If you see one set this Blues Festival, make it Jimmy Johnson | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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If you see one set this Blues Festival, make it Jimmy Johnson

At 90 years old, the guitarist is a walking master class in modern blues greatness.

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Jimmy Johnson - PHOTO BY PAUL NATKIN
  • Photo by Paul Natkin
  • Jimmy Johnson

Jimmy Johnson's keening tenor voice and supple, emotionally intense guitar lines are considered something of a miracle among blues lovers these days, emanating as they do from a man born more than 90 years ago in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Johnson's 60-plus-year career has taken him from hardscrabble urban jukes to nightclubs, concert halls, and festivals around the world, and his influences include gospel, doo-wop, and deep soul as well as country music, jazz, and of course the venerable Delta-Memphis-Chicago blues lineage.

Johnson's birth name was James Thompson, but he changed it after his brother Syl began recording in 1959 as "Syl Johnson." He sang in church as a boy and also found inspiration at school, where he'd sneak into the gym during lunch breaks and work out on a piano stored there. Inspired by his schoolmate Matt Murphy, who would become one of the most esteemed fretmen in blues, he began noodling around on the guitar, and after moving to Chicago when he was about 19, he acquired a new instrument from Billy Boy Arnold and honed his chops further. He remembers his early musical role models as including jazz masters Grant Green and Kenny Burrell and forward-minded Chicago bluesmen Otis Rush and Magic Sam.


Jimmy Johnson Blues Band
Fri 6/7, 6:30 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion

Jimmy Johnson & Leo Charles
Sun 6/9, 4:20 PM, Lagunitas Brewery Tap Room, 2607 W. 17th, 773-522-1308, free, 21+

Blues Fest after-party with Jimmy Johnson, Billy Flynn, Bob Stroger, Melvin Smith, Dave Katzman, David Sims
Sun 6/9, 9 PM, Reggies’ Music Joint, 2105 S. State, free, 21+


By the early 1960s, Johnson was leading his own band. It wasn't a blues band, per se: club audiences demanded entertainers with diverse, crowd-pleasing repertoires, and with his longtime admiration for jazz and pop, Johnson found it easy to accommodate them. He was also among the first African American bandleaders in Chicago to play white clubs, expanding even further to include pop fare such as "Hang On Sloopy" (his band, the Sparks, featured his old friend Matt Murphy on guitar and Singing Sam Chatmon on vocals). When he got the opportunity to record under his own name in 1968, he worked up a driving, funk-blues instrumental that the Stuff label released as "Get It" b/w "Work Your Thing," credited to Jimmie Johnson & the Lucky Hearts. Neither that record nor its follow-­ups had much success, though, and for the next few years Johnson focused increasingly on sideman work, backing the likes of Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle, Tyrone Davis, Ruby Andrews, and Otis Clay.

The blues "revival" among white aficionados that began in the 1960s inspired Johnson to shift focus and forge a new identity as a bluesman. The irony was inescapable: this new white audience was embracing him as "authentic" for playing music that he hadn't played for Black folks in decades, if ever (and that a lot of younger Black listeners would likely have derided as passe by then). Nonetheless, Johnson adapted with aplomb, gigging around the burgeoning north-side circuit, embarking on extensive tours, playing festivals in the U.S. and overseas, and recording some of modern blues' most acclaimed albums for such labels as Alligator, Delmark, Wolf, and Black & Blue—a legacy that has continued into the new millennium.

  • A track from Jimmy Johnson’s 1983 Alligator Records album Bar Room Preacher

Through it all, Johnson has refused to pander, continuing to incorporate the diverse styles and influences he's absorbed over the decades. His vocals, intense and emotive yet leavened with an almost milky sweetness, blend rawness and urbanity; his lyrics reflect a keen-minded modernist sensibility, both in his own compositions and in his reworkings of others' hits (he used to emphasize the timeliness of "Tobacco Road," for instance, by inserting a reference to Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project).

  • A 1977 live recording of “Tobacco Road,” released the following year

In other words, Johnson avoids cliche—no "blooze-and-boogie" boilerplate, no stereotypical cryin'-in-my-whiskey bathos. In recent years, he's returned to the keyboard, often performing in solo and duet settings, giving his listeners a window into the less flamboyant, more intimate side of his musical personality. Meanwhile, he retains his status as one of modern blues' most accomplished guitar stylists, and despite his age, his vocals remain clear and expressive. Superlatives such as "living legend" and "must-see" may be shopworn, but in Jimmy Johnson's case, they're fully appropriate.  v

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