Who killed Al Jackson Jr., one of soul music’s greatest drummers?

Thrilla In Manila. This is the name of the boxing fight that pitted Mohamed Ali against Joe Frazier on the 1er October 1975. A victory in fourteen rounds for Ali, broadcast worldwide from the Philippines. When the game ends, we are the 1er October in Manila. But in the United States, with the time difference, it’s still the day before.

On the evening of September 29, therefore, Al Jackson Jr. returns home to 3885 Central Avenue, in Memphis. He canceled a flight to Detroit so he could see the game at a gathering place in the city, the Mid-South Coliseum, with his girlfriend, singer Eddie Floyd and producer Terry Manning. He will take the plane at 10 a.m. the next day. To rest, he returns to spend the night at home, where his wife Barbara Jackson is.

They are not on good terms. The previous July 31, Al had punched Barbara several times, very hard, forcing her to grab a .22 caliber and, after a warning shot, shoot her in the chest. Slightly injured, he was taken to hospital. Then a judge had cleared Barbara on the principle of self-defense.

They are separated, in the process of divorce, Al must also move in a week to Atlanta. In the meantime, here he is in front of the door of his home. He knocks on the door, his wife opens the door, he enters his home, five shots ring out. Al Jackson Jr., one of the greatest drummers of his time, dies at the age of 39.

The art of backbeat

In the middle, we nicknamed him “The Human Timekeeper”, either in French “the human chronometer” or “the human metronome”. Al was born in Memphis, the city where his father brilliantly led a very popular swing dance group in the 1930s. At the age of 5, he already joined him on stage, on drums, like the child prodigy that he is. His amazing precociousness allowed him to join the orchestra of trumpeter William Mitchell at only 14 years old, in which he played for thirteen years, while leading other musical projects in parallel.

Another musician is part of the group: Booker T. Jones. The latter has been officiating in Memphis for a short time with the young Stax Records label which, thanks to its first notable successes, is in the process of carving out a solid place for itself in national soul music. Al hesitates, then agrees to join the group Booker T. & The MG’s, a quartet completed by two white musicians, Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, providing most of the studio sessions. The beginning of glory.

For almost ten years, Booker T. & The MG’s will shape the albums of Otis Redding, William Bell, Albert King, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd or even Mavis Staples. Al Jackson Jr. shines with his precision, of course, but also with a very singular groove, the backbeat, which consists of creating a kind of latency shifted between the beats, bringing out the second and fourth beats of the measure in an unprecedented way. We hear it in particular on the titles “In The Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett or “Seesaw” of Don Covay, among many others.

In addition, Booker T. & The MG’s released their own albums, officially eleven in nine years, including the superb Green Onions Where Hip Hug Her.

In 1971, they released their ultimate 33 rpm, Melting pot, but separate. Dissension within the group got the better of the interracial cohesion of the beginnings, the legal and financial setbacks of Stax Records not arranging anything. Al continues his career on his side, notably with Al Green, Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin. In 1975, however, Booker T. & The MG’s planned to reform for, perhaps, a new album.

A simple theft?

It is just after midnight on the night of September 30 to the 1er October 1975 when police officer JS Massey walks past 3885 Central Avenue in Memphis. He sees Barbara Jackson totally in shock, screaming in the street, and stops to help her. She explains that her husband, a musician, was killed by a man in their house, that she was kidnapped but that she finally managed to free herself after the intruder left.

JS Massey enters the mansion to find Al Jackson Jr. lying face down in a pool of blood. He calls for reinforcements and listens to Barbara’s story: at 11 p.m., she returned home after a treatment in a beauty salon. As she was about to return, a man waiting for her by the door aimed a gun at her, pushed her inside and tied her to a chair with a rope. Minutes later, as the assailant searched the house for valuables, the doorbell rang.

The man, whom Barbara will later describe as young, black and with an Afro cut, unties her and tells her to go and open the door. It’s Al, going home to sleep after watching the broadcast of the boxing match with his friends in downtown Memphis.

The drummer is also threatened, ordered to lie down on the ground and give the location of the couple’s money. At the same time, Barbara is again tied up, her back turned to her husband. Seconds later, five shots are fired. The man strips Al, whom he shot coldly, taking his jewelry and his wallet, then flees. It will take several minutes for Barbara to overturn the chair and manage to free herself.

No one knows for sure what motivated this murder. A simple theft? Maybe. But the theory, the track long followed and deepened by the authorities is much more labyrinthine. It was narrated in an article of 1997 published in the English magazine Grand Royal. There she is.

The track followed by the police

Barbara Jackson, divorcing Al, reportedly had a boyfriend, a police officer whose name has never been revealed. This one would have, a few days earlier, sponsored a bank robbery in Florida. The man chosen to carry out the heist would be a certain Nate Doyle, himself the companion of a great soul and blues singer, Denise LaSalle.

After the robbery, the two men were supposed to meet at the Jackson home, without Al being informed. Denise LaSalle would have accompanied them, the four people would therefore have been reunited that evening at 3885 Central Avenue. Al Jackson would not have told his wife that he would be home that evening. Maybe she thought he was already on the plane to Detroit, or in a hotel on the other side of town, where he’d had his habits since their separation.

It is possible that he surprised all these little people at home and paid a high price for it. Who knows? Nate Doyle, once ranked among the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives, was shot dead by police in a July 1976 shootout. Denise LaSalle and the anonymous policeman. Mystery, then.

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Who killed Al Jackson Jr., one of soul music’s greatest drummers?