Jimmy Johnson | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Jimmy Johnson

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Jimmy Johnson began his professional career in the late 50s playing guitar for bands led by Freddie King, Harmonica Slim, and slide virtuoso Earl Hooker. But by the mid-60s he'd switched gears to become a mainstay on Chicago's burgeoning soul circuit. He cut a few sides locally and worked with Otis Clay, Tyrone Davis, and Bobby Rush, as well as with his brother, guitarist-vocalist Syl Johnson. As popular tastes changed, Jimmy came back to the blues, and in 1979 his Johnson's Whacks (Delmark) earned him international recognition. Most recently he appears alongside Syl on this year's Two Johnsons Are Better Than One (Evidence), a much ballyhooed "reunion" that consists more of a collection of solo performances than a genuine summit. Still, Jimmy shines on it: "Living the Life" lays good-natured protestations of despair ("Livin' the life of misery / Livin' the life of disgust") over a jaunty, soul-inflected 12-bar pattern; Johnson's supple leads incorporate the length of the fretboard, as if he's thinking chordally even when he solos (possibly a legacy of his early days as a keyboardist). Over the more aggressive funk groove of "I Can't Survive," he struts his churchy falsetto and issues broad-toned midrange proclamations while his solo burbles and pops with impish abandon. The slow-rolling, ironic "Ashes in the Ashtray" showcases Johnson's facility in a minor key. And on "I Feel the Pain," a retelling of B.B. King's Middle Passage fable from "Why I Sing the Blues," his sharply ascending tenor wail (leavened by Syl's leathery harmonies) evokes the terror of bondage even as his leads skitter wittily through the changes. Saturday, September 21, 10 PM, Reservation Blues, 1566 N. Milwaukee; 773-645-5200.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.

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