Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Chicago-style blues travel north

Jimmy Johnson brought his Chicago-style
blues to the Upper Peninsula in 1990.


When guitarist and singer Jimmy Johnson left Chicago on Thursday, Sept. 27, 1990 the Upper Peninsula was on his mind.

His band was scheduled to play that evening in Escanaba, 310 miles down the road from the Windy City, where Johnson toiled for decades to became a premier blues star.

Johnson was understandably apprehensive about the trip.

Less than two years before, on Dec. 2, 1988 two members of Johnson's combo were killed when he swerved off the road in southern Indiana while driving the band's van. The group was decimated with the deaths of bass player Larry Exum and keyboardist St. James Bryant.

Johnson, then 60-years-old, was injured and soon after became dispirited about continuing his career.

By the fall of 1990, however, he agreed to accept the Escanaba gig which was sponsored by Bay de Noc Community College, Radio Station WGLQ, and the Record Rack.

Despite the fact that Chicago is relatively close to the Upper Peninsula, the city's blues stars seldom played in northern Michigan, or anywhere north of Milwaukee for that matter.

Excitement for Johnson's visit had been building among area blues aficionados with the appearance of posters boasting the performer's "funky rhythms and soulful blues." The posters, featuring a black and white photograph of Johnson, also repeated testimonials from the Village Voice, Milwaukee Sentinel and High Fidelity magazine.

"Johnson's guitar and high pitched voice both have the essential 'cry' that distinguish a stellar bluesman from a journeyman," the Sentinel stated. "Original compositions as thoughtful, and every bit as striking as Robert Cray's, sung in dramatic and highly effective fashion," stated Village Voice. "His gospel inflected tenor can growl seductively... warble longingly... and shout on the shuffles," High Fidelity testified.

Tickets for Johnson's performance at the Terrace Bay Inn were offered to Bay students for $3 and to the general public for $5 each. The ducats identified the guitarist and singer with the line: "He plays the blues Chicago style."

Enough tickets were sold to fill the Terrace ballroom, but by the 9 p. m. start time, Johnson had not arrived.

After a few tense minutes, a phone call was received from the traveling musicians, and they arrived not long after, apparently confused over differences in the eastern and central time zones.

Johnson brought along a crack four-piece band including keyboardist Jessie Lockridge, drummer David Russell, saxophonist Hank Ford and bass player James Boyd.

The band made up for their late appearance with a terrific show for their northern audience. I could easily imagine myself in a State Street bar on a sweaty Saturday night listening to one of the Windy City's greatest blues bands.

In fact, Johnson regularly packed his city's top blues clubs, like Blue Chicago, Kingston Mines, Wise Fools Pub and B. L. U. E. S.

Born Jimmy Thompson, Johnson moved to Chicago with his relatives in 1950 from Mississippi. The family thrived on music. Younger brother Syl is an acknowledged soul star, while sibling Mack Thompson made a name for himself as bass player for blues legend Magic Sam.

Johnson was an amateur guitar player until the 1960s when he entered the R&B world. He burst into the blues scene in 1974 when he hired on as Jimmy Dawkins' rhythm guitarist. He toured with Dawkins and Otis Rush, before fronting his own band.

His first full-length domestic album was issued when Johnson was 50-years-old. It was then Johnson signed a contract with Delmark Records, the oldest independent label in the United States.

At the time of the Escanaba show, Johnson's most recent disc was 1983's "Bar Room Preacher," recorded at Sysmo Studios in Paris for France's Blue Phoenix Records. It didn't take Alligator Records owner Bruce Iglauer long to decide to release this stunning five-star album in the United States.

During the Terrace concert, Johnson led his band through satisfying versions of many of the record's outstanding tracks including his original, "Heap See," the songwriter's observation on the human condition. Johnson's guitar attack and vibrant vocals, supplemented by his band's complementary support, grabbed the crowd's attention and kept it all night.

Johnson's energetic playing mixed well with Russell's powerful drumming and Lockridge's jazz and funk- flavored keyboard work.

Eighteen years later, I don't remember exactly which tunes were played that night. Some likely candidates are "When My First Wife Quit Me," written by John Lee Hooker; "You Don't Know What Love Is," by Fenton Robinson; and two other Johnson originals: "Missing Link" and "Happy Home."

At the conclusion of the show, my wife Sue and I were able to get autographs from all the band members, including Johnson. We drove the few miles home with smiles on our faces, having enjoyed an entertaining evening of Chicago-style blues performed by one of the masters.

I don't know if Johnson and his band stayed in the Upper Peninsula overnight or if they immediately headed back to Illinois. A few days later a rumor circulated around Escanaba that Johnson had suffered a heart attack, but that was never confirmed.

In any case, Johnson has continued to release compact discs of new material over the years and I've continued to add some of them to my collection.

Johnson's first trip to the recording studio following his Escanaba visit didn't come until 1995 when he issued the Handy-award winning "I'm a Jockey," featuring guest appearances from harmonica virtuoso Billy Branch and multi-instrumentalist Lucky Peterson. Johnson even returned to France to record "Every Road Ends Somewhere," his 1999 album which included guest star Luther Allison. In 2002, he collaborated with brother Syl on the slyly-titled "Two Johnsons Are Better Than One."

My favorite is still "Bar Room Preacher," an audio remainder of when one of Chicago's greatest blues stars delivered some northern converts to his flock right here in the Upper Peninsula.

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