The secret life of Nashville drumming legend Jimmy Otey

Chemical engineer by day, backer of Little Richard, Hendrix at night

Friday, February 8, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 6

Before he was a successful chemical engineer and beloved MTA bus driver, Jimmy Otey was playing the drums for Little Richard in the legendary Cavern in Liverpool, England, when he noticed some “nice guys,” a former house band in the club, looking on.

He saw the four fellows obviously enjoying themselves while Little Richard and his band pounded through “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and other rollicking rockers that helped The Beatles shape their repertoire.

It was just another day for Jimmy, who had built a reputation as one of America’s best drummers, alternating between stints with Little Richard and James Brown and playing occasional gigs with Aretha Franklin, his friend Taj Mahal and just about any singer or bandleader seeking a man who had mastered the sticks since taking up drums as a young teenager.

“I was playing drums when I was 13 in The Del Morocco when Joe Louis came in. I said: ‘I have seen him on television.’” “The Brown Bomber,” the heavyweight champion of the world, was one of many national celebrities who frequented the R&B clubs on Jefferson Street.

Young Jimmy also played behind what he calls the club’s “shake dancers,” scantily clad exotic dancers. “I was just a little boy. I didn’t know anything.”

He smiles at the memory of the night when he met the Fab Four.

“I met The Beatles in Liverpool,” says Jimmy, 72, an ailing Nashville treasure, as he sits in the den of the house his drumming helped him buy for his life’s main objective – raising his family – in a comfortable Bordeaux subdivision.

“Little Richard was booked in London and in Liverpool, we played in The Cavern. The Beatles were in the crowd,” Jimmy says, adding he was able to spend time with that band and another group of “nice, young guys,” who called themselves The Rolling Stones due to their fondness for American blues music.

While he enjoyed encounters with drummers Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts and their mates, he isn’t the star-struck sort. He played behind all flavors of music giants, beginning in the 1960s with Tyrone “Super-T” Smith, Jimmy Church, Bobby Hebb, Johnny Jones, Earl Gaines, Billy Cox, Jimi Hendrix and others in the thriving Jefferson Street club scene.

Those and subsequent performances from New York to New Zealand were simply his way to “bring home the bacon.” Heck, he even was a friend of Waylon and Willie and the boys.

While he praises The Beatles, especially for the lads’ songwriting, this great drummer only smiles when talking about the guy who provided the backbeat:

“I’m not putting Ringo down, but he wasn’t no helluva drummer. He got famous because he was in The Beatles. And he had that look. If you look in the pictures, the other three could have passed for brothers or cousins, but Ringo, who had that big nose and everything, stood out. It was that look that made Ringo.”

The day after The Cavern show, The Beatles and Little Richard’s band all climbed aboard an open-topped tour bus and traveled around the British countryside.

Ringo was the friendliest of the four, he says, adding George Harrison and Paul McCartney also were friendly but “the one who got killed” (John Lennon) stayed off by himself: “Guys like that always got something going in their heads, probably writing songs.”

Ringo gave Jimmy an autographed snare drum as they shared notes. “He said: ‘You like that sound, man? I’ll give it to you.’” Fellow drummers have tried to talk Jimmy out of that drum, but he shakes them off: ‘No, it’s a gift.’”

Jimmy’s star treks through popular music – “good friend” Janis Joplin, Iron Butterfly, pal and mutual admirer Carlos Santana, Cream and Jefferson Airplane “were the kind of guys I was running with” – punctuate our many hours of conversation.

Jimmy, though in relatively frail health, hasn’t slowed when it comes to talking about the days that he spent proving himself to be one of the best rhythm-and-blues (and jazz, country, soul and rock ’n’ roll) drummers to emerge from Jefferson Street. He even played behind James Brown when the late Godfather of Soul dabbled in early rap music.

Jimmy, a gentle and proud man, was a fixture on the Nashville R&B scene, even gigging at night while by day immersed in the chemical engineering career he began with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Michigan.

“I was always private about my life,” he says. “They (Hendrix, Cox, Church, Johnny Jones) knew I was doing some kind of job during the day, but I didn’t talk much about it.”

His chemical engineering prowess lifted him high in the ranks of a Sidco Drive ink company, but he needed the gigs on nights and weekends because, as he says: “Once you get married and start having babies, you gotta feed them, take care of them.”

Family remains No. 1, and that’s why he parked his chemical engineering career for a bit. By moving to Hollywood, more available to the stars, he could get top-paying jobs. He could hand-deliver that money to his wife and kids.

“Even when I was living at Sunset and Western, right across the street from the 20th Century Fox movie studios in Los Angeles, back when I was working with Little Richard, I insisted that they fly me back to Nashville during breaks.

“I had a young family back here. I didn’t want to be one of those musicians that started off with a family but lost it because I was gone all the time.

“It was in my contract with Little Richard that he pay for my flights back to Nashville. I was getting paid (on salary), but sometimes we’d be just laying around in L.A., waiting for our next gig, for a couple of weeks. Little Richard flew me home.

“And if he was in Las Vegas, where he’d stay for a month at a time, we would have Monday and Tuesday off, so as soon as we got done (Sunday night), I’d get me a cab for the airport and fly back to Nashville. I didn’t want to get used to being gone, and I didn’t want my family to get used to me being gone.”

Simple fact is he was on the coast and on the road because “I would make three times the money out there than I could make in Nashville.”

Making about $1,000 a week, “I wasn’t out there for the glory and want to be seen. I wasn’t the star. I was in it to make my family nest egg.

“I didn’t have no vices – women, drugs, drinkin’ or nothing – so I saved that money for when I could get back home.”

And, he points out, when he was on the road, as part of a traveling band, he had a per diem for food and “didn’t have to pay a dime” for his hotel. “Sent my money all home.”

Little Richard traveled the world, and Jimmy was right there with him.

“I couldn’t pass up the money, but I wasn’t for traveling. I been gone to Japan and all over Europe and everywhere else. You get tired of it. New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii all those Asian countries. All over Europe. Norway. Denmark. Sweden, Italy. You get tired of it.”

When he did get to stay in Los Angeles for extended periods, playing drums on Bill Cosby’s variety show – “he had this show that was like Johnny Carson, and I was in his band” – he was more content. “I said, ‘I can just stay here and make more money. Less wear and tear on me.’”

Cosby also agreed to fly him home to Nashville during breaks in taping. Occasionally, his family would fly out to L.A. to spend time beneath the Hollywood sign and towering palms.

While Little Richard was his most-frequent touring boss, he liked a bit of change. One year, after his contract lapsed, he accepted James Brown’s offer to join his outfit.

“You get tired of playing ‘Tutti Frutti’ every night,” he says. The “hardest-working man in show business” didn’t give Jimmy the “go-home” breaks because the band mostly rushed between one-nighters as opposed to Little Richard’s longer residencies.

“James played mostly in the South, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, places like that. It made it easy to get home.”

When he had his bankroll built up sufficiently, he returned to Nashville and to playing with the likes of Super-T and Jimmy Church, the benevolent leader of the local R&B scene who had recommended him to Little Richard in the first place.

“I had a time limit that I would stay (on the road and in Hollywood) no more than five to seven years,” long enough to collect enough money to secure his family’s future.

Back home, the chemical engineer “played the clubs all the way from First Avenue downtown out to 51st, Pee Wee’s supper club,” Jimmy recalls. Pee Wee Johnson’s place was clubhouse for Music City’s political machine and like-minded good old boys. A great friend of country star George Jones, Pee Wee’s center-stage spotlight shined on guys like Fats Domino, Chubby Checker, Jerry Lee Lewis and The Jimmy Church Band.

When the ink company he worked for moved to Kansas City, the drummer decided it was time to retire from that career.

“There’s nothing in Kansas City, ’specially for a black person. Some of the backwardest people in the world live in Kansas City. They’re like the hillbillies in Missouri and East Tennessee.”

Instead, he went to work as an MTA bus driver. “The driving part is all right. It’s the public you have to deal with.” Most of that public was good, responding to the way he treated them.

If people didn’t have money but they needed to get to a job, he’d let them ride. In return, “on birthdays, around Thanksgiving and the holidays, they’d be bringing me pies, cakes and plates of food. I made friends with people.”

It wasn’t friendliness that he saw a couple years ago when a big man, packing a sidearm, got on the bus and insisted on standing, threateningly, over the driver.

“I didn’t like it that laws changed, and they didn’t have to show the driver the gun permit anymore. He was looking real weird…. He never did say anything. I hit the panic button and called the police.”

After police toted that man off, Jimmy finished his route. “I got back to the bus company and said ‘I’m too old for this’ and I retired.”

This friend of Jimi Hendrix (“He was a really nice guy, always had his guitar with him, ready to play, as he walked down Jefferson Street. Some of the guys didn’t like his playing, but I did. It was different. Jimi was different.”) is sick and tired. Literally.

Seven drum kits are packed away in the memories-filled home, and “I got another (kit) out there in that red truck,” he says, pointing toward the doorway leading to the carport.

“I can still play, I just don’t feel like playing now,” explains this soulful treasure who was diagnosed with congestive heart failure a year ago and was knocking on heaven’s door after a December heart attack convinced him to drive himself to the hospital barely in time.

He lost 40-plus pounds while hospitalized for the heart attack and treatment of congestive heart failure and weak kidneys.

Battered, but undefeated – he’s on dialysis and closely monitored by docs – Jimmy’s confident he’ll return to music. Leaning back on a Victorian sofa, his favorite roost in front of the massive television that takes up one wall of his den (he muted the game shows when I entered the room) he points to the wall.

“You see that big picture of me and Bill Cosby back there behind the TV?” Jimmy asks. The Cos, now shamed and imprisoned for sex crimes, was a well-regarded Jell-O peddler and quite-young superstar when Jimmy – a member of Cosby’s TV show band – had his picture taken with him. “I only left that band when he started talking about taking it out on the road.”

The remainder of the walls contain a few more photos and huge floral watercolors that brighten the subdued light sneaking between the drapes while Jimmy recovers in calming shadows.

“My wife made this for me,” he says, hoisting a poster-board with images of him and some of his musical friends. “That’s Little Richard right there.”

This true gentleman grows quiet when talking about Jeanette: “We were married 51 years. She passed two years ago, from several different complications. We were together ever since we were 14. We fell in love and were never apart after that.”

The great drummer and the love of his life raised four children. Keith and Bernard – who both have children grandpa prizes – live with Jimmy. Shericca “lives in Nashville.”

Otey, who is recovering from a recent health scare, avoided many of the pitfalls of his profession and era: “I didn’t have no vices – women, drugs, drinkin’ or nothing ...”

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

“James III died a long time ago. 1987. He was here, home on furlough. He was in the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles (the division that occupies Fort Campbell when not deployed to save the world. Hendrix also was a 101st alum, as was his sidekick, acclaimed bassist Cox).

“Somebody killed James III. Shot him in the back up at that club up there.” He waves in the general direction of nearby Clarksville Pike. “It was the Low Riders Motorcycle Club. Not there anymore.”

Jimmy lacks animus toward motorcycle riders in general, because he is one. With his frame as frail as it is right now, it’s difficult to imagine him wrestling one of those big hogs. Wait to see what happens when he rebuilds his strength.

“I always loved riding my Harley-Davidsons,” he says, lifting the drapes to a window overlooking the backyard section of the car port. “Still got this one out here. Out there’s a Mercedes I’ve not driven. I like collecting cars. Don’t like anything made after 1964.”

On the other side of the driveway is a 40-footlong motor home, a shining silver bus Jimmy likes to drive to campgrounds all over the country.

“That’s a Bounder,” he says, adding he has had a series of motorhomes – from the small, over-the-cab-of-a-pickup type all the way to these big ones that could tote a show band. “I’ve had at least two or three of the 40-footers.

“I love to camp,” he says. “I go everywhere.”

For decades, Jeanette was his road-trip companion. That silver bus now is covered, partially, by a tarpaulin, protecting it from the weather. Her death and his illnesses have kept him off the nation’s blue highways.

But that Bounder is not parked for good, he testifies, settling back onto the sofa and optimistically gazing toward the time he reclaims his health.

“I may go camping again,” he says. “I’ve been all over the world, all over the United States playing my drums.” He also plays soprano, tenor and alto sax, bass guitar “and a little piano, but I’m not as versed on it as the others.”

He has a loving reason for wanting to climb behind the wheel again. “My girlfriend – who was a nurse for 40 years at most of the hospitals in town before becoming one of the CEOs at the mental health hospital on Donelson Pike – hasn’t seen that much,” at least by a roving musician’s standards.

She retired about a year ago, and he wants to show her the country he loves. “She’s been to places, but not like I have. I go anywhere.” That might mean driving up North, out East or even to California after he reclaims his pilot’s seat. It seems he is one of those who decides while he’s out there just where he’s going to end up. And he might see something along the way that sidetracks him.

As if on cue, one of the three telephones on his coffee table rings. It is that girlfriend of a year and a half or so, Sharon Mays.

She’s, on this day, driving to Georgia to check on a daughter’s surgery. She’s about to the state line when she checks in on the man she loves and helps heal.

“I’ve got this man here interviewing me for a story,” he tells her, asking her to call back later, before reminding her to drive carefully.

“She’s got a great-big house over there in Antioch, out in one of those subdivisions,” he says after hanging up. “But she’s here with me 90 percent of the time. She cooks most of my food, knows how to prepare my food….

“With congestive heart failure, I have to keep track of how much water I take in. And that’s not just how much I drink, but some foods, too. Watermelon, cantaloupe, lettuce, foods like that, all count against my water intake.”

Sharon – “she’s my backbone” – makes sure he gets what he needs while doctors prepare for leaky heart-valve repair surgery Jimmy forecasts “will clear stuff up.”

“I haven’t played in quite a while. I haven’t felt like it,” says this man who dropped from 173 to 130 or so during his Dec. 1-24 hospitalization that included time in an induced coma while doctors coaxed his fading light to shine again.

“Jimmy Church said he came to see me in the hospital, and I didn’t know it,” says the great drummer, speaking about the protective big brother to Nashville’s R&B scene.

“I haven’t even got one of my drums out to practice on. Need to, but I haven’t felt like it,” he continues, proudly adding he’s regained weight. “I’m up to 151 now.

“Make sure you get one picture of me with a hat on,” he pleads, with a rhythmic laugh. “My head’s too bald right now. I’m known for wearing hats when I play.”

It’s for Church’s outfit that Jimmy wants to unpack kits and hats and resurrect his drumming at the regular Tuesday night R&B jam at Carol Ann’s Home Cooking Café on Murfreesboro Road. For years Church has emceed, showcasing R&B veterans and newcomers for an enthusiastic, highball-hoisting crowd.

As charismatic as any big-band leader, Church does it to help his surviving friends, many of whom have faded from pre-Interstate 40 Jefferson Street club glory into “real” jobs as mechanics, bankers, repo men and barbers. But come Tuesday evenings, they take the stage at the soul-food joint, sweat pouring from their brows, recreating the old-school sound that long ago was the drawing card for Club Baron, New Era, Stealaway, Del Morocco, etc.

Up until his health began deteriorating, this gentle drummer was one of the performers, weekly donning his trademark hat as part of Jimmy Church’s house band of guys who can play behind anyone to any beat and for any song.

The band-leader – The Jimmy Church Band is a favorite of conventioneers and other big spenders across the States and in Europe – says he’ll be happy to have his old friend, Jimmy Otey back. But he’s not going to press it.

Nor is the drummer. “As thin as I am, I don’t want to go out there and have people to say: ‘Look at Jimmy…. He looks bad.’

“I’m pretty self-conscious about the way I look. If I can get back to 170 – I like that weight and I think I look good at that weight … I’m gonna be back at Carol Ann’s. I’m gonna be back at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, where I play the drums.’’

He looks across the den. “One day, God willing, I’ll play again.”