Johnny Jenkins

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Whenever conversations about Macon's great musical traditions come up, they usually involve names such as Otis Redding, Little Richard or the Allman Brothers Band.

Johnny Jenkins, who died Sunday night at age 67, may not have achieved that level of fame, but he was no less influential.

From giving Redding one of his first big breaks to influencing the style of guitar god Jimi Hendrix, Jenkins was remembered fondly Wednesday by friends and admirers as someone whose influence was greater than his name recognition.

"I was with (Jenkins) when Otis got his first big break," vocalist Arthur Ponder said. "I was with (Jenkins) for three years. I learned a lot from him. ... He was a great guitarist; a lot of people don't realize that. If you sang or played, you would go find Johnny. He would give you a chance."

Born in Macon in 1939, he grew up in the Swift Creek area. Jenkins' musical beginnings have become the stuff of legend. At age 9, he made his first guitar out of a cigar box and rubber bands; as a left-hander, he learned to play it upside down and entertained people at a local gas station.

In the late 1950s and early '60s, he toured around the South, playing fraternity parties and various venues with his band, the Pinetoppers.

"He was legendary playing at college fraternities at the University of Alabama," said Paul Hornsby, a musician and producer who worked with Jenkins. "I always heard about the left-handed guitar player who was doing all these acrobatics."

One night at the Douglass Theatre, Jenkins was in the crowd when Redding sang. He invited him to join the Pinetoppers, later recalling it in Peter Guralnick's book, "Sweet Soul Music."

"I heard Otis at the Douglass, and the group behind him just wasn't making it," Jenkins recalled. "So I went up to him, and I said, 'Do you mind if I play behind you?' And he looked at me like, 'Who are you?' 'Cause he didn't know me. And I say, 'I can make you sound good.' ... And you know how the guitar can make a singer sound good by covering up his weaknesses? Well, he sounded great with me playing behind him - and he knowed it."

Record producer Phil Walden signed Jenkins, and he became part of Walden's fledgling Capricorn Records label.

"I have a great deal of sentiment attached to Johnny Jenkins," Walden, who died in April, said in a 1996 Telegraph interview. "He was my first client, and it was through him that I met Otis Redding. ... I was still a teenager when I met him, and I thought my entire world rotated around Johnny Jenkins' guitar. I was convinced he could have been the greatest thing in rock 'n' roll.

"He had all the earmarks of stardom. He looked the part, he played the part, he acted the part. ... He made a major impression on my entire career. This was my first relationship with an African-American musician, and what made that unusual was the time of the relationship (the late '50s). I learned so much about life from Johnny Jenkins and Otis Redding during those early years. It was exhilarating, to say the least."

ATLANTIC RECORDS TRYOUT

Walden arranged for Jenkins to perform for Atlantic Records executives after his hit, "Love Twist," came out, but the executives went with Redding instead.

Jenkins never made it out of the Southeast, while Redding became an international superstar.

Part of his lack of fame came about because Jenkins didn't want to fly, limiting the number of gigs he could get. Ironically, an airplane crash claimed Redding's life in 1967.

Jenkins may not have made it around the world, but his style did. Ponder recalled Hendrix as a "little guy who would follow us around a lot. Next thing we know, he's Jimi Hendrix."

Hendrix, whose aunt lived in Macon, saw Jenkins perform and fell in love with the latter's signature acrobatic left-handed guitar style. It became a part of Hendrix's act until his death in 1970.

"I asked him flat-out (about Hendrix) and he said, 'He used to see me at Sawyer Lake,' " Hornsby said. " 'The next thing you know, he's jumping around like me, but he had his own stuff.' "

Hornsby worked as a producer at Capricorn when Jenkins had one of his most well-known albums, "Ton Ton Macoute," in 1970.

Jenkins didn't try to get the fame and attention the other artists on the label were receiving.

"Capricorn wanted him to be something special," Hornsby said. "They wanted him to be another Hendrix. But that just wasn't him."

"When Otis skyrocketed and (Jenkins) stayed local, I don't really know what effect it had on him," said Joseph Johnson, curator of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. "I listened to an interview in which he said he never really wanted to become famous, he just wanted to play guitar. ... He was happy playing guitar, playing with a band and going home."

After Capricorn went out of business in the late 1970s, Jenkins faded from the music scene. His next gig was at the defunct Music City Grill in 1996, the same year Walden produced Jenkins' comeback album, "Blessed Blues." He performed with Randall Bramblett at the first concert at the Douglass after it was renovated in 1997.

Jenkins continued to perform sporadically, including a 2000 show at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. His last two albums, "Handle with Care" (2001) and "All in Good Time" (2003), were produced by Mean Old World Records.

His family will receive visitors Friday from 7 to 8 p.m. at Jones Brothers Mortuary Chapel, 3035 Millerfield Road, with Jenkins' music playing at 15-minute intervals.

The funeral service will take place at Glorious Hope Church at 2 p.m. Saturday, with burial following at Middle Georgia Memorial Gardens.

"He's still a legend," Johnson said. "He's a great Macon musician. It's a loss. He was a very talented musician."
Published in The Telegraph on June 29, 2006
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