For budding saxman Jimmy Carpenter, it was love at first sight. It wasn’t the instrument the 8-year-old was focused on initially but the sultry model advertising it.
“My father had a Dave Brubeck album that had Paul Desmond on it,” Carpenter says of Brubeck’s 1955 release “Red Hot and Cool.” “It had a rather titillating photo, Dave Brubeck sitting at a grand piano with this red-headed woman in a red dress sprawled across the piano. And Paul Desmond’s kind of faded-looking over in the corner. It started mostly because of the cover, but I loved that record. I wore it out.”
The future Alka-Phonic started his sax career the summer after the fourth grade. He was invited to a gifted/talented summer school program, riding his chosen instrument all the way through grade school and junior high. Overcome with rock star aspirations in high school, he switched to guitar. But after the glitter wore off, Carpenter realized that if he wanted to go to music school, his guitar prowess wouldn’t cut it. Hauling the sax out of storage, he practiced for a while and passed the audition for UNCG’s music school.
“I did it the way I do a lot of things, the backdoor way,” Carpenter admits. “I went as an adult student, which meant I didn’t have to adhere to any particular curriculum, so I just took music (and) didn’t bother to take anything else.”
But the close proximity to the attractions on Greensboro’s Tate Street scene lured Carpenter away from his scholarly jazz pursuits.
“The music school was right there on Tate Street, so I started hanging around,” he said. “Keith Roscoe had the Guitar Shop up there, that was kind of a hub, and the Hong Kong House was a hub. That’s how I kind of slid into that whole thing.”
Hong Kong House owner Amelia Leung was the den mother, her restaurant a sanctuary for Tate Street’s musical denizens.
“We all hung out here, everybody did. I basically lived there,” Carpenter says. “I had a really rough winter of ’79. I was an exterminator (and) got laid off a week before Christmas and didn’t go back to work till, like, Easter, so I was struggling there that winter. Bruce Piephoff and I used to compete to take the garbage out because if you took the garbage up the street, Amelia would feed you lunch. Then she let me run a tab for months. Amelia is the salt of the earth.”
Guitarist Scott Sawyer was working at Roscoe’s place, singer-guitarist Dakota Joe Dunn was working at the Hong Kong House, and Carpenter was drawn into the Little Alfred Band, the group that included David Moore, Billy Ransom, Will Wolfe, Cliff Greeson, and later, Scott Manring.
“That’s when I first started listening to all to blues and soul. Up until then, I was in music school, trying to study jazz. But blues was a lot more fun,” Carpenter says.
He was exploring other genres as well.
“Sam Frazier turned me onto a bunch of stuff and one of them was Otis Redding, and I lost my mind. (I) started checking out the Stax bands, and King Curtis came in as a result of that and it all kind of expanded from there. Junior Walker was Motown, but it sure didn’t sound like Motown — a different take on things.”
Carpenter was being educated by a different kind of school, as well the one being conducted on Tate Street.
“That was a tough little scene to crack,” Carpenter says. “Those people — the Tate Street people — were all kind of hip, and it took me a while to get accepted.”
But once they welcomed him into the fold, he got a master class in stuff he didn’t know existed. Tornado bassist Bobby Kelly introduced Carpenter to the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians band the Wild Magnolias.
“And I was like, ‘Oh my God! What is this?’ And eventually I ended up playing with ’em 30 years later. That was some life-changing stuff. There was a lot of stuff around Tate Street back then. That was an enormously creative bunch of people.”
Carpenter developed a raucous, honkin’ style that dumped King Curtis, Jr. Walker and Bobby Keys into a roiling cauldron of rock ’n’ roll skronk, pouring the molten product into forms that burst at the seams. In the ’80s, Carpenter squeezed his honk into the Alka-Phonics, a motley collection of road dawgs who spread musical mayhem up and down the East Coast for nearly eight years. They reassembled R&B classics from the Winston-Salem band the “5” Royales to the Fabulous Thunderbirds, with stops along the way to take on the J. Geils Band and assorted blues demons. With the original cast of the Jenison brothers, Scott on guitar and Mark on bass; David Moore on harp and vocals; and Bill Howell on drums, the Alkas made a rep as a hard-core bar band, becoming a house favorite at Key West’s Sloppy Joe’s bar.
The band played and drank their way into Key West folklore with escapades including backing legendary wrestling icon Dusty Rhodes and carousing with ’70s TV series “Kung Fu” star David Carradine. The actor invited the band over to his lodgings at the Pier House the next day, and the band hung out from noon until 6 imbibing with Carradine.
“I was a fairly proficient drinker,” Carpenter says, “and he’s one of the few people I ever met in my entire life that drank me under the table.”
Due to play that night, the band staggered back to the band house at dusk to try to sober up before going back to Sloppy Joe’s.
“We were all just wrecked,” Carpenter remembers. “The bartenders were taking bets on who was gonna fall off the stage.”
Wrestler Rhodes showed up one night at Sloppy’s after a match at the local high school, surrounded by a cadre of well-lubricated grappler compatriots who proceeded to take over the bar, trying to cajole the bouncers perched on raised platforms to come down and play. They got no takers, but the Alkas were proud to have Rhodes clamber onstage with them and insist on singing “Johnny B Goode.” Rhodes slammed his humongous leg down on the stage, counted it out and took off.
“I’ve said for years, my career has been downhill ever since then,” Carpenter says, chuckling. “That was the top.”
After the Alkas wound down, Carpenter hit the road from 1988 to 1995 with Charlie Pastorfield and the Believers, then started a booking agency after the Believers broke up. But a booking career was about as viable for Carpenter’s interests as his agency’s name, Stone Balloon.
“I did not like being an agent at all,” he says emphatically, adding with a laugh, “There were some parts of it that appealed to me, but it’s nothing like being a musician. A good day as an agent ain’t that great a day, really.”
To add to his consternation, he soon found out he was not welcome into the business side of things. Living in Washington at the time, Carpenter had done considerable booking for the Believers in the area and thought maybe there’d be some love laying around.
“I was sadly mistaken about that. One guy said, ‘I don’t know why you’re doing this, man, you’re tying take food off my children’s plates.’ ”
When that same agent cut Carpenter out of a $25 dollar commission, he realized it was time to go. A phone call from Atlanta saxman Tinsley Ellis provided him with an out.
“I want to do one year of this stuff that I really dig, this guitar/sax stuff,” Ellis told him. Carpenter replied, “’I’m working on this thing, and I really need to give it some thought. Gimme a couple of days.’ That’s what I saying in my head, but in my heart, I’m like, ‘Yeah I am so outta here.’ ”
Although that relationship only lasted a year because Ellis wanted to pursue a different sound, he still has high praise for Carpenter, calling him “one of the greatest sax players on the circuit. I really thought when Bobby Keys died, I actually thought he had a shot because he plays that kind of sax. Or even the big man with Springsteen, Jimmy plays that kind of sax — not a lot of scales or anything, he plays a lot of just honkin’ tenor.”
Carpenter next put his honkin’ tenor to work with Jimmy Thackery, formerly of the Nighthawks, for six years as a sideman and road manager from 1999 to 2004, recording four releases with Thackery — “Sinner Street,” “We Got It,” “True Stories” and “Whiskey Store Live.” The band Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers was aptly named.
“As far as I know, Jimmy (Thackery) has never had a driver’s license,” Carpenter says. “He didn’t lose it. He never had it. So the band was the Drivers, and we all took turns driving. It was always interesting to me that anywhere Jimmy Thackery has ever been, somebody always took him there.”
Carpenter’s next bounce took him to New Orleans. Previously residing in D.C., his marriage unraveling because of him constantly being on the road, he decided to try living in New Orleans, figuring that since all the Drivers lived in far -flung places and flew in to meet tours, it didn’t matter where he lived. “I figured, ‘Man, this is an opportunity to go do something completely different.’ (I) wouldn’t have to worry about starving because I had a gig. (It) seemed like a good opportunity to do something drastic, and New Orleans is a mecca for a horn player.”
Carpenter built contacts in The Big Easy, including manager Reuben Williams who manages Tab Benoit, Samantha Fish and Devon Allman. Williams hooked Carpenter up with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Wild Magnolias. Mardi Gras Indians are African Americans in New Orleans who dress up for Mardi Gras in suits influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel.
“There’s nothing as free as playing an Indian gig, man,” Carpenter says. “Most of the time I’d play bari. There’s no parts. It’s all one chord, and it’s jamming on these insane funky grooves with one drummer, two percussionists and Indians bangin’ on stuff. It’s mayhem. I’d just find a lick and just beat it to death, just play it and play it and play it. Expound on it, make it bigger, make it smaller. A lot of times, (Dirty Dozen denizen) Kirk Joseph was playing sousaphone. I’d stand there next to him, and we’d just kind of go at it. It was really, really fun.”
In the meantime, Carpenter had been making musical alliances around town, but he had his sights set on joining Walter Wolfman Washington’s band, which he says made the Alkas look like wimps as far as road exploits. After sitting in with Washington’s band numerous times, Carpenter showed up at one of the Wolfman’s Maple Leaf gigs.
“I was just making a nuisance of myself I guess, and he goes, ‘Man, do you wanna play in my band? I think you wanna play in my band.’ I said, ‘I definitely want to play in your band.’ So he says, ‘What sign are you, you know, Zodiac sign?’ I said, ‘I’m an Aries,’ and he gets this big grin and he grabs me by both ears and kisses me square on the mouth — freaked me out. Then he goes, ‘All right man, we’ll talk.’ ”
Some time later, the two met up again on the same bill on the road, and Washington told him that he would hire him to do tour dates because his horn player doesn’t like to travel. Carpenter told him they would talk when they got back to New Orleans. “That was the Sunday before Katrina hit, exactly a week. So all the dates became travel dates, and I did all his stuff after that for 10 years.”
Carpenter ended up in his current location in Vegas after playing with Washington at the first Big Blues Bender, a four-day blues extravaganza now in its seventh year.
He met Bender founder AJ Gross, who liked Carpenter’s energy and invited him to hang around and sit in with various bands. Washington was booked the following year’s blues festival, and Carpenter met his current girlfriend, Carrie Stowers, who was selling merchandise for the Bender.
“That was in 2014, then I moved here in 2017, so we’re coming up on six years in September,” Carpenter says of his ongoing relationship with Stowers. Carpenter is a frequent soloist in her band, Girl Haggard, doing some Merle Haggard songs, classic county and classic rock.
Carpenter is now the assistant talent buyer and musical director for the Big Blues Bender, plus leading the house band, the Bender brass. He also heads the musical portion of the Blues Foundation Heart Fund the night before the festival. It’s a late night throw down that runs from 8 p.m. to midnight with as many artists as he can jam into the four hours.
The festival always features a stunning array of blues royalty, this year including Delbert McClinton,Victor Wainwright, Betty LaVette, Johnny Sansone and Albert Castiglia.
“I’m working on music for it now,” Carpenter says of the festival scheduled to run Sept. 10-13. “The Bender Brass backs up eight different people every year, so I have to gather material, distribute it to the bands, get charts, horn arrangements done — working on that now.”
Carpenter has also released four solo albums: “Toiling in Obscurity” (2008), “Walk Away” (Vizztone 2014), “Jimmy Carpenter Plays the Blues” (Vizztone 2017) and 2019’s “Soul Doctor” on Gulf Coast Records.
Carpenter also plays in the Vegas Strip Kings, mixing old school R&B, zydeco, Tex-Mex and whatever else stumbles into their headlights.
One of his favorite gigs recently was a reunion of sorts with old Greensboro musical compatriots. Bobby Kelly’s ex-wife Jesi Tredham hired him to coordinate a private party for her brother’s 60th birthday in Greenville, S.C., backing legendary bassist Victor Wooten (who plays with Bela Flek). Carpenter rounded up G-boro Tornado denizens guitarist Sam Frazier and drummer Cliff Greeson, and three generations of Kellys: Tornado bassist Bobby, son Ezra on percussion and granddaughter Elise on guitar.
“It was a conglomeration of different bands. I never officially played with Sam or Bobby. The Alka-Phonics were kind of the scroungy competition for Tornado, and Tornado was all slick and really good, and we were all ragged and half-ass,” he says, laughing. “Getting to play with them and hang out for an evening was really, really wonderful. We go back almost 40 years. It was very cool. Great to see them, great to hear them, really a touching thing. It was beautiful. I really enjoyed it.”