Photo by Mike Brown, Memphis Commercial Appeal, posted in association with a tribute by Bob Mehr
Charles “Skip” Pitts, best known for his long association with Isaac Hayes, died today in Memphis after a long illness. He was just 65. A native of Washington, D.C., Pitts played in the ’60s with groups including the Isley Brothers (that’s him on It’s Your Thing) and Wilson Pickett, and in 1970 he joined up with Isaac Hayes. His most famous work is the unique riff that opens up and punctuates Hayes’ hit shaft. More recently Pitts as the unofficial frontman of the Memphis-based R&B band the Bo-Keys, which also feature fellow soul veterans Howard Grimes (the drummer for the Hi Rhythm Section) and trumpeter Ben Cauley of the Bar-Kays.
Last year I did a story for Living Blues on the Bo-Keys that included longer sidebars on Pitts and Grimes. I’m reprinting my story on Pitts here. Interviewing him was a real pleasure — we met first at Gus’ Fried Chicken, and sat down for a long session at the nearby studio of Scott Bomar, the leader of the Bo-Keys. Skip was a charming man with a wonderful smile, and always played with a lot of joy.
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by Scott Barretta
Originally appeared in Living Blues magazine, August of 2011
If the Bo-Keys don’t quite have a front man, Skip Pitts, with his perpetual smile, mesmerizing guitar antics, and a speaking and singing voice that evokes Howlin’ Wolf, is certainly the focal point on stage. Like his early hero Bo Diddley, Pitts emphasizes rhythm over melody, notably on those songs where he features the wah-wah technique that he most famously employed on Shaft.
Although Pitts became a Memphis institution via his long association with Isaac Hayes, he grew up in the nation’s capital, where he was born in 1947. Pitts first began playing guitar at age 11, spurred, like many young males, by the attention young ladies paid to musicians.
“My girlfriend Tina was having a birthday, and when I got there I brought her a little cash register, this was one of my toys,” says Pitts. “And there were two guys there, Gregory and Haywood. They were standing there with their foot on the kitchen chair and playing hollow body guitars, they were doing like Honky Tonk. And all the girls came to them, man, my girlfriend and them were surrounding them, just blushing, and I got so jealous that she didn’t pay me any mind.
“I got home, my father came home from work, and I came runnin’ to him cryin’, ‘Daddy, daddy, I want a guitar.’ We took a cab down to 7th and T to Waxie Maxie’s. I picked out one guitar, and to get that I would have to get it on layaway. And the man said, ‘I can give you that one for thirty-five dollars.’ It was a big Stella guitar, I’ll never forget it, it was blond, it had F-holes. It was a regular converted to electric, one clip-on pickup.
“First thing I did, I went to Gregory’s house, and believe it or not he tuned it to the open string E [a tuning Pitts used for about two years]. And I banged and banged and taught myself, and a few months later I was playing and all the girls came to me including Tina. She said, ‘I’ll be your girlfriend again,’ and I said, ‘No, that’s all right.’
Pitts learned to play guitar largely by listening to the radio, and eventually formed a group, the Enjoyables.
“It was me on guitar and three other singers. I started [plays funky guitar rhythms] to make up for rhythms that we didn’t have. See, I like drums and polyrhythms, too—I always play with beats in mind on guitar.”
An early influence was Bo Diddley, who lived in D.C. during the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“I was listening to his records—Bo Diddley was a Gunslinger, Hey Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley—all that stuff with maracas. It used to drive me wild because it had that beat. He played some cold-blooded rhythms. Bo Diddley was my boy.”
Although Pitts was too young to see Diddley play at clubs, he and the Enjoyables got to know him on a professional level.
“He was rehearsing us to record us down in his basement on New Jersey Avenue,” says Pitts. “He never got to record us because the deal never came through.”
The Enjoyables did record for Capitol and the D.C. label Shrine, which also released a single by member Sidney Hall, currently with the Flamingos. Other members included Keni St. Lewis, still active in L.A. today, and Carl “Maxx” Kidd, a pioneer in D.C.’s distinctive go-go style. Immediately prior to our interview, Pitts was enjoying a phone call with old friend Chuck Brown, whom he knew long before Brown became recognized as the “godfather of go-go.”
Pitts met many of his musical heroes at his uncle’s Pitts’ Motel, where James Brown’s band stayed while in town. He also encountered R&B royalty at D.C.’s premier African American venue, the Howard Theatre. One notable was Billy Guy, the lead singer of the Coasters, who began managing the Enjoyables, and arranged an audition for the group with Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun. The group was rejected, but Ertegun offered to sign Pitts.
“He wanted me by myself, and I never did do it because at the time I was so into that group,” says Pitts. “We had a lot of nice original material.”
Pitts gained his first glimpses of fame when the Coasters hired him to play bass for a week at the Howard and another week at Baltimore’s Royal Theatre. Around this time vocalist Gene Chandler asked erstwhile bassist Pitts if he knew of a guitarist; Pitts subsequently played the guitar parts from Chandler’s singles that were supplied by another major Chicago artist.
“I was into Curtis Mayfield and I knew those songs,” says Pitts. “And [Chandler] got me to go on the road with him with my mother and father’s blessing. We were on the road all the time from ’64 to ’68. I was his bandleader and everything—that’s how I got my band. Five pieces, two horns, bass, guitar and drums. I brought Ernest Xavier Smith [second guitarist in the Enjoyables] with me on bass.
Although Curtis Mayfield played on many of Chandler’s recordings, Pitts did contribute to others, including his Live at the Regal LP.
A day after leaving Chandler, Pitts and his group were hired by Wilson Pickett; the resultant ten-piece band was later dubbed the Midnight Movers in honor of Pickett’s similarly titled hit.
“Every time I left an artist, the next day I was with hanging out with another artist,” says Pitts. “I didn’t have a rest period—we were hot!
“That week we did the first gig with Pickett and it was fantastic—I had never seen a crowd like that. Gene did ninety-eight percent black; with Pickett it was like fifty/fifty black and white. I’d never been bashful about playing, so to me it was just a boost to know that I’m playing with this big crowd. And I was directing the band.”
In 1968 the group toured Europe—Pitts can be seen in multiple videos of the tour, which all reveal the power and incredible stage presence of the band. Upon returning to the U.S., though, the Midnight Movers left Pickett over a pay dispute.
“The next day the whole group got with the Isley Brothers [Producer] Herb Rooney was tight with the Isley Brothers and they were leaving Motown, so he got us to come to New York, and we started jamming with them, and the next day we started recording with them.
“Our band was with the orchestra that recorded It’s Your Thing—they had some problems with Motown and It’s Your Thing, but they couldn’t have had a problem with the rhythm, because we created that in the studio [sings his instantly recognizable rhythm, bass, and lead guitar parts].
“Most of the things we did with them were in the studio. We did Live at Yankee Stadium; they had an album out on it and they made a movie out of it. I remember going to see it at the movies. I had my back turned, and my Afro was just starting to grow.
“When I was with the Isley Brothers, Sam and Dave was staying in New York. The Midnight Movers produced them through Atlantic—it didn’t do nothing, but we got some money. They had the Charmels, a singing group that used to tour with them [the group recorded four singles for Stax subsidiary Volt], and I started going out with the singer [Eula] Jean Rivers. And lo and behold, Jean Rivers used to go out with Isaac Hayes before he was the Isaac Hayes.”
When Hayes played the Apollo Rivers went to the show and told him about her boyfriend who had played on It’s Your Thing. Hayes, it turned out, was looking for a new guitarist.
“In November of 1970 he sent us round trip tickets to Memphis, and when I met him he was on the pay phone with this big old maxi mink coat and big old mink hat. I said, ‘Whoa, I gotta have me one of those coats.’ He said, ‘You get with me you’ll get one.’ And it came to pass.
Pitts’ “audition” for Hayes took the form of a friendly jam session, and Hayes hired him to play in both his studio and road bands.
“I came out on Black Moses, the first song I did was his version of Never Can Say Goodbye,” says Pitts. “Then everything else that he did I was on. Everything.”
It wasn’t long before Pitts recorded his signature lick.
“We had a deal to do the movie score for Shaft, and we were up in Studio City outside of Los Angeles at MGM on the lot,” says Pitts. “We had a place where he could roll the movie and work on music for the scenes, source music is what they call it. We got to the beginning when Richard Roundtree is coming up out of the subway and going through the streets, and there was a rhythm to his walk.
“Isaac was just hitting stuff on the piano and I had a maestro box and a boomerang wah-wah. When I plugged in I hit my sources on the maestro box and got my settings, and then I went to the wah-wah and said [sings the rhythm guitar riff from Shaft].
He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m just checking everything down here.’ He said, ‘Have you ever played that on a record? Have you ever heard that on a record before?’ I said, ‘No, man, I’m just tuning.’ He said, ‘Keep doing it. Do it in G.’ Don’t forget, I was into Bo Diddley a lot, so that rhythm was easy for me to feel. Then he went to F, and I did the same thing, but he said, ‘No, go back to your G.’ I went back, but I didn’t like it because I wanted to play along with what he was doing. I just didn’t feel what it was, not then.”
“So that was the song, and the guy came in, [director] Gordon Parks, and we played it for him and he said, ‘It’s a hit, it’s a hit.’
In addition to recording with Hayes, Pitts played on records by Stax artists including the Soul Children, Inez Foxx, and Rufus Thomas. In 1981 left Hayes and Memphis “when Isaac had some trouble with the IRS,” and returned to the band of Wilson Pickett. Hayes called him back to Memphis in 1994, and Pitts remained with him until Hayes’ death in 2008.
In recent years Pitts played on the soundtrack to South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, which featured his longtime boss as “Chef,” and rerecorded Shaft for John Singleton’s 2000 remake. Pitts, who first acted in the 1974 blaxploitation film Truck Turner starring Isaac Hayes, has appeared in more recent films including Black Snake Moan, and he lends his unique voice to commercials.
In his adopted hometown Pitts’ career accomplishments were acknowledged via a W.C. Handy Heritage Award in 2008, and in 2010 a star was placed in his honor on the Beale Street Walk of Fame. It’s unlikely that the ebullient guitarist was ever quite in the shadow of his more famous bosses, but he clearly relishes the opportunity the Bo-Keys presents to showcase his increasingly recognized talents.
“The Bo-Keys is something that I’ve been looking forward to doing for a long period of life,” says Pitts. “This is something for me this time. I hope and I pray that Got To Get Back takes off. I’ve been doing things for everybody else, and now it’s time to do something for me.”