The first time I heard “That’s How Strong My Love Is” was in 1965 on the Rolling Stones album Out of Our Heads. Later I heard Otis Redding’s version, which was the Stones’ inspiration. Actually, the song had been originally recorded by O.V. Wright on the Memphis label Goldwax. Wright, like James Carr, another great Memphis soul singer, was a protégé of Jamison’s.
In 2009, while in New Orleans at the conference connected to the Ponderosa Stomp’s 8th annual music festival, I heard a panel on Memphis Soul, with vocalist Otis Clay, guitarist Teenie Hodges (of the Hi Rhythm Section), and Roosevelt Jamison, the writer of “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” The lively discussion was moderated by Peter Guralnick, author of many excellent books on music, including Sweet Soul Music : Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. I was particularly impressed with Jamison’s remarks and gentle personality and requested an interview, which took place in the lobby of his hotel the next morning as he and his wife Linda, already checked out of the hotel, kindly delayed their departure to speak with me.
Roosevelt Jamison : I was born in Pleasant Hill, Mississippi, July the 15th, 1936. I was raised in the church, a Baptist church, Pentecostal. It was a church type of feeling that brought me into music, because I like melodies and I like the words that are being expressed in the melodies. We had group singing going on, so later on I started forming groups. At first I was trying to sing, but I never could keep my timing. Everybody liked for me to be with them, but not to sing. They wanted me to manage the group, so that’s what I was doing. One group I was managing was called Our Redemption Harmonizers. Later on in life, I began to listen to various groups ; I didn’t really manage any other groups. I didn’t manage the Harmony Echoes [a quartet which included O.V. Wright and James Carr] and the Nightingales, but I was familiar with them. I was familiar with the Sunset Travelers and the Soul Stirrers [with Sam Cooke]. I was familiar with most of all the gospel singers.
Craig Morrison : Familiar meaning you were friends with them or you knew their music ?
RJ : I knew their music. I had met some of them, seeing them in concert, in churches. And of course, records. Most of them were from Chess in Chicago and Peacock in Houston, Texas. Those labels produced mostly black music. We weren’t really off into what you call rhythm & blues or blues at that particular time of my age, about less than 16 years of age.
After then, we moved on Beale Street in Memphis and there was a club called Hippodrome [at 500 Beale Street ; by late 1955 it changed names to Club Ebony], and Hippodrome brought in all the big acts. Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, all these people came, and of course we danced to that because this was our kind of music. We really were not hung up on blues as such because it didn’t communicate with my generation. These songs about how the woman had done him wrong, this was for older people. But we did like those kind of groups like Clyde McPhatter, to dance to, more or less. We were young, we were in high school.
CM : You were more into teenage romances, falling in love.
RJ : That’s right.
CM : There’s a moon out.
RJ : There’s a moon out ! Then Sam Cooke came over [from gospel music] with beautiful songs like “darling, you send me” [“You Send Me” was Cooke’s first pop hit, a #1 in 1957]. For some reason these songs during that era, it seemed like the poet’s spirit, its vibration, had a tendency to affect us, because that stage was a romantic stage. Even Motown began, [with] almost all love songs. We admired the women, we opened the door for them and bought them ice cream and things.
CM : It was the southern chivalry also.
RJ : Yes, that was also in there.
CM : Were you among the people that were upset when Sam Cooke left gospel and went into pop music ?
RJ : No, because I had begun to listen to other types of music at that time. His music was very nice, and so you couldn’t help but listen to it and like it. You felt good that he was doing this.
CM : How did you get into songwriting ?
RJ : In the 1960s I began to write little notes. We went out and listened to the music and listened to the stars. I put nature along with our feelings toward the young ladies. I worked with the song until I developed it. It really almost was a poem.
CM : You’re talking about “That’s How Strong My Love Is.”
OV Wright photo from an informative web page on his career at soulwalking.co.uk
RJ : Yeah. While I was working at the Interstate Blood Bank on Beale Street—I was in charge of it—I got to know O.V. Wright. I was interested in managing groups and they started coming around, but I didn’t manage O.V.’s group nor did I manage James Carr’s group. I met them at the church. We got together and began to talk and O.V. wanted to follow Sam Cooke, he wanted to go over [to pop music]. So if he did, he said, “Roosevelt, that song that you’ve been singing for me that you wanted Sam Cooke to sing, what about me singing it ? Don’t worry about the melody, you want the melody like Sam, but I want the melody for me.” I said, “Okay.” He loved the song. It wasn’t a song about mistreating your lady and all that, it was a song of beauty that blended woman, man, and nature, which is a God-fixed type thing. That was because we were in the church and that’s what we liked and that’s what we believed in. When we’re dealing with poetry, this was also beautiful. When we studied nature it was also beautiful. So what’s better than to put it together ? And O.V. was the man to do that.
CM : Were you around when he was recording it ?
RJ : Yes. O.V. had begun to work on the garbage truck, but he was coming down to the blood bank and was looking at a lot of songs that I had written down. ’Cause during the time I was sitting there drawing blood, I was thinking about poetic phrases. He would come by a lot of times. They knew I was working at the blood bank and, too, I had a car and O.V. didn’t have a car. I went down to what was known as the John Gaston Hospital but it’s called the MED now. I would go there at five o’clock and O.V. would go with me, and nine times out of ten he would take the car and go where on he wanted to go and be back around ten o’clock to pick me up. Or sometimes he’d go with me and sit outside until the shift leave and he would come in and be in the chemistry part, working on a song. I would put the song down and he would create the type of melodies that he felt. He would work with one or two notes to perfect it ; he would hold in it slow to see the feeling that would come out, and things of that sort. He enjoyed himself working back there on the music while I was doing laboratory work. That’s where I would meet with most of my artists, they were very good friends of mine.
Of course I knew James Carr quite well because he was in the church. I felt that he really could sing and I felt that O.V. really could sing. O.V. was singing with the Sunset Travelers. Every time he would hit a note, goosebumps would break out on you. He was very good at getting your emotions. James Carr was the same way. O.V. had a soft mellow, humble, beautiful voice like he was big. James Carr also was big, but he had the big strong, powerful voice. A very good friend of mine.
CM : Was there someone that guided you in your music, who opened doors for you ?
RJ : Maybe, I could say yes, then I question that. There was people named Richard Sanders and Earl Cage [talent scouts for the Goldwax label], but I don’t think that they directed me in the direction I wanted to go. There was Quinton Claunch and Rudolph Russell, and they had a recording company [Goldwax] and their major concern was to get good artists so they could make records. Whether that was an advantage to promote me is questionable. However, my major concern was to make these artists be heard because I felt that they had something to offer humanity.
CM : You believed in them, besides they were also your friends.
RJ : Yes I really did, that’s correct.
CM : What are you most proud of in your life or in your music ?
RJ : I’m most proud that I was able to give a good message to people. I was able, even in interviews, to state a lot of the philosophy of my life, a lot of things that I believe in. To have my songs to do so well is a privilege, because I guess I’m one out of so many billions of people and this song managed to get through all the songs that were there and its head popped up, so I’m proud of that. And it seems to have helped many people, especially the ones who were singing it. I’d say 70, 80, 90 some recordings have been done. They recorded the song and the song has helped many people. Not only that, but they heard the song and were able to do their interpretation. They got a feeling and something worthwhile out of it and it wasn’t a sinful type thing, but it was a thing of appreciation and respect and honor.
CM : It was consistent with your beliefs. It had a church kind of philosophy done in a more of a pop world, so it crossed over.
RJ : Yes, I agree with that.
CM : Could you tell about your other songs ?
RJ : I have quite a few songs now, 30 or 40 have been published. Most of the songs I write are songs about how I feel, what I feel about life itself. Some songs that’s published I wrote because I felt it was a bit commercial at that particular time, but that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I didn’t depend on music to make my living. I was a lab tech, so I did this as a hobby. I did it because I liked it, therefore I was able to record what I wanted to.
CM : James Carr did some of your songs.
RJ : Yes he did two or three of them. James wanted a real bluesy song, so I had been working on a song called “You Don’t Want Me.” Many times I would go down on 4th and Beale, and a lot of guys down there drank a bit of wine and stuff like that.
CM : That’s down by Handy Park. I’ve been there.
RJ : Yes, that’s correct. Anyway, I would talk to them and they would tell me about their problems. Most of them are good guys, intelligent guys too, but they was hung up on many problems. These types of problems inspired me into writing about them, and I was able to put it in a poetic way. And these geniuses, these musicians I was working with, they were able to put good music to it.
CM : Can you give me an example of a song you did from meeting guys down on Beale Street ?
RJ : “The Word Is Out (You Don’t Want Me)” : “the word is out all over town that you been playing me for a clown, but it’s alright, I’m not going to worry about it, ’cause you don’t want me.” Or “There Goes My Used To Be.” “Poor Boy,” which you probably haven’t heard, that’s a long time ago, me and some lady wrote it together. These kinds of songs. And the songs that I wrote from my heart called, “Treasured Moments,” “I Need You,” “Lack Of Attention,” “Darling, You Came Into My Life,” and “Mystery of Love,” these are things that I really cared about and it took a bit of me in order to transpose it from my feelings to paper.
CM : That feeling was your philosophy. Could you tell me what your philosophy is ? Or I could listen to your songs and it would all be there.
RJ : That’d be an excellent idea ! If I ever finish this CD of nothing but my songs, I’ll send you one. I’m going to do that because I want people to hear my philosophy. In the early part of the ’80s, I did a tape called A Tribute to the Movement, about black history. I wrote songs like “Things We Used To Do We Don’t Do No More” and “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” I sing about the black characters [sings] : “sitting and a-wishing doesn’t make one great, the good Lord sends the fish but we must dig the bait” and then “Harriet Tubman, called Moses, lead the underground railroad, freein’ the people was her only goal, she never lost a passenger, the train never left the track, with a gun in her hand there was no turning back, she didn’t let nobody turn her ’round, turn her ’round.” Things like that.
CM : How would you like to be remembered ?
RJ : There was something that I wrote a real long time ago that inspired me to go into this poetic world ; it’s already out and Peter Guralnick has it in his book. At first I was an artist, drawing, and I left that. I was in technology, the study of blood, my specialty was blood. I was in sickle cell research at the University of Tennessee. During the time segregation was, and I couldn’t go to many of the colleges or the institutions to get this type of education. I worked all night, starting IV’s and things like that. [One day] I had worked maybe 18 to 20 hours, and I was in the back of the lab. ’Cause life was complicated. So I said,
Oh God, what is it Thou hast for me to do ?
Why am I existing in this confused mass ?
Will my mind ever be contented or will it remain confused ?
Will I have the opportunity, the mental ability to explore my desires ?
Or will my unrestful mind be captive like the flower that’s been covered by the weeds.
Will I be the one to say at the end of this existence,
‘Lord, I’ve gained little and given humanity nothing ?’
The little I’ve gained is sorrow, worry and mental pain.
The nothing I’ve given to humanity is truly is this asked of mine restless soul.
I must say with an invisible tear, my time has been long for yet I stand at the beginning.
This is something that pushed me in this direction.
CM : You wrote that ? It’s beautiful.
RJ : Yes, I did and thank you kindly. That’s most of it ; I didn’t go all the way but that’s good enough. I’m a believer that the energy that exists here on this planet influences us, because I don’t know why I went that way. But when I did, it seemed to capture all the things that I longed for and I love. Part of it is to figure out a way to express it so other people could understand me, as a being. All this came together and I came up with music, but my better music is what I live, the way I live, so maybe that answered your question.
CM : Beautiful. Thank-you so much.
RJ : You’re quite welcome.
CM : What did your parents think of your music ?
RJ : Well, they loved it, but my parents died a long time before I entered into this. My young life is very, very interesting ; my parents were very interesting. I loved them dearly. They were only with me for a little while physically, but their inner being, their spirit, is still with me. Alright.
CM : Thank-you.
RJ : My pleasure.
The photo is from a webpage about the City of Memphis renaming a street for Roosevelt Jamison in 2011. It also includes a recording of "That’s How Strong My Love Is" by Otis Redding. The link is here.
Then his wife Linda told the story of meeting the Rolling Stones :
The Rolling Stones played at the Alltel Arena in Little Rock [Arkansas], March 9, of 2006. They recorded his song. They’d been on their tour for about 40 years and they never met. Because I work at the radio station I knew that our station was publicizing the tour. The producers of the show were interested in making that happen if they could, so they put this together. They missed Memphis but they were going to go to Little Rock, and that morning of the concert—it was about six o’clock in the morning, they called somebody at the radio station to find out our home number—they called and said “The Stones want to meet Mr. Jamison. Will you be able to come to Little Rock today ?” Roosevelt was excited and I was excited, so we took off for Little Rock.
When we got there we found out they were only going to interview the people from Virgin Records and Mr. Jamison. We went into the room for the meet and greet, and they rushed in. They all embraced like they were old friends, they were so excited to meet Roosevelt. They said. “We’re not singing it tonight, but it’s been on our tour.” I was excited that they consented to meet him, but it was like a family reunion or something. They were just really really great people, and of course there were no outside cameras allowed, but Mick Jagger said, “No, let her take a picture.” So I was able to use my camera and take a picture of Roosevelt and the Stones, and that’s something that we cherish. I was so nervous, my first picture I only got everybody’s feet. [We laugh.] Except that’s important, I’ve got Mick Jagger’s shoes ! Roosevelt is a wonderful person and the Stones were all great guys. They were all equally as excited to meet one another.
In Memphis in 2013, at the age of 76, Roosevelt Jamison died at home.
I have posted interviews with many veteran musicians. To go to the index page, click here.