Drummer Howard Grimes, the backbone of Memphis soul, dies at 80

Drummer Howard Grimes performs in 2014.

Mark Sullivan / Mark Sullivan

Howard Grimes, veteran drummer and mainstay of the Memphis, Tenn., soul scene, died on Saturday of kidney failure at Saint Francis Hospital in Memphis. He was 80. His death was confirmed to NPR by his bandmate Scott Bomar of The Bo-Keys.

As a drummer for Hi Records’ house band the Hi Rhythm Section in the 1970s, Grimes worked closely with artists including Al Green, Ann Peebles and Otis Clay, among others. His beats on songs including Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain” served as a crucial foundation for the burgeoning Memphis soul sound of the era.

Grimes was affectionately nicknamed “The Bulldog” for his notoriously steady beat behind the drum kit, a name he earned from mentor and Hi Records founder Willie Mitchell.

“Willie Mitchell told me, ‘You know, Howard, when you play, I can hear you coming,’ ” Grimes told the Memphis Flyer in 2021, who added that he was alternately dubbed “Pup” and “Dog” in sessions. “I didn’t know what he was talking about. But when I cut a track, he said, ‘I can hear you coming. That foot!’ Willie was very distinct on listening to musicians. That’s how I learned so much.”

Growing up in North Memphis in a household that regularly played the music of jazz artists including Duke Ellington and Cannonball Adderley, Grimes was inspired to become a drummer after seeing a biopic of big band drummer Gene Krupa on television. Before joining the Hi Rhythm Section, Grimes was a regular performer in Memphis clubs and a drummer on several early Stax Records releases in the 1960s.

Hi Records was sold in 1977 and by the 1980s, as Grimes described to Commercial Appeal in 2021, he began to struggle professionally and became homeless. “I was dying and I had this out-of-body experience, man,” Grimes told the outlet. “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.’… He said, ‘You have obeyed me well. I am sending you back.’ “

In later years, Grimes performed as a member of The Bo-Keys, and in 2021 he released his autobiography Timekeeper: My Life in Rhythm, chronicling his life and career as an artist who left an indelible mark on the musical legacy of his hometown.

“My beat is the backbone of the Memphis sound,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The rhythm of this city runs through my heart … I’m connected to the music in this city. The old masters I played with, that I came up under, they told me to listen to them, to tell what’s happened and remember. They told me to tell the truth for them after they’ve gone. They’ve almost all gone.”

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