On March 12, 2008, a homeless man walked into a super market in Biloxi, Mississippi. He was able to scrape up enough money to purchase a sandwich. An overall rotten economy, a massive hurricane and maybe a little bad luck left a very talented musician in a place that, sadly, many residents of the gulf coast and Americans everywhere found themselves in the first few years of the new millennium. When he set his modest purchase on the checkout stand and was doling out change to the cashier he allowed a faint smile to pierce his lips. He looked up toward the ceiling from where the piped in music was playing the Sam and Dave classic, Hold on I’m Coming. He didn’t bother to tell the cashier, who was bouncing her head to the music, that it is his tenor sax that could be heard on that famous recording.
It wasn’t long before Joe Arnold was back on his feet again. Arnold’s saxophone has been heard by virtually every person in America and by people all over the globe. He has however been photo shopped, air brushed and edited out of history.
On April 22, 2013, I received an email through the BLUES JUNCTION website. It was from Joe Arnold. He was thoughtful and kind enough to mention he was touched by the appreciation I wrote last year on two of his former colleagues, fellow tenor sax man, Andrew Love and bassist, Donald “Duck” Dunn. The piece entitled, Sweet Soul Music: The End of an Era discussed the legacies of those two recently departed musicians. I also wrote about the iconic recordings at the Stax studios in Memphis in which both men, along with Joe Arnold, made significant contributions. I referenced several musicians in the piece. I didn’t however mention the name Joe Arnold. This oversight on my part as it turns out, is a common one.
In the email, Joe gave me a very small introduction to himself letting me know some of his recording credits. The fact is I already knew of Joe Arnold as southern soul music is one of my passions. I have been listening to his music and reading his name on the back of record albums since I was a kid.
Joe and I then began a series of phone conversations that have taken place several times a week over the past few months. We have talked about a great many subjects, not the least of which is his journey through America’s musical landscape. So from Mississippi’s Gulf Coast to California’s Pacific Coast, an image of a man has begun to emerge from the shadows. As Arnold puts it in his southern drawl, “I am kind of like the Forest Gump of the music business. I was there man. You can look it up.”
I did. He was. There is an old saying, “History belongs to those who write it.” Literally volumes have been written on the musicians, producers and recording engineers who interacted with Joe. There are numerous documentary films that have been made over the years on these same subjects. It seems that virtually everyone associated with these recordings has been discussed and interviewed many times over...except Joe Arnold.
That's about to change.
David Mac (DM): Where are you from Joe?
Joe Arnold (JA): I was born February 16, 1945 in Shelby County Mississippi. The place where we lived was called Snake Creek. It was in the Delta, way out in the country. We then moved to Charleston, Mississippi. We lived just outside of town in a house with land where we had some poultry and grew some vegetables. My Dad worked as a butcher. My Mother and I would pick cotton. She made me a bag out of a potato sack.
DM: When did you move to Memphis?
JA: We moved to Memphis when I was five years old. My Dad got a job at International Harvester pulling parts for shipment. We lived on New Orleans Street in South Memphis.
DM: What were some of your earliest encounters with music?
JA: I had an old guitar with one string on it. I sat and played it for hours. In the 5th grade, I signed up in the school band to play drums so I would not have to sing in the choir. I quickly changed to playing clarinet. By the time I was a freshman at South Side High School, I was playing first chair clarinet. In the tenth grade I fell in love with the saxophone.
DM: What initially attracted you to the saxophone?
JA: I saw Charlie Chalmers playing with The Green Twins at a school assembly. Charlie is the guy who played the sax solo on Wilson Pickett's Funky Broadway. They played Tumbling Tumble Weeds at that assembly.
I would later end up on that same stage playing sax with a band wearing a gorilla mask. It was at a pep rally for a football game. When I came on stage it brought the house down. I am up there on stage blowin’ my horn, doin’ the twist and wearing a gorilla mask.
DM: (laughing) I’m sorry I missed that.
JA: My life changed that day.
JA: I had always been kind of shy. I still am I suppose, but on that day I became this kind of a cool kid overnight. That was a big deal for me. People would come up to me in the halls at school and talk to me.
DM: What were some of your early experiences playing out in public?
JA: I played in a couple of different bands in South Memphis. But the bass player in one of the bands took me to East Memphis where we formed the LeSabres Combo.
The LeSabres were very well known in East Memphis. We had a couple of records released on an independent label called, RCT Records. I recently found one of our recordings on the internet. Laddie Hutcherson the guitar player and I used to hang out outside local clubs in South Memphis. We weren't old enough to get in. That's where I first met the drummer, Al Jackson, Jr. He was with the Willie Mitchell Band at the Manhattan Club on Hwy 51. We would listen through an open door. They would come outside on breaks so we could hang out together. That is when I first noticed how a band could control their volume and still have punch.
Another club we went to was Lil' Abner's Rebel Room on Hwy 51 South. They would let us sit in the back booth. That's the first time I saw Gene Parker playing sax. Also in the band was bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and trumpeter Wayne Jackson. On the breaks Gene would go over to a table and sit next to this beautiful woman. I would later be playing sax on that same bandstand and married the woman he was sitting with.
Then I decided to go to college and ward off being drafted. After about six months of playing six nights a week at Lil' Abner's Rebel Room and going to school full time I had to drop out of school. That's when I married Sue, who had two kids. That lowered my draft status even further. It wasn't long after that I starting playing with Duck and Wayne at Hernando's Hideaway.
At Lil' Abner's there was a black piano player named Robert Talley who became one of my mentors. He turned me on to every jazz saxophonist there was and gave me albums to listen to.
DM: Do you remember some of the players he exposed you to?
JA: Gene Ammons comes immediately to mind. He was, and still is, one of my favorites. Although it was Bill Doggett’s stuff that set me down the path. When I first heard Honky Tonk Parts 1 & 2 that was it... I pretty much knew what I would be doing for the rest of my life.
DM: Did you have any formal musical training?
JA: While I was in college at Memphis State University, I majored in music. I learned about the principles and the dynamics of playing the saxophone, which was mainly learning about control and tone. I also took music theory and piano so I would have some knowledge on the fundamentals of chord progressions and could apply that knowledge to playing my sax. I was pretty busy back then. It seems like I was doing everything but sleep. I did pass all my classes though.
DM: How did you get hooked up with Stax Records?
JA: I was having lunch one day with my wife, Sue, at Lil' Abner's. She was a waitress there. Duck came by and told me to go get my sax and be at the Stax studios in thirty minutes. I was barely 20 years old. This was in 1965.
DM: Memphis in 1965 was a town full of sax players. Why do you suppose they called you?
JA: By this time I had played with Booker T & the M.G.s on a few dates out of town. They had a hit song called, Bootleg that had a sax on it. It wasn’t me but they had me play it on some gigs with them. This was when Lewis Steinberg was still on bass. Steve (Cropper) and I were the only two white dudes in the band, so we would room together. He was the “A and R” guy over at the studio and we had a mutual friend in Duck, who was doing sessions over there. I am sure all these things had something to do with why I got the call to do that particular session.
DM: Do you remember what session it was?
JA: It was with Otis (Redding). I don’t recall the song. This was very cool because I could remember Duck and Wayne telling me how much everybody liked working with him. They had already cut a couple of sides with him at that point. They’d say, “He’s coming in today.” Everybody would get really excited when Otis came into the studio.
DM: Let me get my mind around this for a moment, Joe. You are twenty years old and your first work in the studio as a side man is with Otis Redding. I mean that’s like a kid putting on a football helmet for the first time and walking onto the field during the Super Bowl. Did you find that experience just a little bit intimidating?
JA: Not really. Looking back on it, I admit I was pretty green but I was also a little cocky. You have to remember we were all young. Granted, I was the youngest but I knew most of the players. I had played with most of the guys before of course. Also Andrew (Love) was relatively new to Stax as was Issac (Hayes). You also have to remember Dave, Otis wasn’t a big star at that particular moment.
DM: That was about to change. Do you recall who was on that particular session?
JA: It was all the usual suspects. Floyd Newman was on baritone sax along with Wayne on trumpet and Andrew and myself playing tenor. The rhythm section was Booker T. and the M.G.s of course. Duck had been doing session work for Stax for some time but he just recently replaced Lewis Steinberg as the full time bass player in the M.G.s. I played sessions there every day for the next two plus years.
DM: What was the day to day operation like in the studio?
JA: We would come in around ten in the morning, five days a week and the session would break up around four or five. The situation would vary depending on who was singing. Jim Stewart was the president of the company. He was pretty hands on. Steve was his right hand man. We cut everything live and most of the stuff we could get on the first take. If anything had to be done over it usually had something to do with the vocals. The Sam and Dave sessions might get bogged down a little because they were on the road a lot in those days. Sometimes they would come in off a tour and their voices would be pretty shot. On the Sam and Dave stuff, Isaac Hayes took the lead and was pretty much in charge of those sessions.
DM: There are many things that make those records so good but what makes a Stax records instantly recognizable for me anyway is the drumming of Al Jackson, Jr.
JA: That’s right. Al was the best musician on the floor. He played on all the stuff man. He is as responsible for that sound as anybody. In my opinion he, along with Isaac Hayes and Floyd Newman, were the best musicians in the studio. I don’t think Floyd gets nearly enough credit for his contributions at Stax.
DM: This leads us to the part of the musical equation I think is most closely associated with the Stax sound, the horn section and the great horn arrangements in which you were such an important part. Let’s talk about that.
JA: Normally, on the horn lines we figured out our own harmony parts unless Isaac or someone had something they wanted us to play in particular. Otis would often come in with his own ideas. Whatever we did we would get a fat, fat sound. If we had a baritone player he would be on the bottom note in the structure of the chord we were playing the phrase in. The trumpet would usually be on top and the two tenors, one would have the third and the other tenor would play the minor seventh. This is the voicing that we used, which is a block harmony. Like in the chop lines in the verses of Hold On I'm Coming. The structure in the Key of A Flat: would be a combination of One, Three, Minor Seven (notes). (A Flat- C - F Sharp). The tenors were on the lower notes and the trumpet on top or in the middle.
DM: In some cases you had just the three horns like on Albert King’s material for instance.
JA: That’s pretty good for just three horns. It was just me and Wayne and Andrew. We had just the three of us in Europe. We got a pretty fat sound over there for three horns. We recorded lots of stuff with just the three of us. Personally, I would have liked to have Floyd’s baritone in there more, but if they thought they could get away with just the three of us, well we had to make it work. I think we made it work OK.
DM: (laughs) yea I think that’s a pretty safe assumption Joe. I don’t think anyone has ever said about a Stax record, “Yeah, that was a cool tune except for the horns.” You made it work in a big way. Stax was just your day job though. You told me you were also working nights. Let’s talk about that.
JA: I was playing six nights a week at a place called, Hernando’s Hideaway.
DM: What kind of music were you playing?
JA: Rhythm and blues! We did a lot of shuffles. We had this drummer named Billy Adams. He could do that double hand shuffle. We had Duck on bass, Lee Atkins on guitar, me and Wayne as the horn section. Every now and then we’d bring a keyboard in. Sometimes Charlie Rich would sit in with us. He was a real good piano player. We played six nights a week until we split for Europe in 1967.
DM: Much has already been written about the famous Stax/Volt European Tour but what are your personal recollections and thoughts as it relates to this historic tour.
JA: First off they sent us all over to Lansky’s to get fitted for custom suits to wear. That was pretty cool because Lansky’s was the place to go for clothes in Memphis. He was on Beale Street in those days. Everybody who was anybody in the music business would get their suits there. Bernard (Lansky) would tell everybody he fitted Elvis for his first suit.
DM: ...and ten years later his last.
JA: That’s right. He fitted me for two suits, one emerald green and the other powder blue. They had a satin finish.
DM: Now I’m sorry that most of the film footage of you guys is in black and white.
JA: Yeah, we were quite a sight. Speaking of fashion, there was kind of a hippie thing going on over there in Europe that believe me we didn’t have happening in Memphis in those days. I don’t think we ever had that going on. These people were wearing all these mod fashions with beads and stuff like that. I never saw anything like that before. We were very well received in Europe. The crowds were great. I remember thinking when I got back that I never really saw Europe.
DM: What do you mean?
JA: They just kept us moving from place to place so quickly. I would look out of the rear window of the car and say to myself, ‘Well, there goes the Eiffel Tower.’ It was a real whirlwind.
DM: After one of our conversations the other day Joe, I put on the Back to Back album with the M.G.s and the Mar-keys which, at that time, was you along with Andrew and Wayne on horns. I then put on the Otis Redding Live in Paris. What strikes me about those shows was how hard you guys were hitting it. The tempos were so fast. Even right out of the shoot with the concert opener, Green Onions it was fast, fast, fast.
JA: That’s Al. It wasn’t unusual for live performances in those days to have that kind of kick to it. It is kind of interesting because we played together live in the studio of course, but that was the first time we all played in front of a live audience. We got better as the tour went on. By the time we were into it a couple of weeks we were killing it.
The horns were on stage for almost all but the handful of M.Gs’ numbers. The singers would come on and off, but Steve, Duck, Booker T and Al were there the whole time. Al was crushing it the entire time. By the time we would walk off the stage he was dripping wet from head to toe. It was the same with Otis. You have to remember that guy had to come on after Sam and Dave. That’s a tough act to follow. He was working it hard, let me tell you.
DM: You were playing in front of huge sold out crowds in some big concert halls. I suspect nobody on that stage played in front of crowds that big.
JA: ...and that was every night. All I got out of that was two thousand dollars.
DM: Don’t forget the suits.
JA: (laughs) That’s right. Stax gave me a two thousand dollar check when I left so my family would get by while I was gone. Even back then it wasn’t much considering we were over there for over a month.
DM: When you got back to Memphis you quit the company. Why?
JA: I left for several reasons that made sense to me at the time. I was really young and green, man. All I wanted to do was keep learning and keep playing in different musical situations.
DM: Joe, I appreciate all of that and can understand but I sense there was something more than that. Am I wrong?
JA: No, you’re right, there was. With all the success of the European tour and all the notoriety that came with that, I sensed there were some egos that were starting to assert themselves and I wasn’t very good at that kind of thing. I always felt like I would always be overshadowed by some of the other personalities. I knew I was a good musician. I just try and let my horn do my talking for me.
DM: So you are saying you aren’t very good at blowing your own horn and yet are very good at blowing your own horn. I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.
JA: (laughs) I guess that’s a good way to put it.
DM: As it turned out you were at Stax at the absolute apex of the label’s creativity and on board for many of their most famous and enduring recordings.
JA: You are absolutely right. As it turned out, it peaked right there with the European tour. Right after I left, their association with Atlantic Records came to an end and Al Bell began asserting himself more. Within just a few months after I left, Otis was dead. It was so tragic. A lot of people will tell you it was never the same after that.
DM: Otis wasn’t alone on that plane either.
JA: Thank you very, very much for mentioning that Dave. Those guys with Otis often get overlooked and not even mentioned at all sometimes. They were very young dudes too, by the way. Otis had just hired these guys to play on the road with him. We were his studio band, playing on his records and they were his road band. They were Phalon Jones, Ronnie Caldwell, Carl Cunningham and Jimmie King. The trumpet player Ben Cauley survived. I’ve played with Ben. That’s got to be a pretty heavy thing to live with. Not a single one of those guys that died ever saw their twentieth birthday.
DM: Not to discount all the great artists you worked with at Stax who include some of the names you mentioned as well as Eddie Floyd, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Don Covey, Mabel John, The Staple Singers, Johnny Taylor and others, but I have gathered from our conversations that there was something very special about Otis Redding.
JA: There were a lot of things, Dave. He was like he had all this raw, pure emotion inside him and when he sang it came pouring out. He had this stature, this presence and had confidence that he knew what he was doing. He’d come into the studio and make anybody that didn't have anything to do with the band leave and he’d lock the door. We recorded everything live. It was quite an experience. He worked us like we were a set of mules. He knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it from the players. He had all these ideas in his head. I remember him coming to the horn section and vocalizing the horn parts as to what he wanted us to play. We played what he wanted and it worked. His voice was just amazing of course. He also had this huge stage presence combined with that dynamic quality in his voice. God, he could knock a wall down in the back of the room if he wanted, but he also had control. Yea, Otis was special.
DM: Stax wasn’t the only game in town in those days.
JA: That’s right there were several record companies and recording studios including Hi Records where Al Green, O.V .Wright and Ann Peebles recorded. They also did rockabilly records over there. Joe Coughi was the owner. He also owned Pop Tunes, a record store on Poplar Ave. He would pay you fifteen dollars a side for a recording session. A Union recording session contract would pay $60 a session for a side man. You would have to go by the Union and pick up the session check. Then you had to go by Pop Tunes and meet with Joe Coughi in his office upstairs over the record store. He kept a list on every musician and what recordings they played on. If you had only recorded on four sides for that period, you would have to endorse the check and give it to him and he would give you forty five dollars back in cash. I guess you could call it a kickback. If you wanted to play on recording sessions at Hi Records, that's the way it was. Usually when I cashed my check I would go downstairs and purchase jazz albums. I know it sounds crazy but I would spend up to a third of my paycheck on records.
DM: He’s got you coming and going, Joe. Do you remember what you were picking up on in those days at the record store?
JA: I do. Anything with a saxophone on it...I was like a sponge. There was David “Fathead” Newman with Ray Charles, Maceo Parker with James Brown, and Junior Walker who was working up at Motown in those days. Years later he came through town with his band and he called me up to the stage to play with him. It turns out he was digging the stuff I was playing down here at Stax, while I was listening to his music at Motown. I also dug the jazz greats like Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Ammons, who I mentioned earlier, Stanley Turrentine and others. I tried to incorporate some of those concepts into my playing as well. Heck I still do. I was listening to Turrentine before we got on the phone today.
DM: You were playing on all kinds of stuff during this period as you were splitting your time between Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Alabama while working at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios. Let’s however talk a bit about your Memphis recordings before we head over to Alabama.
JA: I started working with Larry Rogers at Lyn-Lou Music on Chelsea Ave. We released eight recordings on the Scepter Wand label. Four of those were of me an as artist. I did three albums with Bill Black’s Combo for Columbia Records and one album for Brother Jack McDuff for Blue Note Records, among other things.
DM: We could go in a lot of directions here. I do want to talk about that Blue Note album as it is one of my favorites, but let’s talk about the recordings under your own name.
JA: I had a single out called, Soul Trippin’ it was an instrumental that was doing real well especially in the black community. It just started showing up on Billboard and Cashbox. It was getting a lot of radio play here in Memphis. I was in my car driving down the road in Memphis one day when I heard my song on the radio. Of course, by then I heard a lot of records I played on by other people on the radio, but not one with my name on it, so I was kind of excited. Anyway on this particular day they interrupted the tune for a news bulletin, reporting that Dr. King had been assassinated right here while he was in Memphis.
Not that I even noticed at the time, or that anybody cared, but my record stopped selling that day. I know anyone who was alive back then has their own personal perspective on this, but it seemed to have real impact on Memphis. There was rioting here as there was in other cities, but things were never quite the same after that around here. It was sad times for our country of course, but real sad times in Memphis.
DM: There is no possible way for me to make a smooth segway from this topic to the next so I won’t even try, Joe. Let me just move to the next area of discussion if I may. I have always been a fan of the Blue Note album, Down Home Style’ by Brother Jack McDuff. In your young life you had already played with two very famous Hammond B3 players, Isaac Hayes and Booker T. Jones and now Jack McDuff. Let’s talk about that record... JAY.
JA: (laughs) That’s right Dave, they credited me as Jay Arnold on that record. Jack came in a week early and we did some rehearsals and he is featuring me all over the place. I was into it, man. Anyway, the next week some producer shows up and we already had the album finished and it was great. He made us record the whole thing over so he could earn his production credit I suppose. He had me stand down on a lot of tracks. You should have heard the original take on those songs. He did give me a lot of room on the song, Memphis in June.
DM: As I alluded to earlier, by the time you did those recordings with Columbia and Blue Note you had been working at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios at Muscle Shoals. When did you start working at Fame?
JA: I got there at the very end of 1967.
DM: Did you move to Alabama during this period?
JA: I never moved. Floyd Newman as well as the great trumpeter, band leader and arranger Gene “Bowlegs” Miller and I drove back and forth every day. James Mitchell is a baritone sax player who would travel with us if Floyd wasn't available. By the way, James is the brother of Willie Mitchell who played trumpet and was the producer of all those Al Green sides over at Hi Records.
DM: I’ll have to check a map, Muscle Shoals and Memphis must be closer than I thought.
JA: It’s about 130 miles, but we talked the whole time in the car and it didn’t seem that long. I always had new cars so I’d drive. It was kind of a pain in the butt, because there are certain restaurants that we couldn’t get into because they wouldn’t serve black people. I would have to get the food to go and bring it back to the car where I had to leave the guys. I sometimes worried that we could get pulled over and hassled by the cops but Floyd would say, “Don’t worry Joe if we get stopped, tell them you are our chauffer.” (laughs) Floyd is now in his early 80’s. I spoke with him the other day. We still laugh about that.
DM: That is pretty funny, but there you are in the late 1960’s driving primarily through the state of Mississippi where many folks took a rather dim view of the social changes as it relates to racial integration and civil rights.
JA: That’s a very polite way to put it. We would drive pretty close to the area that the Klu Klux Klan murdered those civil rights workers just a few years earlier. We all grew up in a world where seeing “whites only” and “blacks only” signs was all we knew. That was our world and we didn’t know any different. I know much has been written and discussed about Stax Records and us musicians as being an important part of the social changes that were taking place during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. We were just a bunch of young guys trying to make good music and make a living. We were friends. I don’t think anybody really thought about it that much, if at all. I know we never even discussed it.
DM: Do you remember the first recording you did over at the Fame Studios?
JA: I do. It was with Clarence Carter and the song was Slip Away. It was a big hit for him. I was on every session he did all the way up through 1970. I was also on the song Patches, which was also big for him.
DM: So at this point you are now working with the famous Muscle Shoals rhythm section known as the Swampers.
JA: The core group was made up of guitarists Jimmy Johnson and Pete Carr, keyboard players Barry Becket and Spooner Oldham and then you had drummer Roger Hawkins and David Hood on bass. Some of these guys broke away and started their own studio in 1969 out on Jackson Highway called, Muscle Shoals Sound. I played at both studios with these guys.
DM: Let’s talk about the horn section for a moment.
JA: It was me, Bowlegs and Floyd of course. We had James Mitchell, who I mentioned also on baritone, and Aaron Varnel on tenor. Bowlegs did most of the horn arrangements. Rick Hall would turn to him a lot. He would call me and Bowlegs up to his office and offer Bowlegs a little nip. Rick would give him a drink and play us a tape. Bowlegs would come up with the arrangement on the spot. Then we would go downstairs and cut the record.
DM: I know Bowlegs had been playing in Memphis on Beale Street as a bandleader when you were just a kid. I know Floyd and most everyone was still a lot older than you, but there was one guy who started playing at Fame a little after you got there who was closer to your age.
JA: Oh yeah...One day I was in the studio by myself and I was listening to the radio. The song Light My Fire came on. It was the version by Jose Feliciano. It was a huge hit at the time. I sat there playing my tenor along with it when this young dude came in and sat down next to me and pulled a guitar out of his case and started playing along with me. It was Duane Allman. I had seen him hanging around the building, but it was the first time we met. We were close in age. I might have been a year or two older actually. I don’t know, but it didn’t matter. He had an old spirit. He was very mature musically. He played like he had been around forever. I had been into jazz as we talked about, Dave. Well Duane and I discussed jazz as well. He had just started getting his ears around Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. He was really into that. Anyway, we played together along with the rest of the band on tons of records over the next two years or so.
DM: Do you remember the first record you did with Duane?
JA: It was the Hey Jude album we did on Wilson Pickett. Pickett loved his playing. Duane is all over that record. Pickett was going bananas and kept calling him “Sky Man” then some time shortly thereafter that got changed to “Sky Dog.” I think that kind of fit better. He had this kind of scruffy dog kind of look going on. It didn’t matter. He could play. I had been around a lot of very good guitar players but it was the first time I had seen anybody play the bottleneck slide. You can hear him on all kinds of stuff that we played on. He is on some of the Clarence Carter sessions, we were on the Otis Rush album Mourning in the Morning. His playing, along with me and the rest of the horns, is all over the old Fenton Robinson tune, Loan Me a Dime that appeared on a Boz Scaggs album we cut. After a couple of years, he got tired of working in the factory and split to do his own thing.
DM: Let’s talk about that factory.
JA: You know we would just show up every day and we didn’t even know who we were cutting a record on until we walked in the door sometimes. It really was a factory. It was like making cars or something except we were making music. I mean the list goes on forever but we made records on Arthur Conley, Lou Rawls, Little Richard, The Young Rascals, Joe Tex, King Curtis, Bobby Womack, Percy Sledge and on and on.
Real quick, I got to tell you Dave, one of the thrills of a lifetime was going into the studio one day and playing some harmony parts with King Curtis. He was one of my heroes and there I am standing right next to him playing. I thought maybe I should pinch myself. Not too long after that he was murdered outside of his apartment in New York City.
DM: He left behind a really extensive body of work in a relatively short period of time. We will never know what could have been. It wasn’t just soul, blues and rhythm and blues records that you guys were churning out down there in that music factory.
JA: It seemed like every label would send an artist down here to get some of that Muscle Shoals grease and funk on them. Heck we even did an album with Cher.
DM: Oh God! How did that go?
JA: I don’t think it was a very good record and I guess most folks agreed because it didn’t do too well.
DM: The label that is perhaps most closely associated with sending their artists to Muscle Shoals, Alabama is Atlantic Records out of New York. I find it interesting because you had already worked with these folks over at Stax as their distribution deal with them coincided with your time at that label.
JA: That’s right. They were great to work with as far as I am concerned. They treated us very well. Their chief recording engineer was Tom Dowd. He had already worked with so many artists in New York. He was the recording engineer on all the Ray Charles stuff. The first time I had ever worked with him was on some of Otis' sides. He was a hell of a nice guy. He treated the musicians with respect. I respected him because he knew what he was doing. He struck me as being kind of an intellectual type, but was very down to earth at the same time. I got to spend some time with him as he traveled to Europe with us.
Our paths would cross many times over the next few years, in Muscle Shoals of course, but also in the Capricorn Studios in Macon, Georgia, and at the Criterion studios in Miami. I was on Atlantic’s list of sax players. If they were cutting a record in Macon or Miami they would call. I would jump on a plane and waiting for me at the airport was a stretch limo. I mean that was pretty cool. Macon is this little town with an even smaller airport that had only two flights a day. They had one in the morning and one in the evening. I would fly in do a session and fly out the same day.
DM: There is Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Macon and Miami. There is a fifth “M” we should talk about.
DM: That’s the one.
JA: Atlantic flew me up there to cut some sides with Aretha.
DM: Does this Aretha have a last name?
JA: (laughing) I’m sure she does. I can’t remember it at the moment. It was a great trip. After our sessions I went with some of the guys to Harlem to check out some jazz clubs. We took a cab up there and I never gave this stuff much thought, but I didn’t see a single white person for blocks and blocks. So there I am a blonde haired, blue eyed dude walking into a jazz club with my horn playing buddies who, like the rest of Harlem, were 100% black. We went to see Stanley Turrentine who, as you know is one of my heroes. He was playing with his wife, Shirley Scott who is a monster B3 player. I got to meet Stanley on a break. Then we went into a little tiny club that you had to walk up one flight of stairs. Up there was a sixteen piece big band led by trumpeter Clark Terry. It was incredible!
The next day I am standing in front of my hotel right in the middle of Manhattan waiting for a ride out to the airport. Atlantic was flying me back to Muscle Shoals because they wanted me to cut something with a singer. I don’t even remember who it was, but there I am in the middle of New York City holding my sax and thinking 'Wow, I just got through working with Aretha Franklin and just saw Stanley Turrentine, Shirley Scott and Clark Terry.’
DM: That’s an awful long way from Snake Creek, Mississippi my friend.
JA: Indeed it is. You know at the peak of everything I was having breakfast with Bowlegs in Macon. We had made around $2000 a piece that week doing sessions at the Fame studios, the Muscle Shoals Sound, Atlantic and Capricorn Records. That's how busy we were.
That was toward the end of our working together. By the mid seventies even the great Gene “Bowlegs” Miller was having a hard time finding work. In 1974, I picked him up one day and drove him over to the music company I was working for. I was trying to find him some work.
That was our last car ride together and the last time I saw him. He was always special to me because of the journey we had together making music in the late 60s and early 70s.
DM: I think most people who are the least bit familiar with what was going on in music and especially soul music in the seventies understand that the trend was heading to a slicker more polished sound. I mean, Joe, let’s be honest I don’t remember too many old dudes like Bowlegs or blonde dudes like you in Earth Wind and Fire or the Ohio Players for instance.
JA: That’s a good point. These groups had an image. They had a look. You had all those guys with gigantic afros, foot long lapels, polyester print shirts and bell bottoms. (laughing) I guess you could say, I didn’t exactly fit that image.
DM: You continued to find work though.
JA: I was playing gigs with Billy Adams, the drummer from the Hernando’s Hideaway years. He had a booking agency, Memphis Artists Attractions, and was starting a record label for A. B. Coleman who was the owner of a barbeque chain of fast food places in the Mid South area. He insisted to Billy Adams that I be the first artist on the Coleman Records label, We recorded a couple of instrumental covers one was Brand New Key by Melanie and that was backed by a George Jones tune, Tender Years.
DM: What kind of live work were you getting?
JA: We were playing a regular gig at a club El Capitan South. Billy Adams had a band called the Memphis Show & Dance Band that featured me. I would play solos out on the dance floor under the spotlight. It was a real show band. I mean we had go-go dancers in miniskirts. It was a pretty big deal. People would come from all over to check us out. Jerry Lee Lewis would come by and sit in with us and sing and play for hours. We played all types of music. We also traveled some and even did a Coleman Records Revue type of show at the Mid South Coliseum in Memphis featuring me doing my recordings that were on the Coleman label.
DM: At this point you started getting involved more in the business side of things.
JA: Some friends of mine told me about this guy, Carl Friend. He had just moved to Memphis from Nashville. He had an expensive apartment in a high rise in East Memphis. Anyway, Carl and I got to be friends and he had several offices leased in the Eighty One Madison Building in downtown Memphis. He invited me to come to work for him. He gave me an office and paid me a salary. It was only me and him in the business. He liked the background I had in music and thought I would bring some legitimacy to his company. I had just recently got remarried and that type of work seemed to make sense at the time.
DM: Why did Carl need to have legitimacy? I mean it sounds like he was doing pretty well for himself.
JA: Good question. Maybe I should have asked that question at the time. It was because, as it turns out, he just got out of prison when we first met. He had contacts in the world of organized crime. I tried to distance myself from all of that by becoming just a sub contractor to his business. Then I got out all together. The chickens were coming home to roost for Carl and I didn’t want to be a part of any of that. He always put on an appearance of success so he could attract investors to his different recording projects. He had me produce these different projects.
DM: It was during this period, 1974, that you hooked up with Dicky Betts. How did that come about?
Out of the blue I get this call from Phil Walden at Capricorn Records in Macon. I knew Phil of course from doing sessions over there in Macon and before that, he was Otis Redding’s manager. Phil had even traveled to Europe with Otis and the rest of us. He asked me if I could put together a horn section and put down some tracks for this album by Dickey. He offered me a bunch of money and I said “Hell, yeah.” They sent me the album to add the horn parts. I also went out on the road with Dickey that year. We played these huge places all over the country. He was a big star in those days. After Duane died, which was quite a shock to everybody obviously, Dicky emerged as a real star in that band (The Allman Brothers). They just made an album called Brothers and Sisters which was a best seller for them and Capricorn. The big single was Ramblin’ Man that he wrote and sang, so Dickey was at the top of the heap in those days.
DM: Did you get any more work at Capricorn?
JA: Phil asked me to put together a horn section and do some recordings for Bonnie Bramlett. I was doing sessions here and there with Capricorn in those days overdubbing horn parts and what not. I also did a session during this period with Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth in Nashville. I did a session at Capricorn one day and then left the studio and flew back to Memphis and never went back.
JA: Outside of Dickey Betts, Phil wasn’t paying me enough money for those sessions.
DM: What did you do for work?
JA: I went back to Memphis and continued to play club dates. In 1975, Al Jackson Jr. was murdered in his own home. He was shot in the back of the head, execution style. The police said it was a burglary but nobody has ever believed that for a minute. I then moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I lived for a while as I had had a steady gig in a nightclub owned by a sports bookie.
I eventually made my way back to Memphis. I did some work at the Ardent Studios. I formed my own band.
DM: What was the band called?
JA: The Joe Arnold Band...
DM: Catchy...When did you move to the Mississippi Gulf Coast?
JA: In the late 1980’s. There was a little bit of a scene down here and I got work playing at a place called The Tiki Supper Club. Also, there was The Trader’s Lounge and The Mardi Gras Lounge where I would play. Then they started building these casinos and I would find work there as well. All through this period it was kind of rough because there were times I had to take part time jobs outside of music to augment my income. I had periods of homelessness as well during this time. I was toggling back and forth from the gulf to Memphis.
DM: Then you caught a break.
JA: That’s right. I had been working off and on at Amro Music Store in Memphis. Every so often I could pick up a gig or two because of my visibility at the music store. All the musicians would hang out there and I got a chance to play the instruments as my horn might be at the pawn shop on any given week. I was working there in 1999 when this trumpet player named Rick Dolan came up to me and told me that Bobby Bland was looking for a tenor sax player. He ran down my credits to the band’s musical director, Joe Hardin. I got a phone call from Joe the next day asking me if I could get on a plane that night and fly to California. Dave, I didn’t have more than two nickels to rub together, I’m sleeping in my car and before you know it I am on a plane out to California and in an air conditioned tour bus.
DM: So you said, yes.
JA: (laughing) Dave, believe me I didn’t have to think it over that long. We stayed in Berkeley for a week rehearsing. It was kind of hard at first because I was struggling a little with the charts. Joe was patient with me, but for the first time I had doubts about whether I could cut it. I hadn’t been reading a lot of charts during those years so those skills had diminished to a degree but I got up to speed before our first gig. Rick said, “Hey Joe I got you this gig. It’s up to you to keep it.” I never had to audition for anything in my life and I never got booted off a session or bandstand either. I knew a lot of the cats as most of them, like me, had been around Memphis a long time with Bobby and B.B. I recorded with some of these guys at the Ardent Studios. They knew I could do it and I eventually figured everything out just in time.
DM: That is quite an accomplishment in and of itself. Bobby Bland doesn’t play with even average musicians. His bands were always top shelf. Let’s talk about that tour.
JA: We started out in San Francisco. From there we went up and down the coast playing in big nightclubs and in between we would play these huge blues festivals. We headlined The Long Beach Blues Festival. That may have been the biggest crowd I had ever seen. The gig felt like a reunion of the old Memphis guys as Al Green and Little Milton were also on the same bill.
We went back up and played some blues festivals in northern California the following weekend and then the next week we did the Monterey Jazz and Blues Festival. It was great.
DM: Let’s talk about working with the great Bobby “Blue” Bland.
JA: Dave, Bobby is a class act all the way. He of course was an incredible live performer who really knows how to connect with an audience. He also treated his band great. He paid me $150 per show. He made sure he got paid up front, before he ever took the stage. He told me once he had been burned a few times back in the old days, so that’s what that was all about. After the show he would sit in the back of the bus and pay us out each night. We actually became friends after a while. I continued to play with him off and on for several years. Anytime he had a gig somewhere in the south he would call me.
As he has gotten on in years he has slowed down quite a bit. The last time I played with him was a few years ago and he was riding one of those motorized carts that old folks can tool around in. We were at the Hard Rock Casino down here in Biloxi and Rick Dolan tells me he hears, “Hey Rick! Check out my ride.” He turns around and it is Bobby. He’s got on that sailor’s hat he wore all the time and he goes speeding by me in this contraption waving with a big smile on his face. He looked like this big kid.
DM: After the California tour did you do any other travels with the band.
JA: We played all over the country. One night we were doing a show in St. Louis, Missouri. During the middle of the show Bobby does a medley of some of his most popular tunes such as Stormy Monday Blues, Cry, Cry Cry, Driftin’ Blues, and so on. He would sort of sit on a stool with one leg on the floor and the other on the rung of the stool and sing these ballads. The horn section usually would step to the the rear of the bandstand over to the left of Bobby.
On this one night there was this girl waving and trying to get my attention and Bobby saw her. He motioned for me to come where he was seated and held the mic in front of me. He would actually put his vocal mic right into the horn. I started playing and after I had played several measures Rodd, his son, the drummer kicked it into a shuffle and I kept on playing and the whole band came in behind me and I starting jamming. It brought the house down. People went nuts. After we finally stopped playing Bobby talked to the audience and bragged about me. He told the folks who I had played with and the famous records I had been on. He told the audience “I don’t care how loud you cheer, I’m not giving him a raise.” He said a lot of very nice things. He’s a big star. He didn’t have to do that but that’s Bobby. By the way he did bump me up to $170 a show.
DM: You even went to Europe with the band.
JA: We traveled to England and Ireland with Van Morrison. We flew from Memphis to New York and onto Manchester, England. We played all over that country and then did a bunch of dates with Van in Dublin, Ireland.
DM: What was that like?
JA: Traveling with Van Morrison in Ireland is pretty wild. He is like Elvis over there man. I mean we get off the plane and they have his picture hanging in the airport. I’m not kidding. He put us up in this really plush hotel. He had a catering company come in and we ate like kings in the backstage area. We had days off between gigs so I actually had a chance to get out and see the countryside. It was really beautiful.
DM: Let’s talk about those shows.
JA: Bobby would open and we would do an hour. Van was the headliner of course. He had a stage set up that looked kind of like they were in an intimate jazz club even though it was an enormous arena. The musicians were all kind of facing each other in sort of a semi circle with Van in the middle. Part way through his set he would bring out Bobby and they would do a few tunes together. They would sing some of Bobby’s tunes and they would even sing one or two of Van’s songs. Van is a huge Bobby “Blue” Bland fan.
DM: Who isn’t? Joe, after the tour in the U.K. I understand you moved back down to the gulf.
JA: There was some pretty steady work down there at the clubs and casinos until Hurricane Katrina destroyed the whole place. I mean there was nothing left. It’s all gone.
DM: Where were you when the hurricane struck?
JA: I was with family up in Memphis. When I got back to the gulf I fell on hard times. I was sleeping in my car in the parking lot of the Hard Rock Casino which sustained substantial damage but had been rebuilt. There were a lot of folks who had it worse than me. There were lots of homeless people who didn’t even have a car to sleep in. All the security guards at the hotel knew me and knew that I wasn’t bothering anybody or panhandling or anything, so they were cool with me sleeping there. I couldn’t beg, but I just couldn’t get back on my feet either.
DM: Yet you are doing much better today. How did things turn around for you Joe?
JA: One day I was sitting there in McDonald’s having my senior citizen’s cup of cheap coffee when I met a guy who I got to know a little from coming in everyday. Eventually he got to know who I was and my predicament. He helped me figure out how to apply for my social security benefits. Then I started receiving my checks. I also found a subsidized housing facility where I have been living for the past few of years.
DM: What have you been up to these days Joe?
JA: Not a whole lot until I contacted you a few months ago. As you know I wasn’t necessarily anxious to talk about the past. Nobody ever seemed to take an interest anyway. It was hard for me at first to talk about these things, but now I look forward to visiting with you on the phone. I had all of this bottled up and it has felt good to revisit these places and events, good and not so good things that have taken place over my life. I feel better than I have in years. I have been getting on the phone with people again. It has been a very good experience for me.
DM: What are your interests outside of music?
JA: I don’t have any. Music means everything to me. It’s been my whole life. My nephew recently told me, “Uncle Joe you should give yourself a pat on the back for sticking to your guns and doing what you love, even though it has been hard on you sometimes.”
DM: Now you are back making music again.
JA: That’s right. I purchased some recording equipment and I am making records again. I have been writing songs and laying down piano tracks, over dubbing the horn parts and then programming the bass and drums. It feels great to be recording music again even though you are the only one hearing it, Dave. By the way I just sent you another song today.
DM: Thanks Joe I look forward to listening to it. What would you like to do in the future?
JA: I would love to get back into a real recording studio again. Maybe it would be good to get back on the road with some younger cats. Although at my age maybe doing my own originals might be more appealing. I don’t know. I haven’t really allowed myself to give that any thought until very recently.
DM: What is your favorite thing about playing saxophone?
JA: When I am playing at my best I feel like the spirits of all those who came before me are coming out of my horn. I felt that way when I was recording my solo on the Jack McDuff song, Memphis in June. It is like you are outside your body. It’s like you are watching and listening to yourself from another place. It’s as if all sax players’ spirits are floating around you, getting inside of you and are coming out of your horn. You are connected in some spiritual way, to all that have come before you. It’s a great feeling.
DM: Let’s talk about your legacy.
JA: Well to be honest with you, I didn’t have one until now.
DM: Why do you think that is the case?
JA: Because I never thought about it. I was too busy making music and trying to survive to think about that. I think I have been very blessed. Others might say, ‘But Joe you never got very much recognition and even less money for your contributions to music that is still being listened to today.’
I was always more concerned with impressing my fellow musicians. Musicians have a true bond, a true brotherhood. I have always had the ability to rise to the occasion in any musical situation. Remember Dave, a band is only as good as the worst player in the room and I am proud to say that was never me.
DM: You told me a story about something that happened to you yesterday that in my mind might be a perfect metaphor for the Joe Arnold story. Would you be kind enough to share that with our readers?
JA: Sure...I have this neighbor who I ran into in the common area of our housing complex. He asked me if that was me playing the saxophone the other night. I told him it was and I apologized if I disturbed him or bothered him in any way. The man is Puerto Rican and speaks in very broken English but he held his hand to his heart and grabbed my forearm with the other and told me to never stop playing that it makes his heart feel good.
DM: Think about it Joe, just like your neighbor, people all over the world at this very moment are hearing your saxophone somewhere on a broadcast radio station, satellite radio, Pandora radio, a YouTube video, a CD, an old vinyl album or 45, maybe piped in music at a grocery store or a restaurant. They might not know who is playing saxophone, but you are making their hearts feel good.
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