if you do it with me, get your band to back me up and I'll do it. (Laughs) She really likes Michael's playing a lot; she loves his organ playing.
Ray: Tell me about your jewelry?
Jimi: That crystal? We got hooked up with this through a friend of mine in Duluth, Toni, she sells jewelry. A lot of musicians around town had these, John Dickerson, most all the guys in that band had one.
Ray: That size?
Jimi: (Laughs) Big John has one almost this size. That's a running joke between him and me. We always running each other like mines bigger. (Laughs). It's supposed to be a good healing thing, a good aura. I can't say for sure that's it done a lot for me but I wear it all the time when I'm playing. I haven't had anything bad happened to me yet.
Ray: How about your rings, any significance to them?
Jimi: Yeah, this one here is my father's wedding ring, and that's my wedding ring. This is my father's birthstone that I bought for him on father's day. That was a ring that my ex-wife bought for me for father's day. This ring I got from a nephew of mine that owed me some money. He was like, I don't have the money so I will give you a ring. He said you can pick a ring off my fingers. I said well I'll take that one because it has a J on it, I like that one. I'd say the most important ones to me would probably be the wedding ring of my dads, because it holds sentimental value because my dad died in 1991. That was a devastating blow to me. Everybody thinks Big Walter (Smith) is my biological father, but he's not. He's my father in the music business. He's been around for me for the years I've been here. When I first moved here I met Big Walter and he's been like a dad to me and he's always taken me under his wing and doing stuff for me. I do feel I'm like one of his adopted kids. It's kind of like Pockets. Cause he's been knowing' Pockets since Pockets was a kid too. He's given' him away at three of his weddings I think.
Ray: Michael doesn't like to talk about himself does he?
Jimi: He's a guy who stays to himself, he's kind of quiet. He doesn't like a lot of things to get out about himself. He's a 5th degree master in the martial arts. He's done that for many years, he's got students who come around. He might be upset about it because I mentioned it, but I hope not. But that's a part of what he does. That's some stuff that I didn't know about him until I began to live with him.
Ray: How would you describe his keyboard playing?
Jimi: I'd say he was a cross between Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff.
Ray: More on the jazz side.
Jimi: A little jazz in everything he does, he will put that into the blues routine. His approach to it is unique. Smith and McDuff will probably play it totally different ways because they are more jazz oriented. Michael's piano playing has a jazz orientation. He's heavy into jazz on his piano playing. That's why he doesn't play piano with the band, he feels that blues bands want more of the honky-tonk piano thing. But I told him that's not the case at all, you should try it to see if it works. But he's more of a jazz piano player. His organ playing, there's no way to describe him in one word. The guy gives his all, he puts his heart into what he's doing.
Ray: How did you hook up with Mick Massoff.
Jimi: Mick played with us in the R-Section years ago. Before that he played with us with Lynwood Slim. He was with the Cranston's, then Lynwood Slim and after we left Slim we started the R-Section. That was back during the time when Charlie Bingham and Bruce McCabe broke away from the Cranston's, that's when Mick went with them, then the R-Section from there.
at Blues Alley 1998
Photo © 1998 by Tom Asp. All rights reserved
Ray: Somebody should do a history of the Twin Cities Music scene, has anyone done that?
Jimi: Somebody tried to do some kind of thing in the City Pages but it didn't hit all of it, it missed some spots. They tried to cover it all but…they tried more of the popular bands. When I came to town the Cranston's, Willie and the Bees, the old Inside Straight with Big Bill as the lead singer. That was the band that was taking over playing all the jobs around here.
Ray: Do you have other brothers and sisters?
Jimi: I have one brother on my mother's side that passed right after my dad, then I got 9 half brother's on my father's side. We kind of grew up together until a certain age then they went on and I didn't see them again until my father passed. They seem to be doing well with whatever they're doing but they didn't want to talk with me because it's the kid from the other family.
Ray: Pockets, you said you're the only boy in your family?
Pockets: I have 5 sisters and they all sing. My sister Alice she has a choir called the Revelation Choir out of the Macedonian Church here in town. She's writing some real good inspirational, gospel music. I mean the stuff that's she's writing now, is like, I have never heard coming out of gospel. Gospel music really has progressed over the years. The stuff that she's doing is a lot like that feeling that we tried to portray in playing the blues she goes for emotion. Music whys its very gospel, its not hollering. screaming type of gospel music, its more to the soul. She utilized the voices and the harmonies very well where it grabs you. I've played a couple of times in the church with her and man, I mean the people they went nuts over there. How she's performing it, the way she's utilizing the voices and the dynamics of the music is what does it. And the way that she's writing, she's writing some really good stuff. I was surprised (laughed), when I heard it. I said, damn Alice, that's some good stuff. I got two other sisters that sing in the choir with her. My baby sister she leads the main choir. They're all still singing.
Ray: What was the music you listened to when growing up?
Pockets: I listened to a lot of Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, Fats Domino when I was small. A little bit later it was Johnnie Taylor, Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, stuff like that.
Ray: That was during the 60's so you weren't really influenced by the pop rock of the time or the Beatles and Hendrix.
Pockets: Well I like Hendrix, the rest of it no.
Ray: Grateful Dead, Credence?
Pockets: I thought they were a bunch of goof balls, you know you could have been out on the street corner and heard better than that.
at Blues Alley 1998
Photo © 1998 by Tom Asp. All rights reserved
Jimi: Hendrix was the man. Sly and the Family Stone. Grand Central Station.
Pockets: Hey, that's the shit right there, that s the real deal. Back then I was listening to a lot of salsa stuff too Tito Fuentes, stuff like that. I like that rhythm. It would be so funky, the rhythms and horns man. You would hear like Tower of Power where they got this great shit going. Mandrel, was a bad dude. He was before War. War came out sounding like Mandrel. They're both out of LA Mandrel had African and Cuban guys
Jimi: Sly and the Family Stone they had a lot of influence. Then BB came out with Cook Country.
Ray: When your new album comes out are you going to start doing some touring? (Give Me Wings, Atomic Theory 1142).
Jimi: Yeah, we've been talking to some agents now.
Ray: The new material you just did for the album, was it all original or some covers?
Jimi: There's some covers in there. We did Luther Allison's Soul Fixin' Man, we did Albert King's I'll Play the Blues For You, a cover of a Jimmy Reed which my mother wrote "When You're Doin' Alright." Also an Albert Collins cover "If Trouble Was Money" which is a very emotional song, and it came out really good. Two tunes that Michael wrote the words to and we arranged. Two on there I wrote, one is a Jimmy Reed style and one is more of a Robert Cray and little bit of Johnnie Taylor sound. I do most of the singing. But Pockets does a lot of singing at our shows. In the future we will try to get him more involved in more singing. It was just the tunes we had to pick for this routine. I'd like to get to the point were we get 50/50 singing. I do most of the singing but Pockets does a lot of singing and in the future we're trying to get him more involved in more singing. It was just the type of tunes we had to pick for this routine… we write some tunes where we both sing together too. I'd like to get it to where it's 50-50 singing.
Pockets: I like it when we both sing together because Jimi has a style and I have a style and its like I'll hear it on the stage and its like damn…its cool. It comes out good, especially on the CD where we do it together. I got some tunes that I'm working on now just for that. Right now its time and being together. Time is very short especially with working.
Jimi: Pockets got a bunch of tunes that we're going to put on another CD. Michael's got a whole CD worth of stuff that he's written that he wants to put together for us to do, its a whole blues album that he wrote. I've got tunes sitting over at Blue Moon Studio that I started way before the Famous Dave thing.
Pockets: Sitting in the can.
Jimi: They're just sitting in the can and we got to go and review them. Pockets has tunes that we done before with the R-Section and he's got some new tunes. I'm still waiting on this groove that he's been working on. See that was the thing for me. We'd get on stage someplace during the sound check and he'd start out a groove on the drums and next thing I know is the bass player is following him some, then I follow on one thing and the keyboards follow on another, and hey, we got a tune. Here we go.
Pockets: That's the way a lot of the Rhythm Doctors songs came about, just from the sound checking.
Jimi: One night it was a slow night, you know when it starts off kind of slow. We go, let's do something different? Somebody would start out a groove then somebody adds a little of this. Its like making a stew, you put a little of this in there, put a little of that in there.
Pockets: Lot of the best stuff comes from the sound checks. You need to have the tape recorder running during the sound checks so you remember what the hell you were doing. (Laughs)
Ray: How would you describe your chemistry on stage?
Pockets: It's really kind of a mental telepathy kind of deal and basically it comes from listening. You have to listen real good.
Jimi: You have to feel it. You feel it coming, you feel what's going to happen. Lot of people can't feel it. There's people that are technical players who can't play unless you have music in front of you. You can't write that feeling, you can't write that improvisation on the paper. You got to feel that. For us, when we hit the stage man, after awhile you start playing and you hit something. We did it last night and I looked back at Pockets and he's like yeah, I caught you. (Laughs)
Pockets: That's the fun part of it. When you do something like that, that's innovative for us. It keeps us going; it keeps us alive!
Ray: If you hit something like that and it really sounded good are you able to reproduce it?
Jimi: Yeah, you got to make a mental note of it and let it lay back there for a minute.
Pockets: You say OK, yeah that works. Then you got to relay it to the rest of the guys. That's when that special little kick comes in. You say Wow! When something like that happens.
Jimi: The dynamics of the thing. In certain places, you're rocking really hard and all of a sudden, boom! That grabs people. You can feel it yourself when it happens.
Pockets: When I can close my eyes and just get totally enveloped into it and know what's going to happen, I can just ride the train and know what's going to happen. I don't have to worry about looking at this person or looking at that person, because a lot times I don't look I just close my eyes and play. That's the way I am.
Jimi: It comes with time and playing together. Pockets and I have been playing for years and we feel that stuff. It comes from playing with major acts, when you feel that stuff and they give you the groove.
Pockets: That's what I like when major acts call you up and its like, OK, lets see what the rest of the band can do (laughs). And you throw that stuff in there and they have to do the double take, you know, damn.
Ray: Give me an example of what you mean.
Pockets: When you do that (play with a national act) they have a certain way of playing, you don't go into there to change their arrangement you go in there to better their arrangement. You go OK, well that sounds good but how about this. (Laughs) You throw that in there. Usually they come back and say what the hell was that man, show me that. Then on the next song or set we'll do it on one of the tunes.
Ray: How did you and Paul Mayasich meet?
Jimi: Back when Paul and I first started we kept missing each other. I'd fill in for him in another band and he'd fill in for me in a band and we never really did get a chance to meet each other until right here, Blues Alley. I was talking to Mike Dubois and he said Paul Mayasich is here, I said where at. He said right behind you. When I first saw Paul he was a skinny little kid. When I turned around this time here was this big guy, I said who is this. But we hit the stage and when we started playing he did his thing and I was backing up. I feel that if your playing with somebody and they are doing their song why you going to try and overplay that person. That's not what its all about. It's about putting it together. Playing together, listening to what the other people are doing. Its all about hearing and listening. If you don't hear what's going on around stage… The famous line for me that Jack McDuff told me was, he said man I told this one guy one night man, I know you can play blind, but I didn't know you could play deaf. In other words, can't you hear these changes what's going on, can't you hear what's going on around you? That's where I think a lot of people get hung up on the technical aspect of it. The structure goes, one, two, three, four, when every change is right there. It's not the case, you got to listen as to what's going on up on stage. Between Paul and I, we just never really stepped on each other's toes. We always knew what the other one was going to do. You're playing this, I'm gonna play that. Paul's got great ideas. I'd learned a lot from him playing wise too. He introduced me to the Allman Brothers. I was never into that at all. I was more into the old blues style and he was into the Allman Brothers and he never knew my side of it. So we showed each other what we were each doing. I got into his thing and we started some Allman Brothers. He said how about playing some of these scales. Because I didn't know anything about playing those scales, I was a blues guy. Everything else I learned I learned by listening or watching a person.
Ray: You stole it ...
Jimi: I did, I stole a lot of shit. I will admit to that. You name me somebody out here that ain't stole. Everything that somebody does now has been done before. You can't play nothing out there that ain't nobody hasn't done before. It might be a different way but its all been done before.
Pockets: I don't call it steeling, I call it incorporation.
Ray: Its called research.
Jimi: Yeah, you researched the stuff (laughs).
Michael: (From the other side of the room) You know what I was thinking. One night I heard this tape. And all of a sudden I heard this thing on guitar. I said wait a minute that sounds like something of mine. Somebody stole that from me. (They all laugh). Like a magnet, just anything that passes through you goes right into your music.
Jimi: Yeah, I'd hear something and it just sticks in my head so the next time I'm playing it just comes out (laughs). Yeah, a lot of the bends and pull-offs and stuff like that I'd say I learned that from Paul. From Paul and watching Warren Haynes (Govt. Mule). I went down there and I seen him, and I got to stand right in front of the stage, right in front of his amp man. It was blasting, blowing me away but I'm loving it. I was learning by watching him. That's the way I learn. I learn by watching what they do, listening to the music and then I'd sit down and practice it and I'd do it. It comes to me, I don't know how but it comes to me. You can't write that on a chart until you can play that note for note on a guitar. When I was going to school, if I had a trumpet in my hand then yeah, I could have done that. But I haven't played trumpet for years so right now you could put a trumpet in my hands and I wouldn't know what to do with it.
[Recently I saw Jimi at the Bernard Allison show at Famous Dave's and he was sitting right up front watching, listening and soaking in everything that was going on up on stage]
Ray: How would you describe Jimi's voice?
Pockets: Jimi has a soulful, very, very soulful voice. As far as singing blues, he has a real good technique in singing blues.
Michael: You can tell the truth.
They all laugh.
Pockets: No I'm serious. And it took him awhile to get it, but its coming in full circle right now and its going to get better. He has a real soulful, strong set of vocal chords that he's learned how to use. We sing in two different styles, that's why we complement each other. I like the way that we sound singing together and I think that's going to help with the group too.
Ray: How would you describe your voice in contrast to Jimi's?
Pockets: I'm more or a gutsy singer. I don't know why it comes out that way. It's guttural, there's a lot of growling in my voice when I sing. That's the way it comes out.
Ray: From your gospel background?
Pockets: Gospel background is more of a phrasing, yeah, but as far as the sound and stuff like that…
Jimi: Some of that is probably inherited too, his family background, his distant cousins (Aaron Neville and all of that). Like me I got distant cousins, like Mavis Staples and the Rev. Alex Bradford (gospel singer). A lot of my singing too came from that, listening to him and my mom. There was a lot of people I learned from you know.
Ray: How would you describe Pockets voice?
Jimi: Lets see now (they all laugh). No, he does have a soulful growl to his voice. When I sit back and listen to him I do hear a lot of that Solomon Burke and Aaron Neville all of that mixed in there. I do hear a lot of that in his voice and he's real passionate and real intense with his singing. He attacks you with every word. When he's signing you feel. It grabs you.
Jimi Smith and the Prime Time Players can be heard most weekends at Blues Alley. Their new album, "Give Me Wings" was just released on Atomic Theory.
Part one of this interview w/Jimi Smith