Johnny Rawls | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader
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JOHNNY RAWLS

In the late 60s and early 70s, guitarist Johnny Rawls worked in a show band that backed soul-blues stars like Z.Z. Hill and Joe Tex; later he played behind O.V. Wright and served as Little Johnny Taylor's bandleader for a few years. In 1985 he released his own first LP, You're the One, and continued to work the chitlin' circuit--often with Wright's old group, which had stayed together after the singer died in 1980. In the early 90s Rawls did session work for Rooster Blues, bringing him to the attention of a large number of white blues fans--what he calls "the other market"--and in '94 he recorded some of his own material for a Rooster disc with fellow soul veteran L.C. Luckett, Can't Sleep at Night. In '96 Rawls began his ongoing tenure at the British label JSP with Here We Go; now he doubles as one of the company's busiest producers and A and R men. On his latest disc, My Turn to Win (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes), he uses pop flavors to deepen what might otherwise be no more than pleasant soul-blues boilerplate: "I Been Lookin'" is for the most part a standard two-chord ballad, but Rawls's Eastern-sounding embellishments add a whiff of 60s exotica; "Back in Your Arms" begins as a loping, Texas-style 12-bar shuffle, but its chorus, buoyed by a burbling organ, has the breezy ebullience of teen pop. And "I Been Broken Hearted" kicks off with Ray Charles-like horns, then mellows into a Memphis-style soul ballad--Rawls's keening single-string lines sometimes even evoke the plaintive sound of a pedal steel. Despite his healthy disregard for genre boundaries, Rawls can be curiously conservative: most of the tunes on My Turn to Win use the same medium-tempo groove, and though his vocals are confident, they'd benefit from a little more passion. But his guitar leads always strike the perfect balance between fervent energy and careful control, seasoning his material instead of overwhelming it. Thursday, August 10, 9 PM, Famous Dave's, 739 N. Clark; 312-266-2400. DAVID WHITEIS

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

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