Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers
He’s clawing at the fret board, but something’s out of kilter. He’s not picking with the hand over the open strings near the bottom of the guitar. He’s picking with the hand that’s nearest the tuners at the top. With his fingernails. Backwards. And he’s left-handed. At first the high school kids just stare. Everything’s reversed: hands, strings, but it works. Standard outfit: a glossy red jacket, a shirt limp with sweat and his hair piled up like glistening black ice cream while those long finger nails catch the strings until the melody growls and snaps, snickers and weeps, climbs snail-slow, inching to the pinnacle of pitch where it hangs, suspended by nothing, dancing over some unimaginable cacophonous abyss, mocking us in our buttoned-down modesty until it careens down the steel slope into banshee bawling as he whips and snaps the guitar neck and it screams for mercy, mercy, save me from this voo doo doctor who is squeezing out every bizarro feeling and tortured notion since the dawn of string and twang. His band consists of drums, bass, sax and himself. Our crowd stands within inches, swaying to Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers, half-conscious that what we are doing is tantalizing, exotic and even dangerous.
John Edward Jenkins. He and his four-piece band sweated through the frat circuit (6 fraternities and 5 sororities) in Macon GA in the late fifties and early sixties when high school dances were held in the old YWCA building on Second Street. No air conditioners. Somnambulant chaperones. Teens red-faced from the heat and tipsy because they spent less time dancing than they did in the parking lot with Jack in the Black. “Hud” had been released the year before glorifying the misogynist’s lead character’s addiction to Jack in the Black, so many of the males at the dance were swaggering around with that Paul Newman cockiness in their head. No casual clothing. We were dressed, starched, clean shaven, and some girls even wore petticoats. Today we’d call it a social steam bath. Sweat rolled down Johnny Jenkins’s body until the water weight alone dragged his tux shirt down exposing most of his neck for the timid girls who swayed to his music and their mild-mannered dates.
In 1963 white teens in Macon had little to no contact with black teens, neither in school nor on the ball field. We heard the albums and before that the .45’s, but there was no Beyonce´ or Barack Obama. Many, if not most of the teens’ parents employed ironing women, yard men, cooks or maids. And for those boys and girls at the dance the family’s black help may have had a major hand in raising them, ironing their shirts and dresses, watching them after school, even cooking their meals, but few of the kids followed the news closely enough to know what was happening around them. There was no 24/7 news cycle. We learned the news from Huntley and Brinkley, John Cameron Swayze or Walter Cronkite, the news they wanted us to hear. In 1963 Medgar Evers was killed by a sniper’s bullet. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington, D.C. and a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama, which left four young black girls dead. As bizarre as it may sound now, few of us knew anything at all about those events. To those of us who felt those guitar rhythms rising through our soles, who breathed in the sweet odors of perfume and swayed to those long, pre-Jimmy Hendrix riffs, Johnny Jenkins and the Pine Toppers were playing music in an alternate universe.
Jenkins was born March 5, 1939, east of Macon in Swift Creek where chalk lakes filled with chalky water dominate the landscapes. In the summer white kids swam and drank beer on the eerie banks and there were supposedly some who inhabited those parts who ate kaolin. Like most everyone else in his community Johnny Jenkins was barefoot poor. He loved hillbilly music! At nine he cobbled together a cigar box with rubber bands and played it and called it a guitar. By the age of sixteen he was out of school and had turned to music full-time. Although he never rose to list stardom in the music industry, he did achieve some success with albums such as “Ton Ton Macoute”—several tracks feature Duane Allman— “Blessed Blues,” “Handle with Care,” and “All in Good time.” In the seventies, when Capricorn Records was getting off the ground under the leadership of Maconite, Phil Walden, Jenkins was granted a recording session in Memphis, but the session didn’t go well and there was tape left over for a filler piece. Someone suggested allowing Jenkins’s driver to record a little diddy he had thrown together, a catchy tune. The driver knocked the session off quickly and the group returned. Everybody hummed it as they drove back to Macon down the then practically deserted I-75. Of course, the driver hummed it, too. After all, it was his song. He called it: “These Arms of Mine.”
Johnny Jenkins died in 2006.