June 26, 2006 – Johnny Jenkins was born the son of a day laborer on March 5, 1939 east of Macon, Georgia in a rural area called Swift Creek. On the battery powered radio, he was drawn to hillbilly music and first heard the sounds of blues and classic R&B artists like Bill Doggett, Bullmoose Jackson, and others.
Jenkins built his first guitar out of a cigar box and rubber bands when he was nine, and began playing at a gas station for tips. He played it left-handed and upside down (like Hendrix), and this practice continued after his older sister bought him a real guitar a couple of years later. He left school in seventh grade to take care of his ailing mother and by 16 had turned to music full time.
He started out with a small blues band called the Pinetoppers that played the college circuit and first heard Redding at a talent show at a Macon theater. At one college event with the Pinetoppers, he met Walden, a white student at Macon’s Mercer University who was attracted to black rhythm-and-blues music. Besides working as Mr. Jenkins’s manager, Walden co-founded the legendary Southern rock label Capricorn Records, which produced Jenkins two albums “Ton-Ton Macoute!” and “Blessed Blues.”
Jenkins was a self-taught guitarist, a fixture on the Macon scene known for his Chuck Berry-like walks and behind-the-head guitar picking. His dealings with Otis Redding he described as follows:
“I heard Otis at the Douglass, and the group behind him just wasn’t making it,” Mr. Jenkins told pop music biographer Peter Guralnick. “So I went up to him and said, ‘Do you mind if I play behind you?’ Cause he didn’t know me. . . . Well, he sounded great with me playing behind him.”
Redding received a lot of airplay for the 1960 single “Shout Bamalama,” on which he was backed by the Pinetoppers. But in the early years he largely remained the band’s gofer, and when the Pinetoppers were asked in 1962 to record for Memphis’s Stax records. As Johnny did not have a driver’s license, the young Otis Redding drove the group to Tennessee.
The session was reportedly a disorganized disaster, with several musicians leaving early. Redding asked whether he could use the remaining 40 minutes studio time to sing. Among his selections was “These Arms of Mine,” a ballad on which Jenkins played guitar and Steve Cropper played piano. “These Arms of Mine” became Redding’s breakthrough, selling 800,000 copies, and in the end he alone won a recording contract. Redding went on to have hits with “Respect,” “Try a Little Tenderness” and “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” before a fatal plane crash in 1967.
Jenkins had declined to join Redding’s band, citing a fear of flying, but there may have been other reasons for his refusal. As he told one interviewer, “People always want me to make him sound like a good guy, and, see, I know better. . . . Redding was a bully. He was hell to get along with.”
Back in Macon, Mr. Jenkins retained a loyal following and some noted admirers, including guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who played lefty like Jenkins and had relatives in the area. The two performed together occasionally in the late 1960s. in 1969, Jenkins and Hendrix teamed up to play together at The Scene, a club owned by Steve Paul in New York.
In 1970 Jenkins had an acclaimed solo album, “Ton-Ton Macoute!”, which featured guitarist Duane Allman and other members of the early Allman Brothers band. Among the songs singled out by critics was his rendition of Dr. John’s “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,‘ which has been sampled by numerous artists from Beck to Oasis.
But feeling cheated financially and disillusioned by many in the music business, Jenkins did not release another solo album until “Blessed Blues” (1996), made at the urging of old friend and Southern rock producer Phil Walden. On the recording, he worked with keyboardist Chuck Leavell and several Swampers sidemen from Muscle Shoals studios.
Critic Philip Martin wrote in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of Mr. Jenkins, “This reemergence shows him as a sturdy country bluesman with excellent taste and a remarkable electric touch.”
Two further albums followed; ‘Handle With Care’ and ‘All in Good Time’
He died from a stroke at age 67 on June 26, 2006.
Jenkins was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2012.
The Jimi Hendrix Factor:
According to Eddie Kirkland, Jimi Hendrix had an initiation in the South. In the early ’50s Kirkland played guitar for John Lee Hooker, and he remembers meeting Hendrix in ’56. “I didn’t see Jimi in the sixties,” insists Kirkland. “I met him when he was thirteen years old, nothin’ but a kid, a youngster, you understand? See, he had kin people in Macon, Georgia, some people there up on Fort Hill. He came down there in the summer, down to a place called Sawyer’s Lake. On Sunday kids could come in. At the time that I met Jimi, he was trying to learn how to play the bass.”
“As a very young boy,” Jimi concurred, “I started my musical career playin’ drums and bass.”
“We had bought one of those Sears Roebuck guitars,” remembers Eddie, “and he started playing that. Then I had to go away, I left there, but there was another guitarist there named Johnny Jenkins.”
Jenkins was older than Jimi. He later teamed up with Otis Redding and become Macon’s flashiest player. Percy Welch was another well known Macon musician who met Hendrix. “Jimi was hanging around Johnny Jenkins, mostly learning from Johnny,” observed Percy. “Both of them were left handed guitar players. At that time, Johnny Jenkins was a better player than Jimi, ’cause Jimi was just starting out, he couldn’t play well. I remember he had a little ol’ green and white guitar. He was the quiet type, didn’t have a whole lot to say. Every now and then I’d see him with Eddie around Cooper Hall down on broadway.”
“Malarkey,” says Al Hendrix, Jimi’s dad, “not when he was thirteen.”
Could Jimi have travelled to Georgia without Al’s knowledge?
Jimi once explained, “My brother and I used to go to different homes, because dad and mother used to break up all the time. I ran away a couple of times because I was so miserable. When my dad found out I’d gone he went pretty mad with worry. He hit me on the face and I ran away.” Jimi’s parents, Al and Lucille, were divorced in 1951. The boys stayed with Al. “Dad was never home,” said Leon. “Me and Jimi were like Gypsies, going from auntie to neighbor.” In 1956 Leon was eight and staying with a foster family. Did Jimi run away with Lucille for a private road trip to the South, maybe with a man Al didn’t like?
I walk on up to your rebel roadside/the one that rambles on for a million miles/I walk down this road searchin’ for your love and my soul too/when I find you I ain’t gonna let go. I remember the first time I saw you/the tears in your eyes looked like they were trying to say/oh little boy you know I could love you/but first I must make my getaway/two strange men fightin’ to the death over me today/I’ll try to meet ya by the old highway. – “Gypsy Eyes” – Jimi
Lucille’s sister, Dolores Hall, confirms that Lucille spoke to her about the Georgia trip, but fear of Al’s wrath would prevent Jimi from ever disclosing the details to anyone. Paul Caruso knew Jimi well in 1966 and observed, “He was very well raised by his father, a very obedient son. It was his nature to get things done by being obedient, compliant.” Both Jimi and Al have said that Jimi got into guitar at the age of thirteen. That’s the age of the boy Eddie Kirkland met at Sawyer’s Lake, the boy from Fort Hill who was transformed:
Well, the night I was born, the moon turned a fire red/my poor mother cried out the Gypsy was right, and I seen her fell down right dead/Well mountain lions found me there and set me on an eagle’s wing/he took me past the outskirts of infinity/and when he brought me back he gave me Venus witch’s ring/and he said fly on, fly on, ’cause I’m a Voodoo Chile…
A Macon initiation. The rite of passage ritual. Death of the mothered boychild, rebirth as Voodoo Chile bluesman. A shaman is born. As was his habit, Jimi cloaked what he couldn’t say with a metaphor, in the form of a dream, a dream about Lucille going on a far away trip, “She was saying, ‘I won’t be seeing you too much any more, so I’ll see ya,’ and I said, ‘Yeah? Where’re you going?’, and then about two years after that, she died…I always will remember that one, I never did forget, there’s some dreams you never forget.”
“Two years after” that 1956 trip to Macon, Lucille died.
I might as well go back over yonder,
way back over yonder where my mother comes from…
“Red House” – Jimi