Jackson Whitman: The Guitar Legend Nobody Knew
Twenty-two years ago this month the body of guitarist Jackson Whitman was found in a dark alley by a very drunk man who literally stumbled and fell on top of him. The man’s last name (if I remember to spell it correctly) was Timmons and he too was living in South Nashville trying to earn a dollar or two as a session musician, although he pounded the skins as opposed to plucking the steel. And while they never made music together, each man knew the other from around the neighborhood and for several months the police were sure that Timmons must have had something to do with putting the bullet in the other man’s head. But there was never any evidence and the case went cold. The drummer moved back home to Odessa with his wife and two small daughters to work in the oil fields, and I heard he passed away three years ago in a single car accident out on the highway.
I met Jacob Richard Weiss in the summer of 1964 at Camp Hiawatha and for the next twenty five years, until he moved away, changed his name and got himself killed, we were the best of friends. Both twelve years old and from first generation American middle class families from the “Greater Northeast” suburb of Philadelphia, we bonded over our love for music, television, film, girls, hoagies and jelly krimpets. We watched the Beatles together on my parent’s Dumont black and white for all three Sunday nights in a row that they performed on Ed Sullivan’s show, went to see A Hard Days Night together, sneaked backstage at the Herman Hermits/Rolling Stones show at Convention Hall and tried to hit on Reparata from the Delrons, and we each bought our first electric guitars together at the Sam Goody Chestnut Street store. (For me a Hagstrom II Sunburst; he chose a custom red Fender Strat.)
By the time we graduated high school, I was a pretty good player in a local band doing Cream, Hendrix and Yardbird covers. My only claim to fame was a couple of months with the Soul Survivors during the time period where they hit with “Expressway to Your Heart”. But Jacob…he was golden…both sought after and admired for his ability to mimic anyone from Chuck Berry to Jorma. He was the tall,slender and handsome type, with amazing straight brown hair down to his waist. That alone was pretty much a ticket to join any band of his choice. Because it paid him well and allowed him to travel while still in high school, he backed up an array of bands who could no longer get on the radio due to the popularity of both Motown artists, and the Brit and SF bands. Some of the bands he toured with included Danny and The Juniors, Little Anthony and The Imperials, The Four Seasons and a month with the Beach Boys when Carl or Al was ill and Glen Campbell wasn’t available. He had the creds, and he had the goods.
In September of 1969 I started attending art classes at a local community college and worked part time at a record distributor. Jacob, who already had his own apartment and a VW bus, decided to move to New York where he changed his name to Jackson Whitman, bought himself a couple of Martin guitars, got a three record deal with Columbia Records and proceeded to release three albums of folk and country-rock originals that were examples of early-Americana and critic favorites, but have simply got lost over time. There was some mystery and intrigue going on at 57 West, with stories that Dylan got freaked out at the competition and had the suits bury Jackson. The albums (Blonde Whispers, Lincoln Highway Stomp and White, Wit and Whitman) fetch a pretty hefty price these days among collectors, and there are more than two dozen websites that are dedicated to the talent of my old friend.
Sometime in the mid-seventies, cut by the record label and unable to tour any longer because of a slow growing but out of control disease that attacked his kidneys, Jackson borrowed five thousand dollars from me and his brother Walter, and moved to Tennessee where for the next fifteen years he would become one of the top session guitarists on Music Row. He played for everyone you can imagine back in those times, from the corny Opry gals in their gowns and glitter, to the genius of the outlaws. And although he preferred to remain uncredited, hundreds of albums feature a six-point font “JW” somewhere in the liner notes or on the back of the cover…a small tribute to his legacy.
The last time I saw Jackson was at a Waffle House in Nashville around Christmas of 1988, and the man was clearly in pain. His daily trips to the clinic for dialysis ended his playing days, and he was now almost completely bald, overweight and had developed a bad heroin addiction (is there a good one?) to help cope with the pain. Over the buttermilk short stack with bacon and coffee we reminisced about seeing the Motown Review at Steel Pier in Atlantic City, our frequent trips to the Village where we hung out at Warhol’s Factory, groupies we knew, bands we played with, money made and money lost, the roads he travelled and the business side of music that I felt more comfortable in. I left a five for the waitress on the $7.58 check, and when we hugged goodbye I knew it would be our last time together.
Thirteen months later he was shot behind the right ear and left to die in that Nashville alley.
And nobody ever learned why.
Until two weeks ago.
It was the Tuesday before Christmas when Mrs. Weiss called me, she’s just past ninety-two years old but still with the light in her eyes. “Ed” she said, “I need you to do me a favor please. I just got a call from a detective in Nashville and he says that they have information about Jacob’s murder. I couldn’t understand him with that accent. Can you please call for me and find out what you can?”
Detective Michael Bancroft picked up the phone on the second ring, said he was expecting me. Without much small talk he got down to it. Using DNA evidence collected at the scene during a routine check of the cold case files, they linked it to a man named Marvella “Pappy” Tournade from Biloxi, who was living in Nashville at the time of the murder and now the guest at a state penitentiary in Louisiana. When Bancroft drove down to interview him, he easily admitted to killing my friend for nothing other than an argument over a song. Jackson had told him that he played the lead on “Green Onions” because Steve Cropper was sick that day, and Pappy flew into a rage. Called him a liar, pulled a gun, shot him dead, left town.
And the thing is, if you have the original vinyl album on Stax, pull it out and in the lower left hand corner in a six-point font you’ll see the letters “JW”.
Jackson Whitman…the guitar legend nobody knew.
In addition to my passion for music, my other love is reading crime and mystery novels. Some of my favorite authors are Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, George Pelicanos, John Sanford and the late Robert Parker. Every now and then I get the urge to try my hand at fiction, like today. Like this piece.