Born James Scott Norman on August 12, 1937 in Nashville, Tennessee, singer/songwriter Jimmy Norman has been an R&B institution for over 50 years. He played with Jimi Hendrix in New York’s Greenwich Village, wrote the lyrics for “Time is on My Side” - later a hit for the Rolling Stones - and sang with the Coasters for three decades.
In 1968, Norman also helped out a young Jamaican musician under contract to singer Johnny Nash. He desperately wanted to be an American-style rhythm and blues singer and Nash suggested that he work with Norman. That led to Norman’s intense and prolific collaboration with the 23-year-old Bob Marley. The king of reggae went on to record more than 40 of Norman’s tunes.
Today, the BMI Songwriters Database includes about 150 songs credited to the name of Jimmy Norman. He has also written countless tunes for other artists, including Bob Marley, the Chargers and his own band of thirty years, the Coasters, for which Norman was never given credit. Today, he receives only a small percentage of the residual payments he should be owed.
As a young teenager, he moved to Detroit and later to St. Louis. In 1957 he ended up in Los Angeles, which was a true vocal harmony home in the ‘50s. Bobby Day’s house was a meeting place, as was Cornell Gunter’s. But most well-known was Jesse Belvin’s where a couple of friends got together to harmonize in early 1958. Belvin persuaded some guys to form a group, which was named the Chargers, where Jimmy sang tenor. Norman, who soon dropped his second surname (Scott), recorded as Jimmy Norman & The Hollywood Teenagers and sang with the Dyna-Sores (who with H.B. Barnum and Ty Leonard of the Robins made a cover of “Alley Oop” for Leon Rene in 1960).
Norman then turned solo and had a regional success with “Here Comes the Night” in 1961 and a hit with “I Don’t Love You No More” on H.B. “PeeWee” Barnum’s Little Star label in 1962. He also wrote several songs for other R&B artists.
Norman later moved to New York and recorded “Love is Wonderful” in 1963, “Can You Blame Me” for Samar in 1966 and close to 20 singles for different labels during the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Jimmy became a true touring and recording Coaster with Carl Gardner. When Earl Carroll left Norman took care of the two talented comic roles Billy Guy and Carroll had played. He was also lead singer in Eddie Palmier’s group, The Harlem River Drive.
In early 1998 Norman left his nearly 30-year stint with the Coasters (who had recruited Alvin Morse as the fourth singer in late 1997) to start as a solo act and producer again. Norman was replaced by Carl’s son, Carl Jr. in time for Gardner’s 70th birthday.
His solo efforts include Home (1987) and Tobacco Road (1998) on Badcat Records and his latest CD, Little Pieces, and first nationally distributed album by Judy Collins’s Wildflower Records label.
Norman’s most famous song, “Time is on My Side,” was written for New Orleans singer Irma Thomas in 1964. Norman received no credit for the song, which was mislabeled, with credit given solely to a co-writer named Norman Meade, the pseudonym of songwriter and producer Jerry Ragovoy, who wrote several songs for Janis Joplin.
The song was first recorded by jazz trombonist Kai Winding and his Orchestra in 1963. For that recording, “Time is on My Side” was the only lyric Ragovoy had in mind. Jimmy Norman was brought in a year later by arranger H.B. Barnum to write the remaining lyrics for Irma Thomas to perform.
That same year, it became a huge international hit when it was recorded by the Rolling Stones. Their version became a Number Six hit on the U.S. Billboard Singles Chart. The song has since entered the public domain. Jimmy Norman has never received any payments for the song’s success. Ragovoy, as sole songwriter, received the royalties.
“I haven’t gotten it yet, and there’s good reason to think that maybe I won’t get it,” Norman says of the royalty payments. He says he’s at peace with the way the dollars flowed. “If I did without it this far,” he says.” I ain’t got much of a problem.”
“Few years back ... don’t know how long ago ... I was finding watches everywhere I went,” recalls veteran American R&B singer and composer Jimmy Norman. “On the sidewalk, in parks, in the back of taxis, in the subway . . . if I looked around, I’d find a watch.
“And it started to get to me. I thought someone was trying to send a message . . . time was catching up with me.”
His reading seemed prophetic. A pair of heart attacks had finished his 30-year career working the chitlin circuit and retro rooms in the most legitimate version of the Coasters. (Several groups tour under the name of the 1950’s vocal act who sang “Charlie Brown”, “Yakety Yak” and others.)
“I came in in 1969 to produce the band, and stayed on as a member . . . but ten years ago I could barely breathe, I was down to about 20 percent of my lung capacity, and it was a tough life, touring constantly, singing the same ten songs every night,” says Norman on the eve of an extraordinary comeback.
In 2004, Norman celebrated the North American release of his first nationally distributed album in more than 20 years, Little Pieces - a group of luminous and contemporary-sounding original folk/soul R&B songs. The CD, distributed on Judy Collins’s Wildflower Records label, is what Norman calls “swamp funk”; it is being described by critics as a roots classic.
“Finding this recording is like stumbling on an undiscovered gem, full of history, depth and beauty,” Collins tells me Monday night.
The songs, retrieved and pieced back together from notebooks and cassette tapes left in garbage bags, are both a testament to Norman’s childhood in Nashville where he says he grew up listening to both Grand Ole Opry and “everything from the blues to Sam Cooke to Billy Eckstine”.
Kerryn Tolhurst is the expatriate Australian guitarist and songwriter who produced Little Pieces. Tolhurst used to scour Melbourne record stores in the 1960s for music like Norman’s, looking for blues, country and R&B licks to copy. Norman’s notebooks were akin to buried treasure.
“These were songs that had been frozen in time from the 1960s and ‘70s,” Tolhurst says. “They had been put aside for 40 years, but when Jimmy started playing them on his old piano, you could hear all his influences - Muscle Shoals, Stax, Joe Tex. But to give them that sound would have been a mistake, a retro project with no contemporary relevance.”
“We had no money, no studio, no record company backing . . . only the trust of the handful of musicians who knew him and admired him. But how could I not do it?”
Of Bob Marley - “We hung out, wrote a lot of songs together,” says Norman. “The songs with Bob were okay, but his sense of time was just a hair behind mine. I even went back to Kingston with him for a while, and he taught me the rudiments of rock-steady, which became reggae.”
Of Jimi Hendrix - Norman got close to Jimi Hendrix during the guitarist’s tenure with bluesman King Curtis in the late 1960s.
“Jimi used to play his own stuff down in the Village when he was in New York, but no one really paid it much mind. I was with him on his last night here. ‘I’m going to England tomorrow,’ he said. ‘People here don’t understand my stuff.’ It was a sad time for him. But the next time he was in New York he was in a limo, and there were hundreds of people climbing all over it and screaming his name.”
Tolhurst became fascinated by Norman’s songs. He started building the album “back to front, recording the vocals first, because I had no idea how long Jimmy’s voice would hold out.”
Over the next year Tolhurst added his dobro and guitar parts, and bringing in New York notables (including bassist Paul Ossola, drummer Tony Beard and Rosch on keyboards, one at a time to his home studio in Brooklyn to add subtle Southern and urban textures.
“This whole experience has saved my life,” Norman says. “I do feel blessed. My motto has always been ‘Hope for the best, expect the worst, and take it as it comes.’ But I never thought I’d have another chance, not like this.”