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The Boston Phoenix Delta Force

Big Jack Johnson and Super Chikan take Clarksdale on tour

By Ted Drozdowski

APRIL 24, 2000:  It was a Saturday night in Clarksdale, Mississippi. And blues were pumping through the door of the Rivermont, a low-ceilinged club tucked tight against the Sunflower River. Inside, James "Super Chikan" Johnson stood on stage -- or, rather, in the middle of the dusty cement floor -- smacking out the ol' I-IV-V through a scarred Peavey guitar and amp, his cap sliding down to his eyes as he cocked back his head to crow like a rooster. All around him folks did the Mississippi lambada, where the men grind their loins into the women from behind, or just free-formed as the music got louder and harder and Super Chikan slipped first into chicken-pickin' his strings, then sang an entire tune whose sole lyrics consisted of clucking.

About a quarter-mile down Sunflower Avenue, at Red's, patrons entered through a cloud of barbecue smoke and almost walked right into a 260-pound man yodeling. "I'm a big boy now, Mama," he sang, spanking jarring chords out of his hollow-body Gibson guitar by slapping his open hand across its strings. "I can yodel -- just like them white boys on the radio! Yodel-a-ee-ouuuu! Yeah!" Screams all around for Big Jack Johnson, the Delta's hottest guitar player, and his signature tune, "Big Boy." As Budweiser cans and shots of Four Roses flew over the bar, Big Jack kept the rhythm pumping -- his four-piece band making the beat bounce more than swing. When he whipped out a brass slide and played a little Elmore James -- "I'm gonna get up in the morning/Believe I'll dust my broom" -- women jumped on chairs to yell; men took off their hats to fan the air in Jack's direction.

And so it went -- at Red's, the Rivermont, the Crossroads, the Blue Diamond -- until a little past 2 a.m. every Saturday, and plenty of Sundays, too. In Clarksdale, the blues used to be thick as the Delta air in August. Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Son House, Little Milton, Ike Turner, and dozens of other influential musicians had lived there. The Delta Blues Museum was built there. And if you drew lines between all those juke joints, they'd practically intersect at the railroad station from which Muddy Waters -- like so many other African-Americans -- left the plantation fields for the factories of Chicago.

But during the past five years things have changed in this colorful town with its rich blues legacy. "Red's is still open, but don't be a lot of blues going on there," explains Super Chikan by phone from his Clarksdale coop, er, home. "There's no blues clubs around, no blues musicians, no support except for when the tourists come to the festival."

"Yeah," Big Jack agrees over the line from Key West, where he's playing four nights with his road band. "Guys who played the clubs can play the casinos now. Used to be on Saturday night you could hardly get into one of the places in Clarksdale, they'd be so packed. Sunday night used to be best. People would get out of church and come by the clubs to sit and listen in their dresses and suits. Man, I liked that. It ain't no more. Now people go to the casinos because they get their beer and whiskey free, and if they put a quarter in the slot machine, they might win."

So unless you're in town in early August for the annual Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival or in October for the King Biscuit Festival in nearby Helena, Arkansas -- times when Red's and other joints will retransform from disco to jukehouse, and now-boarded-up clubs like the Rivermont will reopen for the weekend -- chances of seeing real Clarksdale blues in the rough are slim. With exceptions. For example, this Friday, a little bit of Clarksdale will make its way to Cambridge when Big Jack Johnson and Super Chikan share a bill at the House of Blues. Both are touring behind strong new records, but they've got a lot more in common. Big Jack is Super Chikan's uncle. And they even had a band together for a spell, Johnson Productions. "But Jack didn't really like my bass playing," Chikan, who willfully misspells his handle, allows. "So I thought I should go out on my own."

At 49, Super Chikan is a relative newcomer -- at least as a full-time musician. He started gigging as a sideman in the '70s; he formed his own outfit in the '90s. Before he decided to divide his days between playing music and folk art -- Chikan makes beautiful, hand-painted, playable guitars from Army-surplus gas cans and sells them for upwards of $2000 -- he was a truck driver and a cabbie. He was driving a cab when he got his nickname.

"It started from my being left as a little boy with the chickens when everybody else was working out in the fields, because I was too young to go. I told everybody that the chickens talked to me, and they started to call me Chicken Boy. When I got a job driving a taxi, somebody would call and I'd get there so fast, they started calling me Fast Chicken. Then one day somebody said I was super fast, and somebody else called me Super Chicken. And the lady dispatcher started calling me that too, and it caught on."

Big Jack has, well, always been big. He's well over six feet six inches tall and has hands thick as lions' paws. His nickname was the Oil Man in the '80s, when he drove a home-heating-oil delivery truck by day. By then Jack was already well-established as a musician. He was a charter member of the Jelly Roll Kings, a group he formed with harmonica player/singer Frank Frost and drummer Sam Carr in the '60s. Until their break-up, they were the definitive modern Mississippi juke-joint band, and their foundation-shaking 1979 Rockin' the Juke Joint Down (Earwig) still defines that style of blues.

For a time, Big Jack played bass for Conway Twitty and other country-music stars. He'd grown up listening to country on the radio, an experience he recounts in "Big Boy." In 1987 he made his solo debut, The Oil Man, and followed it two years later with Daddy, When's Mama Comin' Home (both on Earwig). Since then, Big Jack -- who is 59 -- has recorded four more albums, won a cluster of W.C. Handy Awards for his music, and toured at least 300 dates a year.

Big Jack's new Roots Stew (M.C. Records) is his best since Daddy, When's Mama Comin' Home. It opens with the gritty up-tempo jump blues aptly called "Jump for Joy" and powers on through the Howlin' Wolf homage "Hummingbird," a beautiful slide-guitar version of the country ballad "Since I Met You Baby," pages from Jack's diary-like "Beale Street," and the guitar workout "I'm Trying To Do All I Can." There's also a touching ode to the late Frank Frost, who died last year of a heart ailment complicated by alcoholism and poor dental health. From start to finish, the whole damn thing rocks and rumbles.

Super Chikan's two albums reflect the strides he's made as a musician in the past three years. His just-reissued 1998 debut Blues Comes Home To Roost (on the Rooster label, of course) is a laid-back 14-song affair that matches his smooth tenor and relaxed playing to stories of country life and heartbreak. Its soulful feel and original songwriting won the album a Handy.

Numbers like the clucking "Super Chikan Strut" keep things just weird enough, but that CD's not as purely exciting as his new What You See on the Fat Possum label. What You See scalds with its swampy backwoods funk and dizzy improvisations, all fronted by Super Chikan's new, metalized guitar tone. In addition to instrumentals and twisted rambles like "Fighting Cock," there's a hot cover of Uncle Jack's "Big Boy."

"When I started playing Beale Street in Memphis, I ran into a lot of competition, so I decided I wanted to stand out," Super Chikan explains. "I turned up my amp and got distorted. I practiced up to play harder and get over my stage fright. 'Cause I want to be seen and heard."

And to do that, both Super Chikan and Big Jack agree they've got to work outside Clarksdale as much as possible. Chikan's aim is to tour as much as his uncle, and -- like Big Jack -- to return as a hero every year at festival time. "The Bible says a man is not a prophet in his own home town," he ruefully observes.

Super Chikan also wonders whether the replacement of the hardcore jukes by casinos -- where bands are usually compelled to become jukeboxes and play the Top 40 -- has damaged the future of Mississippi blues. "Ever since the days of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, there have been musicians here of that level for people who wanted to better their lives through playing music to look up to. You learning guitar, you see someone who plays good as them -- pretty soon you're working on getting their thing down, and that makes you better. There's some teenage boys in town playing blues, but there's just a few of us to look up to and learn from now."

Big Jack adds this observation: "Clarksdale ain't no big town. Everybody wants to find a way out. And singin' the blues is one way, for everybody from Muddy Waters on up to me. When you got players around like Lonnie Pitchford, Lonnie Shields, Jelly Roll Kings, Son House, Son Ford Thomas . . . all dead or moved out now . . . young musicians would practice hard because they knew they'd have to sound good to stand out. You struggle to play better than the next guy, and in four or five years, you hot!

"Now, where's the competition? I think I'm one of the last guys gonna come out of Clarksdale that's the real deal, who can play the old-time blues right, like [he sings, then imitates a slide] 'sail on, sail on. Sail on my honey bee . . . dee-dee-dee-dee-da-dee-da-dee-dee.' "

"I'd like to see that turn around," he admits, "but I don't see it comin'."

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