Bama-Lam! Alabama's Drumming Legend
by Allen Smith, July 2000
What do Leon Russell, Delbert McClinton, Ronnie Hawkins, and Willie Nelson have in common? How about Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and John Denver? Other than being great musicians, they've all utilized the drumming sounds of Jerry Carrigan on their recordings.
Jerry Carrigan, who hails from Florence, Alabama, was one of the busiest and most in-demand session drummers in Nashville for over twenty-five years. He played on literally hundreds of country, pop, rock, and R&B classics. Read on to learn more about the life and times of this legendary drummer.
Gritz: I wanted to start out asking you about some of the first songs you can remember being interested in? What songs fascinated you when you were a teenager or when you started getting interested in music?
Carrigan: Oh man, the Smiley Lewis things. "I Hear You Knockin' But You Can't Come In." Little Richard records. I loved Little Richard records. Jerry Lee Lewis records. I was fascinated by the thumping drum sound.Russell Smith played drums live with Jerry Lee. He didn't play on the records. He was nice to us kids and he even gave me a couple of drum heads one time and showed me how he played that old thumping sound. I loved Earl Palmer. He played drums on all the Little Richard records. I liked Fats Domino. Chuck Berry of course.
That was the first stuff I was really crazy about. I was already playing drums, but I knew that was the way I wanted to play, you know, that kind of feel. I was into it, man. I tried every way I knew to make it work and finally I figured out how to do it - a little bit! I also loved the early stuff that came from New York. Garnett Mims. And all that Atlantic stuff back then. Big Joe Turner. Solomon Burke. I liked Gary Chester [New York session drummer]. I listened to him a lot. Stole a lot from him. Moved it around some and "Carrigan-ized" it!
Gritz: Did you play in high school?
Carrigan: I played in the junior high school band, and the high school band, and the college band, and the ROTC band.
Gritz: You were playing whatever the band had?
Carrigan: Yeah. Snare drum, bass drum, tympani, cymbals. You had to play it all.
Gritz: Then you got the rock and roll bug, I guess.
Carrigan: Oh man, I got it so bad it was unbelievable. It bit me hard, boy. It bit us all hard. In that high school band our cadence was actually made up of a fill that Earl Palmer did on a Fats Domino record. Mike Shephard and myself and Donnie Fritts and Randy Allen -- we made this cadence up. To learn to play it man we had to record the Fats Domino thing on a tape recorder that I had and then slow it down to half speed to figure out what he was playing. I always loved that cadence. I loved the New Orleans records. Ernie K-Doe. Allan Toussaint. I was into all that stuff.
Gritz: So did you buy 45s?
Carrigan: Yeah, I did and wore them out playing to them.
Gritz: Were there very many record stores there in Florence?
Carrigan: Yeah, there were quite a few record shops around. We'd look through the 45s and get the latest Elvis, Jerry and Little Richard. All those things.
And I liked Burt Bacharach. Norbert (Putnam) and David (Briggs) and myself loved that stuff. We liked to play that kind of stuff.
Gritz: I remember that all the Muscle Shoals guys liked Burt Bacharach.
Carrigan: We were crazy about him. We went to New York at an early age with Tommy Roe. And we went up there and stayed two weeks with him, played the Brooklyn Fox Theatre for Murray the K's Christmas show. We would go to the record shops up there and buy all these cool Bacharach things. So we were on to that rhythm and on to that kind of sound long before it became popular or hits you know. Which we thought was cool, you know, nobody was doing that down here. We tried to incorporate a little bit of that into our playing, which I think we did rather successfully. I can't really throw any names of records out but I can assure you there were some inputs there.
Gritz: What's so great about Bacharach - why musicians like him - is that he approached things differently. His songs all had a little different twist to them.
Carrigan: That's exactly right. Different time signatures and just different ways to play pop music. To us that's what it was, and we tried to incorporate that into the R&B thing, you know what I mean. Make a little twist in it. We thought it was great and I guess other people did too. They seemed to buy the records.
Gritz: The idea of mixing different influences Ü I think that's why you and those other Muscle Shoals guys were so successful. Because you brought a lot of different influences.
Carrigan: I believe you're right there. I really do. I think we were blessed and fortunate to have done that and been able to do it. Had the wherewithal to do it. I don't know. I just always enjoyed experimenting.
Gritz: I think you said that you did your first sessions when you were thirteen or fourteen.
Carrigan: Thirteen. Up in Nashville.
Gritz: Oh really? Who was that for?
Carrigan: I played with a little band called "Little Joe Allen and the Offbeats". Man, I've still got the record. It's awful (laughs).
Gritz: So you guys just rode up there.
Carrigan: Yeah, my daddy took us up there in the station wagon. My daddy was a big promoter of me, bless his heart, he really helped me in music. He promoted me.
Gritz: Did he play?
Carrigan: No, he couldn't play at all. But he loved it. He booked our band and made sure we got our money. And I was only thirteen so he had to go with me. We played honky-tonks. A thirteen year old can't go in a honky-tonk. But I did! I tell you it was wild, man!
Gritz: So you did your first Nashville session at thirteen. And then you went back home and kept on playing locally.
Carrigan: Yeah, went back home and kept playing locally. James Joiner and Kelso Hurston. Those guys they would use me on sessions on the weekends.
Gritz: And where did you do those?
Carrigan: We'd do those at James [Joiner]'s bus station on Saturdays and Sundays.
Gritz: A bus station?!
Carrigan: It was a bus station. James owned it. On the weekends we'd go in and move all the stuff out of the way and record. Then later on we went down to WJOI radio station down by the Indian Mounds. We'd go down there on Sundays and cut. Then James bought a building on Court Street and we'd go up there and record upstairs.
Gritz: I'm not familiar with James Joiner. Was he a player or singer?
Carrigan: He was one of the original music pioneers down here. He wrote "A Fallen Star" recorded by Bobby Denton. He was good buddies with Sonny James and we'd go off on the weekends and play with Sonny James. James picked me up in a big Cadillac - man I thought I was something!
Gritz: What years was that?
Carrigan: Late fifties.
Gritz: So he just happened to be recording, and you just got into it from that?
Carrigan: Yeah. Number one, I was one of the few guys that had a set of drums in Florence, Alabama. Ed Goodwin had some drums and I had some drums. I was younger than Ed and I played different from Ed. Ed was more obligated and he couldn't get off and play like I could. I was just a kid. So I got to work and they liked my playing. And the Lord gave me good rhythm and timing, and I was always able to do it pretty well. And they used me and I started doing the Tom Stafford stuff over the old city drug store.
Gritz: Is he the guy that owned the drug store?
Carrigan: His daddy owned the drug store and he was manager of the Princess Theatre. That's how we got to go to the movies from time to time! And we cut Arthur Alexander up there. "Sally Sue Brown." He went by June Alexander back then - Arthur Alexander Jr. - they called him June. I spent many hours down here [Florence/Muscle Shoals] doing recordings. I remember one time we did thirteen sides for Huey Meaux for sixty-five dollars. Isn't that pitiful?
Gritz: Was that the going rate?
Carrigan: I don't think we had a going rate. We were kids and we were starving to be in the business and make a living playing music. That's all we wanted to do but we had to figure out how to make a living doing it.
Gritz: So, you're about 18-19 years old. Were you out of school?
Carrigan: I was in college at that time. We'd already cut all of Tommy Roe's stuff and we were proven hit makers. Ray Stevens and all those guys were coming down. And they were courting us to move to Nashville. Joe South and all the guys from Atlanta were coming over and everybody wanted us to move to Nashville. So [pianist David] Briggs and I departed. Took off.
Gritz: You were just getting to the age where you wanted to branch out?
Carrigan: Well, we had obligations you know. We had bills to pay and mouths to feed. We had to go where there was money to be made. And those guys that were coming down here -they thought we could make a great living if we went up there, so we just took a chance and did it.
Gritz: So you got to Nashville. I'm sure you weren't readily accepted.
Carrigan: I was not accepted not by the whole music populace. Not by any means.
Gritz: You were quoted as saying that you played shuffles a little differently. And the other players that were already doing sessions didnÍt like the way you played.
Carrigan: They didn't like that shuffle at all. But they said shuffle and I played shuffle! Dotted eighths and sixteenths. What they wanted was triplets with the middle one gone. Lazy shuffle I call it. Nice shuffle. Country shuffle. When I finally figured out how to play it I learned how to play it pretty well. I liked to play it.
Gritz: So it got to the point where they more or less accepted you guys.
Carrigan: Yeah man, but there was a long little initiation there. There were some strange things going on. I'd come back from lunch break and there'd be notes on my drums. "Go Home." "We don't need you." "Go back to Muscle Shoals." Just all this stuff. Little notes laid on my drums.
Gritz: The story is that Owen Bradley was noticing that the other musicians were doing little tricks to throw you guys off.
Carrigan: It was me! I was the only new one in there. It was me and Grady Martin and Bob Moore and Ray Edenton and Floyd Cramer. And Owen finally said, "Now listen guys, that drummer is Jerry Carrigan. He's a friend of mine. I hired him cause I like the way he plays and he's playing what I want him to play. I suggest y'all play with him or I'll ask you all to leave and he and I will finish the session." That's exactly what he said. And I never will forget it. He just took up for me. Owen was a wonderful man. And I loved to work for him. He was pretty exacting. Had to be right. But it ought to be right!
Gritz: From then on the problems began to go away?
Carrigan: The problems began to go away after that because word had spread that Owen had said that.
Gritz: Said you were ok?
Carrigan: ...and the record was a big hit. It was "The Bridge Washed Out" by Warner Mack. I was just playing one of those in-between shuffles. Just playing some bass drum stuff and they just wanted to mess with me you know. Cause I didn't know how to play country music when I went up there. Didn't know anything about it.
But I tell you, when I got up there I was surprised. Those musicians were great. They just didn't make a lot of mistakes. It was so fast it was unbelievable. They were real pros and they were fast. And you had to learn to be fast.
Gritz: How did you develop your recording technique?
Carrigan: It was trial and error. I had to figure out how to tune my drums and how to muffle my drums for them to mike them and record them to make them sound the way I thought they were going to sound. You had to learn how to play a little bit quieter because they didn't have a lot of baffling and they didn't want all that leakage.
I tell you I practiced a lot too, man. I used to go over to Bob Beckham's little studio there in the back of his Combine Music building. I'd practice and tape for hours. Changing drum heads and tuning them this way and tuning them that way. I wanted to know how to do that stuff that I could hear in my head. By George, I finally figured it out but it just took hard work. I had to get it to translate through the microphone -- I don't know how to explain that. It was a real art, and man I'm going to tell you it took me a long time to learn how to do it, but when I did people loved it. They really did.
And I'd take my drums [to sessions] a lot. Back in those days there was no cartage, man. Buddy Harman had drums at most of the studios. I had drums at a few and it was pretty rough. Every now and then if it was something special you'd take your pet set or whatever. I liked to play my own stuff. Like when we did the Tony Joe White stuff I'd bring my own drums. I didn't use the drums that were in the studio.
Gritz: You also had to be able to play and have it nailed within two or three tries, right?
Carrigan: Pretty well, yes. Because a lot of times they'd have a string section, horns, voices, everything there. All at the same time. And they also had charts and I knew how to read which was a plus. It got me lots of work. That and my sound. I'm not bragging. I'm just telling the truth. They liked my sound. It's hard for me to toot my horn!
Gritz: But if you know it's from a lot of hard work, there's nothing wrong with that.
Carrigan: Well, it was from hard work. I'll assure you it didn't just come flying through the window at me. And I'm glad it didn't. It was fun. Experimenting was fun. I beat on everything. Boxes. Put microphones up inside of boxes and played brushes on them and it sounds great. I've done that on records. Played on my knees. Take a Styrofoam or paper cup and scratch it across your whiskers for a shaker. All kinds of stuff. It sounds good. It's music.
Gritz: For a number of years, you were doing about 90 percent of RCA's Nashville sessions. When was that?
Carrigan: That was in the mid sixties through the early seventies.
Gritz: Were you ever intimidated in the studio?
Carrigan: The first time I played with Jerry Lee Lewis scared me. I was young -- 22 or something like that. I got up on that set of drums and he looked at me and said "Can you rock, Killer?" I said "I don't know" and he said "We'll see." He started playing this thing real fast and, man, I mean he was gettin' it. But he liked my playing. We cut "Baby Hold Me Close" on Smash. And I played on a bunch of stuff with him after that. Country stuff, and all kinds of stuff. "What Made Milwaukee Famous Made A Loser Out of Me." "Middle Aged Crazy."
Gritz: What other types of music did you listen to? If you recorded country all day you probably didn't want to listen to any more at home!
Carrigan: I never listened to country. Never did. I listened to Johnny Taylor stuff. All the R&B things. I had all the Otis Redding records. Just about all the Stax artist's records. And I listened to Paul Butterfield Blues Band. That's what I listened to at home. And I liked that style of music and that feel and I'd try to put that into country when I could. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it wouldn't. You had to change it a little bit. I tried to assert myself a little bit. It was fun.
Gritz: What other session musicians did you like?
Carrigan: On guitar, I liked Reggie Young's playing. And I liked Joe South's playing. He played some great stuff. I used to love Jerry Kennedy's playing. Jerry Reed. He's a great player. Country bass players -- I liked Junior Huskey, Bob Moore, and Henry Strzelecki. Piano players -- I loved David [Briggs]'s playing always. Still do. He's a great player. I can almost pick him out immediately. Hargus "Pig" Robbins. Floyd Cramer.
Gritz: What about Dan Penn? I really liked a lot of his songs.
Carrigan: Oh, man, Dan Penn and I go back to teenage years. When he was 17 I was probably about 14 or 15. He used to come up here and he'd stay over at the house and we'd play music. He was just super. He didn't play anything back then - he just sang. He learned to play guitar after he moved to Nashville. But Spooner [Oldham], he'd play the piano and do the chords and they'd write. Dan was a great singer. I played in bands with him for years - Dan Penn and the Pallbearers. Those were good days. Music and fun.
Gritz: So he was a big influence on you?
Carrigan: Oh, yeah. He was really into black music. He wrote "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man" and "Dark End of the Street." We did demos together when I was a kid. I thought they were all hits.
Gritz: You were telling me about doing Elvis sessions with Al Jackson [Stax session drummer].
Carrigan: We were down in Memphis at the Stax studios. We were in there, man, and the first thing that happened was when Al Jackson played there they rolled his bar out. He had a bar and he had a key to it to lock it. And he had gin and lots of stuff in there. And Felton [Jarvis - Elvis's producer] ran over and said "Hey, Al, we just can't have that in here." And Al says "Wait a minute. I work in here usually five or six days a week -- every week. And today is no different for me. This is my bar and I'm having a drink. Do any of you other boys want a drink?"
And then we get past that and have a drink. And later that night they put this demo on. Something about "two cornfields and three cotton patches" or something like that. And it plays and old Al was listening to it and he looked over there at me and just handed me the drumsticks and he said "Have at it brother! I can't play this. Hell, man, I was raised on chitlins. I can't play that bullshit!"
And I said "Oh, come on Al. Play that tight shuffle like you play and do some of those crazy fills." But he did it, man, he played it! He scared them to death with some of those fills he played. It was great, man - he played the dog out of it! The next night he didn't even show up. He didn't dig it.
Gritz: Al Jackson was into big band stuff, right?
Carrigan: Yeah, his daddy was a big band leader. And he played that stuff. And I got him to play me what he played on [Albert King's] "Crosscut Saw." He was hitting the bass drum and the high hat on the backbeats. He just played around his set. His set was tuned up tight. And he turned his snares off and he played that Rodgers snare with his billfold laid up it on like he always had. And he used those little drumsticks and played the butt end of them. But he played his cymbals soft and played his snare drum loud. I mean loud loud. Al was a great drummer. And also he told me when I was down there on that trip, "I'll tell you what we should do. You could come to Memphis and stay a week with me at my house and go to work with me every day and you could learn. And I'll come to Nashville and stay a week with you at your house and go to work with you every day and I'll learn. We'll learn from each other." And then right after that he got killed.
Gritz: Tell me about playing with [guitarist] James Burton.
Carrigan: One time we were out with John Denver. We were going on a long flight from Austin, Texas, to Montreal, Canada. And James Burton got his acoustic guitar out. Everybody else had gone to sleep. And he serenaded me for hours. He played the solo to [Ricky Nelson's] "Hello Mary Lou." I had that record when I was a kid and I wore the grooves out on his solo and I had to buy another record! And he played beautiful stuff and then funky stuff. For hours this went on.
Another time with John Denver we were over in Italy. And it was cold as the dickens over there. And we'd play these outdoor concerts in these ruins of old castles and these outdoor amphitheaters. Man, we'd play in winter coats. I looked over one night and there was [pianist] Glenn D. Hardin playing piano with gloves on but he just had the ends of his fingers cut out. It was freezing cold, man.
Gritz: How could James Burton play guitar in that cold?
Carrigan: James did it. Where there's a will there's a way and he has the will. This man never wanted to take a day off. We'd be out there working and John would say "Well, we're going to go to Chicago and take 3-5 days off." We were just going to play golf and enjoy Chicago. But James comes up and he says "Hey man, talk to Voodoo [John Denver's roadie] and get him to bring your snare and some brushes up to your room and we'll get together and play." I said "James, I'm tired man, I've been playing [on the road] for a week or ten days and I want to play a little golf." And he said "Man, c'mon, let's play." He never, ever wanted to stop playing. And I really admired him for it, but doggonit, there was a time to stop.
John wanted us to have this recreation out on the road which I thought was a great idea. But the recreation they chose was softball. They asked whether I wanted to play and I said "No man, I don't have a glove, and I make a living with my hands, so I really don't want to catch balls with my hands." I said "John, I'm telling you, somebody's going to get hurt at this game and we need to think about this." He said "Aw, no, this is great, we'll play softball." And all this softball playing was going on when we were out in Denver. And I'm out playing golf and they're playing softball. Well, a ball hit poor old James Burton on the side of the head. And he looked like a jack-o-lantern that night - the side of his head sticking out. But he never missed a lick -he was just struttin' and playin' with his head all swollen. And after that John changed the sport to golf!
Gritz: Jerry, you've been very successful. When you were a kid you never thought you'd be doing all these things, did you?
Carrigan: Of course not! Here I was beating on an old banjo of my granddaddy's with a brush taped to it to make the snare sound and boxes to make the tom-toms. I made myself a bass drum pedal out of wood and a spring and some tape with some cotton balls. And I had old records that were a quarter of an inch thick - old Edison records - they were my cymbals. And I made my cymbal stands. I just put a nail on top of a stick I had my little drums back then. And my mother and daddy knew I was serious then so they bought me some drums!