BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – The legendary Birmingham jazz drummer Foxxy Fatts had a distinctive way of keeping time.
"We always called Foxxy the funkmaster," said trumpet player Bo Berry, who started playing with Fatts in bands in the early 1970s. "His style of playing was unique. He was like a metronome. He was always a groove drummer."
While his drumsticks tapped out the beat, he kept a toothpick in his mouth, moving just as rhythmically. "People saw that toothpick and they said, 'That must be Foxxy,'" Berry said. "I can't remember ever seeing him play when he didn't have one."
Once he forgot his toothpicks and had someone run out to buy a box, Berry said. "Somebody went and got some toothpicks so he would feel comfortable," Berry said.
"He was bigger than life," said Jim Cobb, a longtime friend and former bar owner. "I can just see those sticks move. And as the sticks moved, that toothpick was moving just as fast. That was his trademark."
Fatts kept a rhythm going for his band, Foxxy Fatts and Company, but he also set the beat for a city that celebrated with music festivals that always seemed to have him on the bill. He made his city dance and swing and sway for five decades.
Fatts, born in Birmingham as Sherman Carson, died on Nov. 16 of chronic heart failure. He was 65.
"He was the most generous, kind person I've ever known in my life," said his wife, Joeretha Carson. "He'd actually been sick for a couple of years, but he kept going. … He loved music, specifically jazz music, more than anything in the world."
Fatts always preferred the nickname to his real name. A woman watching the heavyset musician admiring his fancy clothes in the mirror gave him the name, he once said. "That's what we'll call you," she told him. "Foxxy Fatts." He was even listed as Foxxy Fatts in the telephone book.
Fatts played drums in the marching band at Ullman High School and started as a teenager playing rhythm and blues. Berry introduced him to jazz. When Fatts played with a small group, he called it Foxxy Fatts and Friends. The big band was called Foxxy Fatts and Company, Berry said. Fatts also played drums for the Bo Berry Quartet, a regular at Ona's Music Room.
Fatts was a regular at the city's jazz venues, including Jazz Underground and 22ndStreet Jazz Café. His band played the city's music festivals, City Stages, Birmingham Jam and the Birmingham Heritage Festival. They were regulars at Jazz in the Park and at the annual Gulf Shores National Shrimp Festival.
Cobb, of the catering company A Social Affair, presented Fatts and his band during the 1970s at Diamond Jim's, a nightclub on Birmingham's Morris Avenue. "He never wanted to be Sherman; he was always Foxxy Fatts," Cobb said. "He was one of the kindest, sweetest human beings I've ever known."
Berry remembers Fatts and Company winning an original song competition in Atlanta with a song called "Being in Love With You." They went to the next round in Dallas, won that, and then to the finals in Washington, D.C., at an event hosted by Lou Rawls and Patti Austin. Fatts was disappointed they didn't win there, Berry said.
While he traveled extensively, Fatts was a Birmingham icon.
In August this year, Fatts and his band played the summer concert series at Aldridge Gardens in Hoover. Fatts also played the drums with Berry's choir this summer at Friendship Baptist Church in Homewood, where they had played together since the 1990s. Fatts also played the drums at numerous other churches on Sundays, Berry said.
Fatts was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997.
"He had such a following and such a name," Berry said. "If you met someone who didn't like Foxxy, there was something wrong. He was always a good-spirited person."
AL.com music writer Mary Colurso contributed to this report.