Jimmy Hall, whose uniquely Southern voice, armed with his harmonica and saxophone, helped bring Wet Willie to fame in the 1970s. Hall and members of Wet Willie moved from Mobile to Macon, where they made a permanent mark on the music in Georgia — bringing an R&B-infused sound to Capricorn Records and notching a Top 10 hit in “Keep on Smilin’.” The band was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2014.
John Bell, lead singer for Widespread Panic, says that of all the vocalists who came up during the Southern rock era, “Jimmy Hall has the best voice, hands down, no question.”
In recent years, Hall has worked as the music director for Hank Williams Jr. He has also worked as the vocalist for the band of legendary guitarist Jeff Beck. Hall will appear with Beck on a double bill with ZZ Top at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park on May 10.
ArtsATL recently sat down with Hall to discuss his musical journey.
ArtsATL: When did the music bug first bite you?
Jimmy Hall: I was lucky to have attended a grammar school that encouraged the arts. I got a small part in the play, Hansel and Gretel, as a sandman, in the 4th grade. This led to my landing the lead role as Ralph Rackstraw in the play, H.M.S. Pinafore, in the 5th grade. I remember becoming aware that I had this voice, and I knew it was a gift. I got to sing fun ditties and dance little jigs and people liked watching me do both. So, I’d say it was then that I got the bug.
ArtsATL: Did you receive encouragement from the home front, too?
Hall: Most definitely. I come from a family of six kids. My mom always sang around the house. And while my dad didn’t have any actual musical prowess, he loved music. He always had a great stereo and would bring in albums of Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong to play for us. From Mobile, we were only two-and-a-half hours from New Orleans. So, as a family, we were really absorbing all that Gulf Coast jazz sound. Then, when the ’50s introduced the sound of rock, my dad brought home records of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard and exposed us to that. I was also soaking up everything from R&B to country daily on my little transistor radio.
ArtsATL: What was your first instrument?
Hall: I began playing violin in the 6th grade.
ArtsATL: How did you find your way to the saxophone?
Hall: My brother, Jack [who played bass in Wet Willie], who is two years older than me and always a step ahead, said to me, “Hey bro, next year in the 7th grade, you’re going to be offered band and there’s some pretty cool stuff to think about playing — like the sax or trumpet.” I liked the sound of the saxophone a lot, so I tried it and really liked it.
ArtsATL: Did you lay down the violin?
Hall: Yeah, I did. I can still play it and it was great training for me, for sure. I remember my violin teacher saying, “I’m just so disappointed. I’ve lost my star pupil,” hoping that would change my mind. I didn’t say it to my teacher, but I just didn’t see a future in playing concert violin. So, I listened to my brother and switched instruments [chuckles].
ArtsATL: What about your first harp?
JH: My brother Jack bought me my first one for my 17th birthday. He was always buying me nice gifts of the things I wanted. It was so nice, I was afraid I couldn’t learn on it. So, we took it back and bought a cheap one, split the refund, and I sat down and taught myself how to play harmonica on the 10 dollar one.
ArtsATL: So Jack was “instrumental” in your musical career?
Hall: No doubt — he’s always been a great big brother, leading the way. Like when I got to junior high, he was already in the marching band. I followed his lead with that. And, we were very lucky to have a great band director, Orland Thomas. He was a great mentor who pushed us hard but was always such a positive role model. We’d practice for hours out in the heat. But I tell you, come game time, we’d put on a great show.
ArtsATL: How did you and your brother march from the high school field onto the stage together?
Hall: Jack had already created a band, which had some notoriety around town. I was just a little bird hanging around their rehearsals. I was always saying, “Let me sing. I can sing, let me show you.” Eventually, I decided to put a little group of guys together myself after marching band practice, so I could sing. At that age, your voice is cracking and changing and most guys really don’t want to stand up there and be the center of attention — so, I got to sing.
My brother and I were both receiving musical encouragement as teens before college. We both had gigs as teenagers — and were getting paid. This was the mid to late ’60s. We decided to quit competing and join forces. We looked for the best players we could find to form a band, who would take it seriously and not drop out. Then we committed to see how far we could go with it. This took us from college years and dodging the draft. When Jack and I both got high lottery numbers and knew we weren’t likely to be eligible for the draft, we said, “Okay, let’s get back to the music.”
ArtsATL: How did you come to move to Macon, Ga.?
Hall: At that point, when we began to put everything into the music, we sought out places where the music was happening — like Muscle Shoals and New Orleans. Macon became a beacon to us. It was like a light in the dark. The Allman Brothers were there, and their first album was already out. And, we were just absorbing it. We knew there was a lot going on with this Allman Brothers Band, and that their label, Capricorn Records, understood it. So, we decided to move to Macon. And you want to know something crazy? We didn’t know it beforehand — but the day we arrived in Macon the Second Atlanta Pop Festival (in Byron, Ga.) was going on with Jimi Hendrix and the Allmans playing. When we found out, we just said, “Here we go.”
ArtsATL: Talk about a good omen if there ever was one.
Hall: It sure seemed that way. With all that great music around us, we definitely knew that was where we wanted to be. And, things clicked quickly from there. We met Phil Walden, auditioned, signed with the Capricorn label as Wet Willie, and became part of the family.
ArtsATL: At that time, did you know you were becoming part of Southern rock history?
Hall: I knew we were part of something big. The Allman Brothers were really making a name for themselves and they were clearing the path for a new sound, a new type of music — if you want to call it that. In the midst of all of it, we knew the label was already special and they wanted more and more. In fact, the Marshall Tucker Band opened for us one night and we said, “Hey, you guys need to come to Macon and meet Phil Walden.” And they did. There was definitely something real special occurring in Macon back then.
ArtsATL: “Keep on Smilin’” hit the Billboard chart’s top 10 in 1974, and still receives airtime on classic rock stations worldwide today. What does that song mean to you?
Hall: That song captures a time in my life and career and is autobiographical. I wrote it to encourage myself and give myself support. It was me, talking to myself in the mirror. There are details of the song that I was living.
ArtsATL: Such as?
Hall: “You’re about to go insane ‘cause your woman’s playing games,” was about me trying to figure whether to stay in a relationship with this gypsy woman, who was my girlfriend at the time. Then the verse about “playin’ in a honky tonk,” is about the frustration of playing in bars when people aren’t even listening to you up there. “Are you a farmer, are you a star?” was about me trying to figure out exactly what I was doing. I was renting this cool, old farmhouse. It was just a perfect hippie hangout for musicians. I was growing vegetables and wearing overalls, and driving a pick-up truck and had one rooster — that I always wanted to hear crow just once. So, that’s the farmer part [chuckles].
That’s some of the history of that song — my pep talk — to me. But over the years, it’s become something more. It’s extremely rewarding because so many people have come up to me and shared with me that the song has helped them through some of their dark hours — such as with dealing with an illness or death of a loved one or some sort of life struggle. Hearing how the song has had a positive effect on so many people, and has become a universal help and healing song, has made it a truly great song for me.
ArtsATL: You have a relationship with Gregg Allman, which spans almost five decades now. He refers to you as his “soul brother.” To this, you say?
Hall: Gregg and I are, indeed, soul brothers. We give each other a lot of respect. We share a long history, and we’re both still making music. Ours is a true, lifelong soul-brother friendship.
ArtsATL: Do you think that might explain why — of all the people he could have chosen on the planet — it was you he chose to sit in on vocals for him with the Allman Brothers on several occasions during his bouts of illness a few years ago?
Hall: There are a few reasons. I know the band and am friends with the band. Gregg trusted that I could do the job and that I would be respectful of the material. I know how to make it work without bringing drama. I’m not a male diva and I just want to have a great show. But, it’s always about collaboration. Warren Haynes is a great air traffic controller — great at directing all of us. And, we had Kofi Burbridge and Susan Tedeschi also jumping in to help create a great show — which isn’t hard when you’re working with that caliber of musicians. Gregg also knows that I’d always drop whatever I could to help in any way, anytime.
ArtsATL: How did you become friends with Jeff Beck and form the musical alliance which brings you on stage with him at Verizon Amphitheatre?
Hall: I had a chance opportunity for a musical alliance with Jeff Beck in 1969 when Wet Willie opened for Vanilla Fudge and Carmine Appice wanted to involve me to do vocals on a project he was working on with Jeff. But Wet Willie was just beginning and I was committed to our journey. Also, Jeff had a bad car accident which sidetracked that project. Later, in 1973, Wet Willie opened for Jeff Beck and Carmine Appice and Tim Bogert — they were a fabulous trio.
Back then, Jeff said to me, “You’ll have to come in the studio and record with me one day.” His words just put me on cloud nine. I mean, here’s a guy who’s one of the best — if not the best — guitarists of all time. He’s right there with Jimi Hendrix. A few years later, I had the pleasure of jamming with Jeff in Macon one day for about three hours and that was just a fun, bonding experience. In 1980, Jeff invited me to his Atlanta show at the Fox Theatre and called me up to do the vocals on “Going Down,” during his encore.
ArtsATL: How memorable was that moment for you?
Hall: One of my most. It was powerful. I always say that at that moment — on stage with Jeff Beck — it felt as if I was levitating.
ArtsATL: You were nominated for a Grammy for your vocal contribution on Jeff Beck’s highly acclaimed and bestselling album, Flash, in 1985. Did this experience make it seem as though the memorable moments in your life involving Jeff Beck were stacking up?
Hall: Definitely. That was a great experience and high honor and it really made me feel validated to be asked to be on that album. It was ahead of its time, and, of course, Jeff won a Grammy for Rock Instrumental on that album. But what was also memorable about the experience of recording that album was my wife, Karen, was days away from giving birth to our second son, Alex, when I got the call to do it. Karen said, “Go. This baby can wait a few days.” And Jeff told me he’d have a private jet fly me home right away, if need be. So, off I went. We recorded Friday and Saturday, and I flew home on Sunday morning. After I’d only been home a couple of hours, Karen went into labor. It was that close. Alex was born on June 24th — which happens to also be Jeff Beck’s birthday. Alex’s middle name, Jeffrey, is in honor of Jeff. I feel bonded to Jeff in many ways.
ArtsATL: Use only one word to describe Jeff Beck’s guitar playing.
ArtsATL: How so?
Hall: His playing lifts people and is transformative. Every night he lifts the audience with the power and melody and passion of his guitar. His guitar is a voice — a powerful voice. I know his guitar playing lifts me.
ArtsATL: Jeff Beck released his new live album, Jeff Beck Live, this week that captures several shows while on tour last year. Your vocals are on seven tracks. Do you have a favorite?
Hall: I love “A Change is Gonna Come.” I love Sam Cook and I love gospel. The song resonates with me and is dear to me. And, I feel that that song showcases my vocal range. But, you know, that’s a tough question because I really feel that every song on the album is amazing.
ArtsATL: Speaking of your feelings, is it safe to say that when you join the stage with Jeff Beck this Sunday for the Atlanta show that you’ll have reason to keep on smilin’?
Hall: Yes, I’ll be smiling, for sure. And, quite possibly, levitating, too [chuckles].