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Chicago bluesman Jimmy Johnson dies at 93 - less than two years after releasing a wonderful album.
RIP to one of my favorites, a soulful, under-appreciated musician who got better with age. Read my 2020 WSJ piece on him here.
I was saddened to hear about the passing of Jimmy Johnson, the “Bar Room Preacher.” He was always a favorite of mine, a gifted, facile guitar player with a taste for jazzy chords, r & b grooves and songs that meant something. Though stylistically quite different, he reminded me of Johnny Copeland, another unsung hero of the blues. Both wrote and sang songs imbued with wisdom and lived their lives in the same exemplary fashion. Johnny was a boxer in his youth and his guitar leads always felt like the work of a powerful, crafty counter puncher. Jimmy’s playing was more like an agile, hard-hitting welterweight, dancing, bobbing and weaving with a powerful hook. He sang in a keening high tenor firmly rooted in gospel and r&b.
Johnson’s 1985 album Bar Room Preacher is probably my favorite album of his, starting with the great opener “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”
Jimmy released an excellent album Every Day of Your Life (Delmark) in 2020, months before his 92nd birthday. That was an interesting enough fact for me to be able to write about Jimmy in The Wall Street Journal. I had a great time talking to him on the phone. He was a kind, thoughtful man, and it was painful for me to ask about the 1988 crash of his touring van that killed bassist Larry Exum and keyboardist St. James Bryant, both stalwarts of the Chicago blues scene who I saw many times performing with others at Rick’s American Cafe in Ann Arbor. He grew emotional discussing it 32 years later, feeling the burden while saying that he had to accept that feeling bad was not going to bring them back. He moved on, as everyone must after tragedy strikes.
Jimmy was a role model in all regards and I send my deepest condolences to his family, especially his wife of 57 years Sherry. She was, he told me, “pretty close to an angel.”
A version of the WSJ story is below.
This week we also lost the great blues drummer Sam Lay, who played with Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, the Butterfield Blues Band, Bob Dylan (first electric shows!) and many others. A nice Billboard obit here for a musical giant.
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A version of this story was published in The Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2020.
Veteran Chicago bluesman Jimmy Johnson recently released Every Day of Your Life, a solo album filed with laid back but urgent swinging music driven by his high-pitched singing, stinging guitar lines and insightful lyrics. It’s something he’s been doing for decades, but what makes Every Day of Your Life stand out is that Johnson will celebrate his 92nd birthday in November. He was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1928, the same year that Mickey Mouse and penicillin debuted.
“I’m still fairly cool,” Johnson recalls with typical understatement. “At my age you’re going to have a little bit of arthritis in your hand, so I had to alter my playing a little and give up some of the real sophisticated chords I used to favor.”
Johnson’s blues have indeed always leaned towards sophisticated understatement, with r&b swing, jazz cool and a laid back groove, focused on his soulful singing as much as his excellent guitar work. It’s a subtle style that probably didn’t appeal to rock audiences as much as the louder, more amped up playing of some of his old Chicago club mates like Buddy Guy, but it’s aged incredibly well.
Johnson’s brother is soul singer Syl Johnson, who had a 1975 hit with “Take Me to the River.” Jimmy moved to Chicago in 1950 and worked as a welder. He didn’t play professionally until he was 30, primarily performing gospel and r&b, backing singers like Otis Clay and Denise LaSalle. He didn’t transition to blues, as a member of the Jimmy Dawkins and Otis Rush bands until he was almost 50, and it was several more years before he became a bandleader. An easygoing, spritely conversationalist, Johnson’s dialogue is peppered with wisdom and aphorisms, while his music and stage presence also exude a calmness and spirituality that make it obvious why a 1983 album was titled Bar Room Preacher. His age now lends poignancy, notably to the title track of Every Day of Your Life, which extols listeners to “live every day like it’s your last/one day it’s going to come to pass.”
“I can’t take full credit for my longevity, because I’ve been blessed, but I also didn’t get stupid,” says Johnson. “I never lived in the fast lane like so many musicians did. I’d like to think I was smart, but there was stuff I didn’t like to do and the most important thing when I got done with a gig was to go home and be with my wife, Sherry. We’ve been married 56 years and she’s pretty close to an angel. We’ve been on the same page. I don’t like hassle and she don’t like hassle and we both believe that when there are things in your life that stress you out, you need to keep moving. Carrying a grudge will carry you downhill.”
Johnson briefly retired from playing in 1988, after he fell asleep driving the band van home from a series of shows. He had driven 18 hours that day and went off the road, flipping the van. He burned his hand and broke his collarbone, while bassist Larry Exum and keyboardist St. James Bryant were killed, despite Johnson’s efforts to rescue them from a burning vehicle. Both were widely liked veterans of the Chicago blues world and Johnson was haunted by their deaths.
“It was difficult – and it still is,” he says. “That’s on me and I have to live with it, but I had to accept that staying home and feeling terrible wasn’t going to bring them back. The what-ifs kill you, but folding my tent wasn’t going to help the situation.”
Johnson quit touring about four years ago, though he continues to play around Chicago – or did before COVID-19 shut down venues. He has since performed live on Facebook several times, raising money for the Chicago Food Bank. He says that he had no intention of recording again but decided to accept an offer from new owners of venerable Chicago blues label Delmark.
“I don’t need no record,” he says. “I made money in my life and I still got it, so what am I going to worry about a new record for? But I really appreciated being asked by people who wanted to make music and help musicians. I figured that I might as well, because that’s what I do all day anyhow: play piano, play guitar and get on my computer.”
Once he agreed to record, Johnson committed to making Every Day of Your Life different than anything else he had ever released, experimenting with a different guitar style, relying more on jazz slides than blues bends; cutting a solo piano song; trying a reggae tune; and recording a version of his old friend Fenton Robinson’s “Somebody Loan Me A Dime.”
“I don’t want to sound like I did on any other record,” says Johnson. “Some people do one thing and that’s what they can do. I can do a little more so why not stretch my talent out and maybe do some different things?”
That’s the kind of thinking that keeps a person young, even if he was born when Calvin Coolidge was president.
Alan Paul’s last two books – Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan and One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band – debuted in the New York Times Non Fiction Hardcover Bestsellers List. His first book was Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, about his experiences raising a family in Beijing and touring China with a popular original blues band. It was optioned for a movie by Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Productions. He is also a guitarist and singer who fronts two bands, Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, the premier celebration of the Allman Brothers Band.