Interview with Wayne Jackson

By: David Adams
Source: Elvis Australia
September 25, 2020

Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley.
Wayne Jackson (November 24, 1941 – June 21, 2016) has played on over 300 Number 1 records. Born in West Memphis, Arkansas, Jackson rose to prominence while still in high school as a member of Stax Records' famed studio band the Mar-Keys, a crew of expert musicians that included guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald 'Duck' Dunn, keyboardist Booker T. Jones, organist Isaac Hayes and saxophonist Andrew Love, Jackson's future Memphis Horns partner. Jackson's love of music began with a guitar but one night his mother came home with a trumpet for her 11 year-old son. By 12th grade Wayne Jackson found himself playing with a group called The Mar-Keys. They had a number one instrumental smash called, 'Last Night'. What followed was a magical ride making music history with Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, all the soul greats.

In 1969, Wayne and sax man, Andrew Love, became 'The Memphis Horns' and found themselves working with a host of stars such as Neil Diamond, Aretha Franklin, B.J. Thomas and -- Elvis Presley.

Q: When did you first meet Elvis?

A: Elvis liked our band, the Mar-Keys, because we had horns. We were an all white band singing rhythm and blues. He was at that time singing 'Teddy Bear', I guess, right at about 60, 61, 62. But he would come out to where we were playing and sit in his car, right behind the bandstand, and listen to the band. We'd go out and talk to him during the breaks. Sometimes we'd go to his house or go somewhere late at night after our gig. So I had a friendship with him as far back as 1960. That was my first experience with him. We were teenagers and we were big little stars. Our first record, 'Last Night' was a #1 record. That was where it started and then over the years there were brief contacts with Elvis through hanging around Memphis and being with other people in Memphis like T.G. Sheppherd or Ronnie Angel. Occasionally, there would be a foray out to his house or something. So there was a contact through the 60's up until Andrew and I recorded with him at American.

Elvis Presley and Wayne Jackson.
Elvis Presley and Wayne Jackson.

Q: How were you notified about the American sessions?

A: Andrew Love and I were just there making records when Elvis came through. We were doing all the records at American studios with Chips Moman, the producer. Andrew and I did all the horn work. We did Neil Diamond, Wilson Pickett, Dionne Warwick. We did everybody over there. At that time, Neil Diamond was more important than Elvis because Neil had a lot of current hit records and he was the big star of the time. Elvis had been doing movies. Let's face it, at that time, to a certain crowd, he wasn't really a musical giant, he was more of a matinee movie star idol. When he came into American we made records. During those sessions, Elvis was welded to a great group of musicians, writers and producers who were all in one spot. There he was face up to it and he was wonderful. He just sang great. I think these sessions took him over into the real genuine big time musical giant that he really was. It was really fun and exciting to have him there.

Q: What was Elvis' attitude during the sessions?

A: I think that was a period in Elvis' time when he was having a pretty good time. He realized that the songs were better than the songs he had had handed to him. The songs were serious. The first time I heard him sing 'In the Ghetto' I was sitting with my horn looking at the music. I hadn't heard any of it yet. We were playing around with it, seeing what was what. When I heard the tune I just really felt slimy all over. I thought, 'Oh My God, this is wonderful. This is it. Elvis is capable of this'. I knew that was going to be a landmark record for Elvis because it was about a very current topic. It was serious, a heavy deal. How serious is 'Teddy Bear' or 'Jailhouse Rock'. You know what I mean? This was serious stuff and I knew that it was pivotal music for him. He did too.

'Suspicious Minds' was a topical subject for him at that time I believe lyrically, and 'In the Ghetto' was a topical subject. We were in the ghetto literally. American Studios was in the worst part of town. Stax, American, and Hi, all three were in the worst part of town. So we were in the ghetto and he had that piece of material, and I think he really felt that. It was a thrill to be involved in those songs knowing in my mind that they were as important to his career as they were. His attitude was great by the way. We were playing poker upstairs and they were cutting tracks downstairs. We would come down and he'd be singing. We'd put the horns in with the track. He liked that. He liked to sing with the horns and hear all that. Sometimes the background vocals would be in the room too.

Q: Did he tell you guys 'I want you to sound like this', or did he let you do your thing?

A: We did our thing. Mike Leech arranged all that horn stuff, so we had the music sitting in front of us. The music was pre-arranged and he just sang, his heart out. He really did enjoy the sessions. There was a lot of laughing. Chips' intentions were to make a hit record, always. He's a genius at that. He did. He proved it.

Q: Do you think he had a sense of that as well?

A: Oh yeah, I really do. Absolutely. I know It.

Elvis Presley at Stax Studios 1973.
Elvis Presley at Stax Studios 1973.

Q: Did you have any contact with him after those sessions?

A: Yes I did. I'm a pilot. I got my first license in 1969. I was flying a lot of the time and started flying as co-pilot of a Lear jet for Ed Wren. Ed married Elvis' cousin, Bobbie Ayers. Linda, my wife at the time, and I flew around with them a good bit. When Elvis first opened at the International Hotel, we took the Lear jet to Vegas. Since Bobbie was Elvis' first cousin, we would always get the table right in front. This would go on for six nights or seven nights in a row. After the show, we'd go back stage to the dressing room and hob nob with Elvis and the rest of the stars who were back there. That went on once or twice a year for several years.

We also went to Elvis' house together too. For a three or four year period, we went to Vegas and during the year we'd go out to Graceland. The times we had fun when we went to the movies late at night. We'd have a caravan of cars and we'd go to the Memphian. At 2 am we'd watch a movie or two. We went to the fairgrounds. That was a lot of fun. We were just a little group. Elvis would want to ride the Zippin' Pippin and we'd all go ride the Pippin. When he was tired of that, we'd all go to the bumper cars and everybody would ride that. This was genuinely fun. People were loosened up much more there than at something like at his house where you were like in his environment. Those were really fun times. We would wait for him. I waited in that big old gnarly jungle chair in there, I sat in that thing, it swallowed me up. We'd get there say at 11 o'clock and he might not come downstairs 'til one. Whenever he felt like it he would finally come downstairs. Everybody was waiting and waiting and watching the staircase.

By the time we were going to Vegas, Elvis was the superstar. He was the King then and he had taken the title for real as opposed to 1969 when we did those sessions and Neil Diamond was the big star of the day. Everybody's opinion of their time around him kinda changed.

Q: When you went to his house, was music involved as far as like gospel singing or anything like that?

A: I never saw anything like that. What we always did was fool around in the kitchen for a little while and walk around drinking Cokes. There was usually a good crowd, 15 or 20 people maybe. They would line the cars up into a caravan at 4, 5, or 6 in the morning. When the movies were over and it was time to go back to Elvis' house, I would always beg out. I'd have to be back in the studio at noon or something so I would beg off and go home and not go back to his house. I missed all that. Now, in retrospect, I wish I hadn't, but I was working, making records. I had to have three or four hours of sleep.

Q: I've heard he would always sit down at the piano and warm up with gospel songs before he did anything with his recording. Did he do any of that?

A: He did at American. He would get his mind focused on the making of the record. He would have the background singers over there and they'd be oohhing and aahhing their parts and he would play the piano.

Elvis Presley at Stax Studios 1973.
Elvis Presley at Stax Studios 1973.

Q: Was he regarded by local musicians, did he count as a Memphis musician? Sometimes you know he fits into Memphis and sometimes Memphis seems to draw the circle with Elvis on the outside.

A: That's interesting. I believe Elvis Presley had a lot to do with a lot of lives. I played guitar as a little boy. Elvis Presley took off when I was 10 years old. He was on the radio and I was close enough to feel the heat at a real impressionable age. I think all of us that lived here and knew about him and later, maybe met him, were touched by the thought that it could be us. You don't ever know when that might happen to a person. I know I was inspired to be in a little band and stay in the music business. If it had been before Elvis, I maybe wouldn't have done it. So, I think he inspired everybody in the city that was close enough to hear the blast.

The black people, I sincerely believe, respect his success. If they don't respect what he sang they respect his success. You have to. Now that his career is over, when you look back at what the great songs were that he sang, he was a truly great singer. He was a great gospel singer because he loved it. But at that particular moment in 1969, because of those films he was in and all the little light flimsy songs he was singing, he wasn't held in high regard by us except for the fact that he was in the movies. That wasn't as impressive as Neil Diamond. But, he took off again and was truly his splendid self. Elvis was the greatest singer in the world but even he couldn't make 'Suspicious Minds' out of 'Teddy Bear'. The same thing with the movies. Elvis is really being Elvis in those movies no matter what his clothes or his name is. I admire him for it. I like that. I wish he'd have gotten a good part. I wish he'd have gotten to prove himself just one time. He could have if he'd have been here long enough. One day someone would have let him play a legitimate role.

Q: Where were you when Elvis had passed away?

A: The day he died I had just flown back into Nashville and pulled up to a Ruby Tuesday. I went in and when the people that I knew from the music business saw me, they jumped up and ran over and pulled me outside, out the front door! I said, 'What in the world is going on?' They said, 'Haven't you heard, don't you know?' 'No, I don't know'. 'Well sit down'. they said, as though I were a family member or something. They told me Elvis had died.

I was moving to Nashville from Memphis myself when I learned Elvis was dead. I thought, 'Well, I'm the last holdout. That's one more thing that is over with for good'. Stax was gone. American was gone. Hi was gone. Al Green wasn't making pop records anymore. Steve Cropper had left town. Reggie Young and Bobby Wood and Bobby Emmons, Chips Moman, all the people from American had left town and I was the last one. They could have turned the lights out. It was all over. Elvis was dead. Otis was dead. It was just over. I was the last guy leaving Memphis. I thought, 'What a shame. This is really the end of this era'.

The man who brought it all into focus and made the world catch on fire with rock and roll was Elvis Presley. He also generated those fires in me and my friends. We all thought we could be like him. Some of us, like me, were lucky enough to get a little piece of that flame. I've had a good life with music. I enjoy it and have a little special feeling for what I do. You can't learn how to do that.

2 CD Set. Elvis At STAX CD

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