How many people do you know who almost joined The Rolling Stones? That experience is just one of many that comprise the unusual musical odyssey of Birmingham guitarist Wayne Perkins.
In 1973, Island Records released Catch a Fire, the major-label debut of Jamaican band The Wailers, featuring a then-unknown Bob Marley. The album includes the reggae classics “Concrete Jungle” and “Stir It Up.” Few music fans are aware, however, that those songs’ memorable guitar parts (on one of the first albums that helped turn reggae into a worldwide sensation) were played by Birmingham guitar virtuoso Wayne Perkins. Decades later, on a recent afternoon at his Center Point home, Perkins recalls his memory of the session.
The Wailers had recorded the album’s basic tracks in Jamaica a year earlier. Marley took the tapes to London where he supervised overdubs suggested by Island Records president Chris Blackwell to flesh out the Wailers’ barebones sound into something more palatable for American and European audiences. Blackwell brought in Perkins and John “Rabbit” Bundrick, veteran session player and current keyboardist for The Who, to add riffs that went officially uncredited until the album was re-released in a “deluxe edition” in 2001 (the set features both the widely known mix as well as the original Wailers version).
“Chris Blackwell came to Muscle Shoals to record Jim Capaldi’s Oh How We Danced. Paul Kossoff, Free’s guitar player, was there. [Steve] Winwood was there, and all of us became buddies,” says Perkins, who was doing session work at Muscle Shoals Sound at the time. While at the studio, Blackwell heard the band Smith Perkins Smith that Perkins had formed with brothers Tim and Steve Smith, from Homewood. Impressed, Blackwell signed the group and took them to Europe to launch the band’s career. “The first date we ever played was at the Cavern Club in Liverpool,” recalls Perkins. “We were living out our rock ‘n’ roll dream a little bit.” Smith Perkins Smith were soon touring Europe opening for Free, Uriah Heep, Fairport Convention, and Mott the Hoople, among other groups.
In the documentary Bob Marley & the Wailers: Catch a Fire (one in a series covering classic albums), Chris Blackwell says that the Wailers’ record was “enhanced [with overdubs and other elements atypical of reggae] to try and reach a rock market. What I was trying to merge [reggae] into was more of a sort of hypnotic-type feel with a kind of wah-wah [guitar] feel and different sorts of guitar going all the way through, and make it much less a reggae rhythm and more of a sort of drifting feel. . . . It’s particularly distinctive because of Wayne Perkins’ playing . . . this is the sound that started the album. ‘Concrete Jungle’ introduced Bob Marley and the Wailers to the world.”
Perkins continues: “We were in the middle of working on a Smith Perkins Smith album in London, and I ran into Blackwell on the spiral staircase at Island Records. He said that he had some reggae music that he wanted me to try to play on. I really wasn’t familiar with hardcore reggae. He wanted me to ‘do that Southern rock guitar thing, or whatever you do.’ So I met Marley, but just briefly. I didn’t know any of these guys. And the first thing I noticed when I walked downstairs was that the basement was in a fog. Lots of [marijuana] smoke. It was too funny. I tried to get down to business.”
With guitar in hand, waiting to begin recording his part, Perkins requested an explanation of how to approach this music with which he was unfamiliar. “Blackwell explained that the bass drum, sock cymbal, and the snare [drum] are on the one and three [beats]. He told me to ignore the bass guitar because it was more of a lead instrument [as opposed to a bass's typical role as a rhythm instrument]. It’s great music, but it’s kinda weird in that everything feels like it’s being played backwards. ‘Concrete Jungle’ was the very first thing that I was handed. That was the most out-of-character bass part I’d ever heard. But because the keyboards and the guitars stay locked together doing what they’re doing all through the song, that was sorta my saving grace. I thought I could follow the song, but I still didn’t know what I was going to do on guitar. So I started doodling on the front of it, and I told the sound engineer to start over about halfway through it. Then I started picking up a little something here and there. I nailed that guitar solo down on the second or third take, I think. It was a gift from God, because I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And then Marley came into the recording room. He was cartwheeling, man, he couldn’t get over what had just happened to his song, he was so excited. I couldn’t understand a damn thing he was saying. And he was cramming this huge joint down my throat and wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He got me real, real high.”
Meeting the Muscle Shoals Sound
Though Perkins was only 21 when he played on Catch a Fire, he already had several years of professional studio experience under his belt. He was 15 when he recorded with producer Emory Gordy in Atlanta in the mid-1960s. By age 16, Perkins had dropped out of high school to play music for a living. In 1969, the 18-year-old Perkins moved to Muscle Shoals to work at a studio called Quinvy’s for $100 a week. A year later, he took over lead guitar chores at Muscle Shoals Sound (MSS) when session guitarist, songwriter, and soul singer Eddie Hinton quit to pursue a career as a recording artist. “Eddie told me, ‘I’m leaving here. You want this gig? Duane’s gone and he ain’t coming back. He’s busy,’” Perkins recalls. (Duane Allman played lead guitar on sessions in Muscle Shoals in the late 1960s before forming the Allman Brothers Band.)
Perkins says he will never forget his “job interview” at Muscle Shoals Sound. “I went in to talk to Jimmy Johnson [Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section guitarist and MSS sound engineer]. He handed me a stack of records about two feet tall, and it’s albums of all these different players, all the greatest guitar players,” says Perkins. “Johnson said, ‘I tell you what. You want this job? You want to be one of us? I don’t want to be sitting in the control room with [Atlantic Records executives] Ahmet Ertegun or Jerry Wexler and ask you to give me a little something more like a Cornell Dupree lick or a little more ‘Duane Allman kind of blues’ in style, and you not be able to do so. Any kind of guitar lick I ask you for, I don’t want to see any kind of doubt on your face. You just nod your head and go on with it. Don’t embarrass me in front of Ahmet or Wexler because these guys are our bread and butter.’ So I went home and took about two weeks and consumed that stack of records. And I got the gig.”
Perkins recalls an after-hours Joe Cocker session at MSS when the studio’s regular musicians and staff had gone home. “I walked into the recording room with my bass, I’m thumping around. It was me and [drummer] Jim Keltner and Cocker. Everybody’s sitting around high as a kite, didn’t know what to do. They’d been that way all week, hadn’t gotten anything done. And Cocker’s sitting back there rolling these long joints with hash and grass, and apparently something else that I wasn’t aware of. They’re sitting back there in the recording room not doing anything, and then I go back there to check on them and they handed me this joint and I took a couple of hits off of it. I started thumping on my bass and both of my hands started going numb. I went over and laid down on the couch, and I woke up the next morning with the bass still strapped on me. And it’s almost time for a Ronnie Milsap session. Somebody said to me, ‘You better get some coffee.’”
Around the World with Leon Russell
Perkins’ work on the Wailers’ Catch a Fire caught the ears of several prominent names in the music industry, including the Rolling Stones and Leon Russell, with whom Perkins had worked at MSS for the album Leon Russell and the Shelter People. “After Blackwell signed us and got us to England, we started on our second album and got halfway through it, then he stopped it,” Perkins says. Smith Perkins Smith soon broke up. The guitarist returned to the States in 1973 and within a few weeks Leon Russell called to offer him the lead guitar spot in his legendary backing band. “There was a first-class airline ticket to Tulsa waiting for me, and the tour was starting within weeks,” Perkins recalls. “Leon picked me up in this Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud in Tulsa with a couple of chicks, and we go out for steaks bigger than our heads. He told me I had less than a week to learn the Leon Live album, a three-record set. So I said, ‘That ain’t a hell of a lot of time, Leon.’ I didn’t sleep for three or four days. I listened to that album over and over. But thanks to Leon, I got to see the world. With Smith Perkins Smith I had lived in England, toured Europe, and all that. But Russell took me to Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia, Hong Kong; it was just unbelievable. Great times. I’d done more before I hit age 25 than most people will ever dream of. For my money, that was the best band I ever played with.”
After a world tour, Russell disbanded the Shelter People. His next backing group was comprised of fellow Oklahomans The Gap Band. “We went out to this place called the Rose Room in Tulsa and there was The Gap Band. And they were kicking ass, the whole place was going crazy,” Perkins says. “So we picked The Gap Band up, but Leon kept the Shelter People drummer—Chuck Blackwell—and me, because Chuck knew where all the changes were, and Leon was always one to throw changes and stuff at you that nobody in the band had ever heard before. We went from first-class airline tickets with the Shelter People to a bus with The Gap Band. Leon wanted to go out and get funky, put his cowboy hat on.”
It was Russell who coined the nickname bestowed on the Muscle Shoals Sound house band. “Leon came up with the term ‘The Swampers’ for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section when he recorded there. [The Swampers were immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama."] Shortly after that, Ronnie Van Zant and them were in Muscle Shoals recording Skynyrd’s first album and I had a copy of Leon’s album [where he mentioned the Muscle Shoals Swampers in the liner notes]. I showed it to Ronnie. Leon had a song on there called “Home Sweet Oklahoma,” which is where Ronnie got the idea for ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’”
Joni Mitchell and a Pink Paisley Guitar
Perkins went to Los Angeles around 1973 to visit Jackson Browne and ended up at A&M studios, where Joni Mitchell was recording her masterpiece Court and Spark. “Yeah, that was a real special thing for me. I stopped in at A&M where Joni was cutting,” recalls Perkins, who also had a romantic fling with Mitchell. Mitchell was recording in a studio across the hall from Browne. “Joni came out of her studio and I said hello and we started talking,” he remembers. “She asked if I wanted to hear what she was working on. Joni and I hit it off. Oh boy, did we ever hit it off!”
“So the next day I went to see her at the place she was sharing with David Geffen over in Beverly Hills—this big, huge mansion. Geffen lived in one half and she lived in the other. I ended up going into the studio with her a couple of nights. I was watching Tom [Scott] overdub instrumental parts on ‘Car on a Hill’ when Joni asked me, ‘Do you hear anything on this?’ I did, but all my gear was with Leon. So we got her band’s equipment but the guitar wouldn’t stay in tune on the bottom three strings, so I told her this wasn’t going to work like I wanted it to. I pointed to this huge anvil guitar case in the studio that had ‘James Burton’ [Elvis Presley's guitar player in the 1970s] written on the side of it. It’s 3 a.m. Joni was hesitant to mess with it. But I flipped the case open and there was that pink paisley Telecaster [Burton's signature guitar]. I told her, ‘Here’s what we’re gonna do, we’re gonna do some city sounds like you want.’ So I took Burton’s Telecaster and I overdubbed the slide parts on “Car on a Hill” on James Burton’s guitar. When I put the guitar back in the case, I folded the damn strap different than the way I found it, so he’d know somebody had messed with it [laughs].”
Like a Rolling Stone
Guitarist Eric Clapton, with whom Perkins had been hanging out in Jamaica while Clapton was preparing to record There’s One in Every Crowd, contacted the Rolling Stones to arrange an audition for Perkins after Stones guitarist Mick Taylor quit in 1974. “I stayed in Kingston with Clapton for a month or two,” Perkins says. “One morning at the breakfast table Eric said, ‘Did you hear that Mick Taylor quit the Stones?’ And I said, ‘Naww, have they found anybody to take his place?’ Eric said he didn’t think they had, so I said, ‘Well, hell, put in a phone call for me.’ So Clapton called Jagger and told him, ‘Yeah, this boy Perkins can play some guitar.’ So Eric—and Leon Russell—were my references to get to the Stones.” Months earlier, Perkins had played bass on Stones bassist Bill Wyman’s solo debut, Monkey Grip.
Keith Richards, a reggae fanatic, was familiar with Perkins’ work on Catch a Fire. “Far as I know, I was the last one to audition for the Stones job. They had rented a theater in Rotterdam. I basically got off the plane and walked into the audition room,” recalls Perkins. “Keith was sitting on a couch with Bill Wyman. And there was a spotlight in the middle of the room. I set my guitars down and was just standing there, and they’re all looking up at me. I had never met them before. I was standing there in that spotlight. It was kind of understood that that’s where I was supposed to stand because nobody offered a chair. I was talking to Keith when suddenly Jagger and Charlie Watts came up behind me, and they both stood right next to me, really close. Mick and Charlie were looking straight ahead, they wouldn’t even look at me. I looked to each side and both of them are staring straight ahead like they’re posing for an album cover. Then they walked off without saying a word. They put me in the center of this portrait thing that they were doing, like a lineup. They wanted to see if I looked like a Rolling Stone, and I hadn’t even played a note for ‘em yet.”
It is now known that Perkins was competing with Jeff Beck and Peter Frampton, among others, for the job. The Stones eventually chose Ron Wood.
Perkins’ audition impressed the Stones enough that he was invited to play on the sessions that would become the Black and Blue album. “We started out cold on ‘Hand of Fate’ one night. We were just kind of starting from scratch with something that Keith had a musical idea about,” Perkins says. “He had the basic track down, but he didn’t have a bridge, or what they call ‘a middle-eight.’ I was playing a counter-guitar part to Keith, and I started doing this Motown lick that goes along to what he’s playing. And so we’re cooking along there, and Mick’s walking around the room with a tambourine, and he’d go stand in the corner and shake that damn tambourine. And he’s singing to himself, and he’s off in his own world trying to figure out what’s what. The whole thing sounded real rough, too. It kinda just sucked. [Perkins is not the first musician to comment on the Stones' lack of musical finesse.] It was like the worst garage band I’d ever heard in my life. Then the engineer turned on the red light [to begin recording] and it’s like somebody reached out with a magic wand and went, ‘Bing!’ And all of a sudden, it’s the Stones! Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Perkins lived with Richards and his longtime girlfriend Anita Pallenberg for a month or so in a cottage behind the London home of Ron Wood (who was still a member of The Faces at the time). Richards treated Perkins as the new band member. “We started hangin’ out and having a big ol’ time. We got along great,” says Perkins. “But when Mick came into the picture . . . If I was with Mick, it was all right. If I was with Keith, it was all right. But when the two of them got together, I seemed to automatically fall under a microscope without even trying. Keith and Mick were still going at it over me, because I was under the impression from Keith that I was already in the band. Keith was teaching me their songs and gave me two cassettes of about 60 songs that included what the Stones might play on their 1975 tour. While we were in Germany, they had these two rooms and on the walls were [designs] of different stage setups and they were asking me my opinion of which stage I liked. We cut ‘Memory Motel’ from scratch like we did ‘Hand of Fate.’ Keith was on Fender Rhodes, Mick was on grand piano, and I was in some soundbooth with an acoustic guitar and I overdubbed electric guitar later. And then I overdubbed some slide on ‘Fool to Cry.’ We cut like 10 tracks that were just jamming, and then later on they turned this into some stuff, and a couple of those ended up on Tattoo You.” 1981′s Tattoo You, though presented at the time as an album of new songs, was actually cobbled together from unreleased songs recorded from 1973 to 1975. Perkins plays the jaw-dropping guitar solo on “Worried About You.”
Sweet Home Alabama
In 1975, closer to home, Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King had quit the band in the middle of a tour. They continued as a two-guitar act for a year but wanted to return to a three-guitar lineup. “Lynyrd Skynyrd offered me the job, but something didn’t feel right to me,” says Perkins. “I turned them down in December ’76 and the plane crash was in October ’77. I think about that one from time to time. Ronnie [Van Zant] was one of my best friends. I knew all the guys in the band, and I would have made a ton of money. And God knows, fate could have changed and that crash might not have happened.”
One day Perkins went to hear his brother Dale’s band, Alabama Power. “They had a great band and no songs,” he says. “They had the vehicle and I had the gasoline. I had the connections in Hollywood after all these years.” Perkins says that lawyers for the Alabama Power Company were not pleased with the band’s name, so the group changed it to Crimson Tide. “I much preferred the name Alabama Power to Crimson Tide because that’s sacrilege, to me. Crimson Tide is a great name but [the University of Alabama] was already using it.” Crimson Tide released two albums on Capitol Records, the self-titled Crimson Tide in 1978 and Reckless Love in 1979, the latter produced by Donald “Duck” Dunn, bassist for Booker T. and the MGs, with the MGs’ Steve Cropper contributing guitar parts. Crimson Tide became the house band at the Crossroads Club in Roebuck for a couple of years in the late ’70s, where well-known acts such as Yes, Joe Cocker, or Rick Derringer, if they had performed elsewhere in town that day, often showed up to sit in. “That’s one thing about the Crossroads Club. You never knew who would show up,” Perkins says. Crimson Tide split up in 1979. Perkins later released a pair of solo CDs, Mendo Hotel in 1995 and Ramblin’ Heart in 2005, as well as having his songs included on soundtracks for several films and TV shows.
An Impressive Résumé
The wide range of musicians that Perkins has worked with is impressive. In addition to the aforementioned acts, his credits include work with Albert King, the Everly Brothers, Michael Bolton, Millie Jackson, John Prine, Delbert McClinton, Jerry Jeff Walker, Roger McGuinn, Levon Helm, Bobby Womack, and the Oak Ridge Boys, among others.
Mark Harrelson, co-owner of Birmingham’s Boutwell Studios, first met Perkins in the late 1970s. “Wayne’s been a part of more big time things [musically] than anybody else in Birmingham that I can think of,” Harrelson says. “To be part of that Marley thing, and then to even have a shot at being part the Stones is something that nobody else around here can even come close to. Wayne is first and foremost a player, when you break it right down. He’s a good singer and good songwriter, and he’s had a hand at making some good decisions about production and things like that, too. But the first thing that Wayne does—to me—that is better than anything else that he does is to pick up a guitar and do stuff with his fingers that other people can’t do, and they couldn’t do if they worked on it all their lives. When he went to Muscle Shoals he was a kid, and yet the first time they turned him loose on a session, everybody went, ‘Wow, this kid can really play.’”
“For my money, the best times I’ve had musically interacting with Wayne is when I told him, ‘I need you to play from here to here,’ and he just does something absolutely phenomenal to fill up that space. He’s fabulous at it. Wayne was always fearless at coming up with new ideas and just really nailing stuff.”
In the late 1990s, Perkins began suffering from poor health. Some days, his headaches are almost unbearable, yet he remains determined to forge ahead. Several years ago, he got his I.D. card that officially recognizes his heritage as a native America Indian, and he continues to play bass on occasion with his good friend Lonnie Mack. He’s also working on a new CD. “I’ve been one of the most blessed people you’ll ever run into in your life. And fortunate,” Perkins surmises with an engaging grin.
He’s one of the music industry’s great unheralded guitar players, often receiving no credit on records to which he has made contributions. His confidence has never waned. “I did have to work for it, and when I’m thrown in the damn shark tank [in a studio or on stage] I can swim and I can do battle, or whatever. I can hang,” he admits. “It was a lot of hard work, but the stuff just kept coming. I did everything I wanted to do, including playing with the biggest rock band in the world. If I had joined [The Rolling Stones], by now I’d probably be a dead millionaire.” &