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February 17, 2014IM -
In 1998, along the French Riviera in Monte Carlo, guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. of Local 47 (Los Angeles) sat and ate lunch at an outdoor café with percussionist Bashiri Johnson of Local 802 (New York City). They were taking in the sights during a break from playing on Whitney Houston’s European tour.
“Bashiri looked around and said, ‘This is a long way from Brooklyn,’ and I said, ‘This is along way from South Central L.A.,’” says Jackson, who has traveled to almost every continent. “I was really a blessed guy and continue to be so.” Jackson is one of the most sought after studio musicians in the business. With a reputation of being the most requested and recorded guitarist in the world, Johnson has made his mark on more than 1,000 recordings from pop, rock, R&B, and jazz artists including Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Elton John, Celine Dion, Dave Koz of Local 47, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, and many, many others.
Jackson also plays with Rickey Minor of Local 47 in the American Idol band and for shows like the Grammy Awards, America’s Got Talent, The People’s Choice Awards, and the NAACP Image Awards. “Success as a studio musician comes from knowing that your number one priority is making the artist happy and developing a reputation for giving those who hire you what they want,” says Jackson. “I still practice and love all the late nights and early mornings in the studio, trying to get things just right on my own projects and those for artists who hire me.”
Besides his work on solo music projects (Jackson released his seventh solo album, Lay It Back, in 2009), he has also traveled to a demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, as well as a packed hotel basement in Guatemala, to lead worship conferences and concerts for 3,000 people.
“What I enjoy most about all these opportunities is the fact that I really love my job and I love playing guitar,” says Jackson. “There is this scripture that says your gift will make room for you and bring you before kings, and my gift has taken me all over the world, TV, and radio and it continues to open a lot of doors.”
Although Jackson had a brief stint as an actor when he was a child, appearing in the TV western Cowboy in Africa, Good Times, Julia, Mayberry R.F.D., and a few films, music was his true passion. Jackson received his first guitar at age nine and began getting serious about music in his early teens. He and his siblings formed a band, 14 Karat Gold, which would play at weddings, dances, and school functions. When Jackson’s parents built a den onto their house as a place to watch TV, Jackson and his buddies took it over as a jam session room. “I owe my parents a lot,” says Jackson. “They were never the type of parents who would tell me that I need to get a ‘real job’ or that I need something else to fall back on.”
Jackson took guitar lessons with Gary Bell, former guitarist for Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) member Fats Domino, at a music store in Carson, California. Jackson says he owes a lot of his career success to Bell, who recommended him as a sub for recording gigs and live performances.
Jackson soon began to record demos for producers and started landing album recordings. His neighbor and mentor, jazz pianist Patrice Rushen of Local 47, introduced Jackson to Lee Ritenour, a fellow Local 47 member, and other influential people in the music business, and Jackson also played with Rushen’s band. In those formative years, Jackson made professional relationships with guitarists like Earl Klugh of Local 148-462 (Atlanta, GA), George Benson of Local 802, and Local 47 members Ray Parker Jr. and Al McKay, who became mentors to him.
Because of those early gigs and recording work, Jackson joined the AFM at just 17 years old. “I think it’s good to have an organization that sets a standard for the job,” says Jackson. “Music is a weird thing because, when you tell friends or relatives you’re a musician, they’ll say, ‘I just thought that was a hobby’ or ‘I never thought you could make a living doing that.’ The fact that the AFM honors what we do as a true and viable career, and supports it as such, is a very important thing.”
Jackson first realized that music was going to be his career during his college years at the University of Southern California. “I knew I was going to be a guitar player and a studio musician, but I didn’t know it was going to end up so great,” says Jackson.
Even though Jackson has an impressive list of recordings as a studio guitarist, he still says he gets star struck and will walk up to artists he admires to tell them how much he appreciates their music. He’s come a long way from being floored over standing in the same room as Ella Fitzgerald, but Jackson did ask Alicia Keys to sign a piece of music for his kids when he met her. “What I do still fascinates me and working with all these people is really cool,” he says.
Working with Michael Jackson on albums Thriller and Bad, as well as other projects, were special experiences for Jackson. “He always knew exactly what he wanted,” says Jackson of the late pop sensation. “One time Michael called me into a Hollywood studio to play a solo on a song that turned out to be ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ I asked him what kind of solo he wanted. He put a cassette in a tape player and said, ‘This is what I want,’ and proceeded to play the tape and sing. The solo I played on the record is what he sang to me note for note.”
Despite having worked with the biggest names in the music industry, today Paul Jackson is expanding on his solo projects. Lay It Back, featuring a single with the same name, has received a lot of airplay on jazz stations, as it makes its way up the smooth jazz charts.
Coming from a musically-inclined family, it’s no surprise Jackson’s sister Karen went on to be a professional percussionist and member of Local 47. She plays with Jackson in his band.
“I’ll always enjoy working as a sideman, but these days my solo career is my primary focus and I’m looking forward to getting on the road with my own band,” says Jackson. “It’s important that I try each time to make a meaningful musical statement about where I am in my life at the time; it’s all about making music that speaks to people, makes them stop what they’re doing, listen, enjoy, and feel something positive.”
In addition to the staggering amount of credits Jackson has acquired over the past few decades, he has yet another notch on his belt to add to his legacy—the Paul Jackson Jr. Signature Gibson guitar. Paul Reed Smith Guitars is also working on a signature model for Jackson, who regularly plays those guitars on TV. “Ray Parker Jr. made an interesting comment about that,” says Jackson. “Someday your grandchildren are going to ask, ‘Grandpa, what did you do for a living?’ And you can pull out that guitar and say, ‘This is what I did.’”