- Associated Press - Sunday, March 5, 2017

RIDGELAND, Miss. (AP) - It was just before Christmas, two years ago, and musician Jerry Puckett had just finished playing an hour-long gig at a nursing home in the metro Jackson area. One of the residents approached Puckett’s wife, Anna.

“Do you mind if I hug his neck?” she asked.

With Anna’s blessing, she did. Then another resident hugged him.

“I looked up and a line was forming, just to give me a hug,” Puckett recalls. “I remember one woman came up - this has really stuck with me - and she said, ‘When are you coming back to play for us? You know, we don’t have a lot to look forward to.’ Man, that went straight to my heart.

“Every one of those women who hugged my neck said, ‘Thank you for coming to play for us.’ That’s a real humbling thing when you realize something as simple as playing a few songs for people can mean that much to them.”

Twice a month, Puckett performs at The Orchard, a retirement community in Ridgeland. It’s a paying gig, but that is not the main reason Puckett does it.

“The Orchard is my favorite place to play,” he says. “I go there with the intention of lifting their spirits, and they always wind up lifting mine. I love those people. I love watching them enjoy music.”

Glenda Green, 80, who has lived at The Orchard for six months, never misses a Puckett appearance.

“I enjoy watching the mood of the crowd. It’s interesting to me,” she says. “We start off quiet, but as soon as he starts playing, the smiles start appearing around the room. And then you can see all us old ladies getting into it.”

Green smiles. “You know, I have a big crush on him. I told his wife,” she says. “I don’t know a lot about playing the guitar, but he looks like a pretty skilled musician to me.”

Yes, he is.

‘He can hear 2 fleas’

Puckett, a 77-year-old Madison resident, has recorded and performed with some of music’s bona fide heavyweights.

A graduate of Pearl High School, Puckett rode a bus to Los Angeles in 1962, and wound up replacing Glen Campbell as guitarist in the rock and roll group The Champs, known for the No. 1 hit “Tequila.” One of his bandmates was James Seals, who would later form the hit-making duo Seals & Crofts.

While in California, Puckett often jammed with Campbell at nightclubs along the Sunset Strip. He also played with Campbell on some of Ricky Nelson’s albums.

Puckett returned to Mississippi in the late 1960s and took a job as a session musician with Malaco Records in Jackson. In May 1970, he played on two songs that would help change the direction of R&B; at the time: “Groove Me” by King Floyd and “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight.

He played on Paul Simon’s “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” album, named by Billboard Magazine as one of the top 500 rock albums of all time.

“Paul Simon was interesting,” Puckett says. “He wanted the tape running constantly. He wanted everything recorded, even the conversations between songs.

“And he changed guitar strings every 30 minutes. He said they lost their sound after that long. Me? I changed about every two or three days.”

In the 1980s, Puckett gave vocal lessons to a young girl who lived just across the Mississippi-Louisiana state line but attended school at Parklane Academy in McComb. That was Britney Spears.

As Willie Nelson prepared to record his album “Remember Me, Vol. 1,” Nashville producer James Stroud hired Puckett to play guitar on the sessions

“Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones) would’ve done it, but I didn’t need Keith Richards,” Stroud told The Clarion-Ledger at the time. “I needed Jerry Puckett. A lot of these records have intricate chord changes, beautiful melodies. They’re tough to play. So I chose Jerry.”

Puckett played on Tim McGraw’s 1995 hit “I Like It, I Love It.”

Puckett also wrote and performed radio and TV commercial jingles that have been stuck in our heads for years. Example: “Nobody cares like the Car Care Clinic, for your automobile!”

One of Puckett’s unique talents involves his ears. As bass player Raphael Semmes of Jackson once said, “He can hear two fleas walking across a dog’s back and tell you if one of their legs is shorter than the other.”

Puckett used those sensitive ears to became one of Nashville’s “vocal tuners,” meaning he would listen to songs before they were published and make sure the vocals were perfectly on key. If he heard a note that was slightly flat or sharp, he would help correct it by computer.

Puckett “voice tuned” McGraw’s 1995 album “All I Want,” which sold more than 3 million copies and featured five top 5 hits.

‘Just in Time’

Puckett has empathy for residents of The Orchard. He’s three years shy of 80, and he’s had his share of health scares.

In 1991, he suffered a heart attack that caused him to decrease his work schedule and reflect on his life. In January 2008, he underwent a quadruple bypass.

He released an album through Malaco in June 2016, the first of a two-album contract.

“I named it ‘Just In Time’ - as in, I’m doing this just in time before the Lord might call me home,” says Puckett, who plays guitar in the Raphael Semmes Trio each Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Table 100 in Flowood. “That’s one thing that motivates me. I’ve been blessed, accumulated a fair share of knowledge of music over the years. I want to share that knowledge and my gift of playing as long as I can.

“One of the ways I can do that is by playing for the folks at The Orchard.”

“He’s a big hit around here,” says Judy Lee, who coordinates The Orchard’s events calendar. “We’ll usually have about 26 to 30 attend. And after he’s done playing, there will be two or three or four women go up and talk to him. He’ll stand there and talk as long as they want. He never seems rushed.”

Puckett has about 100 songs for which he has recorded the backing tracks: “Everything they hear, every instrument, I played it,” he says.

The songs are a smorgasbord of genres and mood changers. Among them: Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz,” Willie Nelson’s “Remember Me,” Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ “Salty Dog Blues.”

“You can tell when the ladies recognize a tune,” says Mary Rose Moore, 87, who has lived at The Orchard for eight months. “They might not catch it right at first, but once they do they’ll go to smiling.”

One favorite is the Creedence Clearwater Revival hit “Proud Mary.”

“That song makes me want to dance,” Green says, “and I don’t even know how to dance. But when he gets to the ‘rollin’ on the river’ part, we’ll start rolling our arms. That one is always a lot of fun.”

But the one song residents expect to hear every time is the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira.”

“They sing real strong to that one,” Puckett says. “They’ll sing and dance right there in their chairs. I mean they get down. It’s just one of those songs that always makes you feel good to hear.

“I love knowing that it’s coming up because I know I’m about to see a room full of happy people, who a lot of times don’t have a lot to smile about.”

___

Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, https://www.clarionledger.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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