For as long as he can remember, go-go historian Kato Hammond has looked up to his cousin, Byron “BJ” Jackson.
“He was basically a child prodigy,” says Hammond. In his autobiography Take Me Out to the Go-Go, Hammond describes visiting his aunt and uncle’s home, where he and Jackson played along to records by Parliament-Funkadelic, The Bar-Kays, and Grand Central Station. “Even back then, at age 13, he was a little mini Larry Graham on that bass guitar,” recalls Hammond. “It was like the music was embedded in him.”
You could say music was embedded in Jackson throughout his life. He joined Rare Essence shortly after graduating from Largo High School, and played with the band for most of the next 30 years. More recently, he joined another top go-go band, Team Familiar, performing as a keyboardist and vocalist.
Jackson, who died last week at age 52, is being mourned by the go-go community as one of the genre’s truly great musicians. “He was absolutely incredible. He was born to play music,” says Team Familiar leader Donnell Floyd. “If there were a thousand keyboard players playing in a room, I could close my eyes and walk right over to BJ—that’s how distinctive his style was.”
Jackson helped write some of RE’s most enduring hits, including the lilting keyboard lines of “Lock It” and the whistle rhythm of “Hey Buddy Buddy.”
A multi-instrumentalist who played keyboard, bass guitar, lead guitar, 12-string acoustic guitar, and drums, Jackson was admired by his go-go colleagues. “There used to be a saying that goes, ‘Never leave your instrument alone in a room with Byron, because when you come back, you might find him playing on it–and he’ll sound better than you,’” says Hammond.
When Jackson joined RE, he was filling in for an absent Michael “Funky Ned” Neal, and once Neal returned, Jackson switched to keyboards. The two became close friends, and their musical partnership yielded a number of local hits. “Whenever I needed musicians for whatever I was producing he received a phone call from me,” says Neal. “Not because I knew that he could play the keyboard part I had in my head, but, because I did not have a part in my head, and I knew that whatever Byron came up with was going to satisfy beyond anything I could imagine.”
Jackson collaborated with Neal for two local hip-hop hits of the ‘80s: Vinnie D.’s “55 Dollar Motel” and D.C. Scorpio’s “Stone Cold Hustler.” He also performed in area R&B, gospel and alternative rock bands.
“BJ had his hands in a little bit of everything,” says RE’s Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson. “But he was that good and that versatile, that he could do that convincingly.”
Over the years, Jackson toured with a number of high-profile artists, including Meshell Ndegeocello, Maxwell, Pure Soul, Arrested Development, Ledisi, Rachelle Ferrell, and Lalah Hathaway.
Dwayne Lee, who performed with Jackson several local bands, including Godisheus and Heaven Sent, recalls that one of their groups recently submitted resumes for a possible gig. “Everybody else had a paragraph or a half page, and BJ had three pages,” Lee says. “But he was so humble, most people don’t know about everything he did.”
Jackson’s death resulted from colon cancer, and although he had struggled with the disease for months, he rarely spoke about it and continued performing for as long as he possibly could. His last gig with Team Familiar was on Aug. 25, and less than a week before he died, he performed with El DeBarge in St. Louis.
Hammond recently asked Jackson whether it would be better to take time off as the cancer sapped his strength. “He told me, ‘because when I’m playing my music, I don’t feel the pain–just the music,’” says Hammond. “He was music. He was here to play music, that’s what his purpose was.”
Jackson, who grew up in Kettering, Md., is survived by his parents, Bernard and Jean Jackson, a sister, Kia Jackson, and his daughter, Dominique Jackson, well as by a larger extended family.
A memorial and celebration of Jackson’s life was held at Reid Temple A.M.E. Church, 11400 Glenn Dale Blvd., Glenn Dale.