The road that leads home
Jimmy “Junior” Markham on (almost) everything
Jimmy “Junior” Markham // Photo by Natasha Ball
Jimmy “Junior” Markham is a singer, a harmonica player, an Oklahoma Blues Hall of Famer, an Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame Blues Inductee. Most of all, he’s a cog in the inner-workings of Oklahoma’s music scene, a rainmaker since Tulsa’s formative years as a rock-and-blues hub.
In the 1950s and ‘60s he made music with Leon Russell, J.J. Cale, and David Gates, to name but a few, and he also crooned in his own bands. In 2009, Markham entrusted Steve Ripley (The Tractors, Leon Russell) with some of his 50-year-old master recordings. Steve played one on the tape machine in his recording studio. Markham’s sweet, smooth voice came through the speakers. “It hurts me deep inside that you lied,” I heard Markham sing.
Last summer, Jimmy gave me a ride in his truck over to a coffee shop, where he sat with me and my recorder, telling stories.
On his chance meeting with Elvis Presley: I saw Elvis Presley and that ruined my life. That was at the Fairground. I was in the 8th grade, maybe. He only came here once, to the Fairgrounds Pavilion.
Back in those days, security for those things didn’t exist. There was no need for it. It became kinda frantic. Just before it was over, I told [my mother] I’d meet her at the car. I went back into that perimeter tunnel of the Fairgrounds Pavilion. No one was there to stop me…I walked back in there and looked up and there’s Elvis Presley. I visited with him. He wanted to know where the bathroom was, and we went to the bathroom. Actually, his first words were, “Do you know where a guy can take a piss around here?” I said, “Yeah, follow me.”
We went down to the men’s bathroom and he said, “I gotta go back out here and sign autographs,” so I went back out with him in the hall. And by the time we got out there, those windows opened up about eight, 10 feet tall. And he stood up on a Coca-Cola box on the inside and Colonel Parker was outside selling his glossy black-and-white photos. He would sell one and pass it up, and Elvis would sign it and pass it back down. I stayed there about 15 minutes, just watching him do that. We never spoke because he was kinda busy doing that thing, and I finally said, “Well, I gotta go man.” And he said, “I’ll see ya.”
On the music of Black Wall Street in the late ‘50s: I cut my teeth over on the north side. That used to be the Black Wall Street. But it was the tail end of it. There were at one time some beautiful nightclubs over there that had everything going on. B.B. King played over there; Billie Holiday played over there one New Years Eve. I was there for Ray Charles and Little Richard and Jackie Wilson. It was only on that side of town and it was never advertised over here. Never.
There was the Flamingo Club on Greenwood and right across the street was Dreamland Theater, and that’s the only club that would not accept my credentials, my fake ID. I could get in all the rest of them but I couldn’t bust that deal at Dreamland. They would just refuse. They knew I wasn’t 21. But I would dress in coat and tie and act like I was 21. The ones that let me in knew I wasn’t.
On the ‘60s in LA, living in the same house with Leon Russell and Dave Teegarden: [Leon] enticed me to come to California, so I pulled up and went to California. I was about 18. Dave Teegarden came out after I had been there a year, six months. We all lived in the same house.
I got a recording contract out there, with Capitol Records. The Tulsa Review. [LA is] where I met Gram Parsons, who became the leader of the Flying Burrito Brothers. I opened a lot of shows for them. I still work with Bobby Keys, a tenor sax player from Texas. Bobby’s been in the Rolling Stones for the last 35 years. He was in Joe Cocker’s band.
On picking up the harmonica: [A drummer] said, “You need to start playing harmonica on some of these [recordings].” So I went down to the music store that day—we were out on the road somewhere—and bought a harmonica, and I started fooling with it then.
I’m still picking it up. It’s a difficult little booger to get it the way you want it. I suppose any of it is. I did a lot of pop music and even some urban-cowboy music, believe it or not, keeping up with the trends. But [I] wound up back at the harmonica.
After decades of travel and adventure, Markham returned to Tulsa because: It’s home.