Celebrated drummer HOWARD GRIMES died on Saturday 12th February. He was aged 80 and it seems that he’d been in and out of hospital since late January and died of kidney failure in a Memphis hospital. Often described as  “one of the pillars of the Memphis soul sound” and nicknamed “The Bulldog” for his tenacity behind the kit, Grimes’ career lasted almost seven decades. He played an important role in the early days of Stax  but he really made a name at Hi providing the beats for classic albums and singles by Al Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and O.V. Wright and many more. Grimes’ passing was  was confirmed by Scott Bomar, his bandmate in The Bo-Keys who said “He was at peace before he passed . I think what Howard would want people to know about him was that his relationship with his creator, his spiritually, was the most important thing in his life. The second was Memphis music. I think he’s one of the most important drummers in Memphis music and probably in all of music. He is the Memphis beat. The more I got to know Howard and learned his history, Howard’s drumming really is the beat that comes before Stax and Hi and goes on even after.” 

Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, grandson of Hi producer Willie Mitchell and co-owner of Royal Studios posted that Grimes was the foundation of some of Memphis’ most important recordings. “Without Howard, none of those records would be the same. When [Willie] needed something gritty and grimy he would get Howard to do it. The gut bucket driving feel was all Howard. He was a force on the drums and a force in life.” 

Howard Grimes was born in Memphis in 1941 and taught himself drums, securing work with Rufus Thomas aged just 12! He gigged around the Memphis bars and clubs and found session work at Satellite Records that was later to morph into Stax. Amongst many sessions, he played on William Bell’s ‘You Don’t Miss Your Wayer’ and Carla Thomas’ ‘Gee Whiz’. Memphis legend has it  that he was slated to play on the ‘Green Onions’ sessions but didn’t turn up!

He eventually found work with Willie Mitchell at the Royal Studios where he became the main drummer, playing on countless Hi recordings. In his biography, aptly called ‘The Timekeeper’, Grimes recalled that “When I first came to Willie I had played with so many different bands, and the tempos were sliding ahead. The day I came to play for him I started off running. He stopped me: ‘Slow down — we’re gonna all get there at the same time.’ He was so laid back.”

In his book, Grimes suggests that he made little money at Hi: “I worked to make everybody else rich. When it was time for me to get something, I got nothing. I went through a lot of incidents but it didn’t bother me because I had Jesus Christ with me. I’m free and I’m happy and I’m at peace.” 

After the Hi label was sold and sessions dried up, Grimes began to struggle. He fell into a tailspin of addiction that eventually found him divorced, homeless and near death. It was then, Grimes said, that God spoke to him and granted him a second chance.

His bio again: “I was dying and I had this out-of-body experience, man . I got up and I was in a dark cave and I saw a light through this tunnel. And I heard a voice say, ‘Walk to the light.’ It was so bright I couldn’t see. When I got all the way down, I saw this figure standing with a white robe and he had his arms out. I couldn’t see his face. It was like the sun giving a light out. But I walked up into his arms. He said, ‘You have obeyed me well. I am sending you back.'”

Howard Grimes eventually worked with other members of the Hi band as “Hi Rhythm” and later worked with retro R&B band, The Bo-Keys.