Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Slick Guitarist

By Mark Jordan

AUGUST 25, 1997:  Five or six years ago Big Jack Johnson might have been driving his rig down the streets of Clarksdale, Mississippi, instead of getting ready to board an airplane for Norway, where he'll be playing a two-week mini-tour. That's because, though he has been known on the blues circuit for decades, until recently the 57-year-old guitarist had to hold onto his job driving an oil truck to make ends meet. But with a third hit album under his belt, Johnson has finally been able to park the truck for good and make his living with his guitar.

Growing up, music was deeply ingrained into Big Jack and his siblings. Papa Johnson was a well-known fiddler and guitarist around Lambert and Clarksdale, frequently playing picnics, parties, weddings, and the like. But surprisingly, the beat that ran through the Johnson family's blood wasn't bluesy, but rather a softer, less forceful one from a most unlikely source.

"My favorite artists growing up were guys like Hank Williams, Roy Acuff," says Johnson. "Yeah, man. Country -- that's about all I heard. The Grand Ole Opry. Grandpa Jones. That was it until I heard Buddy [Guy] and B.B. [King] and all them. I heard B.B. do the song `Got A Right To Love My Baby.' That did it. I was about 12, maybe 13 years old. You see, in our house we weren't allowed to hear no blues. There wasn't blues on the tube back then, and there wasn't any on the radio either. All we had on the little old battered radio was the Grand Ole Opry. And on summer nights we'd take the radio outside and you could hear Grandpa Jones hollering all over the neighborhood, `Howwwdeee.'"

When he was 13 years old, Johnson started sitting in with his dad's band and over the next few years built a reputation around Clarksdale as a slashing, feral guitarist with a great ear. But it was a chance jam session that helped catapult Johnson out of the Delta onto a world stage. In 1966, Johnson joined drummer Sam Carr and multi-instrumentalist Frank Frost onstage at Clarksdale's Savoy Theatre, and from the beginning, the chemistry was obvious.

"It was just like we were meant for each other when we met," Johnson says. "We've got something together that's a lot bigger than when we're apart."

Playing a loose and rough juke-joint style of blues, the Johnson/Frost/Carr collaboration has been ongoing for 31 years now. In 1978 they adopted the name the Jelly Roll Kings and earlier this year the group released its fourth CD, Off Yonder Wall, on Oxford's Fat Possum label.

Though the Jelly Roll Kings still work together, the group's easygoing manner allows each of the members to pursue solo projects. For Johnson's part, he's parlayed these opportunities into a solo career that threatens to overshadow his band work. In 1987, he released The Oil Man, the title of which comes from Johnson's nickname. That first album clearly showed Johnson's juke-joint influences and was followed in 1991 by Daddy, When Is Mama Comin Home?, a slicker, B.B. King-ish record full of lush horn arrangements. And just this summer he came out withWe Got To Stop This Killin', which bridges the previous two works.

Besides injecting healthy doses of soul, funk, and country blues into the juke-joint style, Johnson's music features lyrics that spotlight contemporary social ills. For, instance on Daddy, When is Mama Comin Home?, Johnson addresses issues such as AIDS and spouse abuse and on the title track of We Got To Stop This Killin' he laments the senseless violence that seems to have invaded so many communities, all issues that heretofore seemed off limits to blues musicians.

"When Muddy [Waters] and Howlin' Wolf and B.B. played, everybody just played the same thing," says Johnson, explaining his choices of song topics. "Everybody sang about the same troubles. I just got off on another track. I'm just trying to be a different guy, the way Muddy was different from B.B. and B.B. was different from Albert King. It's like we're all just standing on top of the same guys. I always keep my roots in the blues and stuff, but I'm just trying to be myself, come up with something new so people can relate to what I'm doing."

Apparently, people are relating. Johnson gave up his job as an oil delivery man years ago and now tours most of the year. "I've been around the world three or four times," he says.

And his success hasn't been confined to the dance floor either. In 1994 he won Living Blues magazine's Best Live Performer award and in 1995 was named Most Outstanding Blues Musician by the publication. Earlier this year he was nominated for two Handy Awards -- Song of the Year and Best Contemporary Male Artist -- for We Got To Stop This Killin'.

But though he has been widely acclaimed for his raw, funky updating of the blues, Johnson hasn't forgotten his first love.

"I love my country music," Johnson says. "I really would like someday to do a whole album of straight country music. I play it all the time. I play five or six country songs every show. I ain't ever going to let that get away."


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