Wednesday, July 6, 2005
Toward the end of my talk with Bernard Jenkins, he tells me: "There's no better musicians than right here (Jackson). Make sure you get that down."
I'd just listened to a recording of Bernard's band The B-Cats covering "Hey Joe" for a Belgian crowd at the 930 Blues Café, and I can testify that Jenkins and his band are among the best musicians in Jackson. If they think the best are right here, then they are right.
Jenkins greets me outside on his front steps. He wears a dark palm-tree print shirt and jeans. I've brought my acoustic guitar so he could show me a few things about it. A curtain of brown beads hangs from the kitchen door. "You can put your guitar down on that chair. Let me get you a seat," he says.
He goes through the beads and comes back with a chair. He sets a foot on the coffee table, takes my guitar and begins tuning it. Keeping his eye on the instrument, he says, "You can ask me questions man; I'm listening."
I ask him about his recent gigs in Santa Barbara. "One sec," he says. From a spot near the TV he picks up a black fedora and puts it on. "OK," he says, and lights a Benson and Hedges. We get started.
Jenkins comes from a family with musicians on both sides. His father ran a gas station in Jackson—Jenkins began working for his Dad in third grade—and musicians came by his station to pawn off their instruments for car services and supplies. That's how Jenkins' father got an electric Silvertone and matching amp. When Bernard heard his father play it in the house, he knew.
"That was it," he says with his hands spreading out. He began using cigar boxes around the house to mimic playing the guitar. It was a musician's life from there.
For a long spell, Jenkins played with Johnnie Taylor, the Sam Cooke protégé who recorded the first certified multi-platinum single, "Disco Lady." (In '76, "platinum" meant sales of over 2 million copies.) But his stint with Taylor was after that, while the soul-blues man recorded on Malaco, a Southern label now located in Jackson and dedicated to preserving the Southern soul, blues and gospel sounds.
During that time Jenkins traveled a good deal, with and without Taylor. "I worked for Albert when Johnny was off," Jenkins explained. This is Albert King, one of the kings of blues whose '67 Stax record "Born Under a Bad Sign" is considered a classic of electric guitar. In fact, Albert King wanted to sit down with Jenkins and show him his stuff, to fashion a protégé. Jenkins was willing, but at the time was with Taylor and was on call for gigs. But he'd gotten a lot from King, including some encouragement to sing. Jenkins said he couldn't, to which King replied, "All you got to do is open your mouth." It wasn't until Taylor passed away in 2000 that Jenkins resolved to assume a singer position.
We're listening to "Hey Joe" now. "Right here," he says, "this is Little Richard's style. Like a train." The B-Cats have gone through the first verse, and they're now picking up the tempo. It chugs along till it hits a quick clip, and Jenkins plays alongside it. A-mazing.
Keith Collins, the bass player for the B-Cats, comes into the den midway into the interview. When we play the cut from 930, Collins sits back in his chair, closes his eyes, and nods to the rhythm. He doesn't say as much as his bandmate, but he's got a presence in the room. There's an eagerness to Jenkins' movements. I ask him if he's ever nervous. "I'm always nervous," he says. "That nervousness keeps you aware." Collins nods his head.
Jenkins has played with a number of big names: Little Richard, Albert King, Betty Wright and The Temptations during their reunion years, among others. He just got back from Santa Barbara playing gigs with Tito Jackson, one of the former Jackson 5.
Jenkins has got a lot of past behind him. He tells me about the Jackson of the '70s. "You had entertainment six days a week," he says. "It wasn't 'no particular place,'" as he characterizes Jackson now, with only a couple of spots preserving the blues scene.
"Why is the scene bad now?" I ask.
"Greed," Collins intones from his chair. That propels Jenkins on a discussion of the club owner/musician relationship here in Jackson. "They try to keep you in a box," he says, "but it's not a one-way street." Later, he says, "I know business. I started working in the third grade."
He goes on. "Club owners want to make money—I know that. I want to get the people in there, too, but you've got to let a painter paint. A union will stop all that," he says. "We've got a union for the symphony, but that's it."
Jenkins comes off as a consummate musician. He'll sometimes lean forward and look at me with an unexpected intensity and say something like, "You don't become complacent with your sound." Or, speaking of playing shows: "I'm there to give, you know? When you see me giving, don't pat me on the back; just get out of my way."
The second verse on "Hey Joe" finishes. There's a guitar solo going on, a low-down, loud-but-swanky keening from the guitar. Jenkins leans forward, ashes in his cup, and says to me, "I didn't copy his solo, see? That's my solo."
You don't top Hendrix, but this little number inhabits "Hey Joe" like it'd lived there all along. It fits right in.