Leader Blues

Thursday, December 29, 2005

FROM THE PUBLISHER >> Big Jack Johnson: Great Bluesman

By Garrick Feldman
Leader publisher

Big Jack Johnson has been playing at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, Miss., for the last couple of weekends, and if you hurry down there, you might still catch the great bluesman tonight as he rocks the juke joint down with his powerful guitar playing and soulful singing that’s as deep and satisfying as anything you’ll hear today anywhere in the Delta.

Johnson, who is 65 and a native of Clarksdale, is a gifted guitar player and a fine singer who might remind you of other blues greats from the area — Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker or even Earl Hooker, who’d moved away about the time Johnson was growing up there, but he must have absorbed their music from their records and has honored their legacy with superb blues that mixes tradition with a contemporary sound.

Listening to him one recent evening after seeing him many times over the years — the first time at Memphis in May and then at Riverfest in Little Rock — I finally realized that Jack Johnson is surely the region’s greatest living bluesman and is as good as any of those blues giants from the past.

You can hear him for free at many blues festivals — including at an unannounced appearance last October at the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival at Helena with Lonnie Shields, an area native who came in from Philadelphia after several years’ absence, and you can also hear Johnson at the Sunflower Blues Festival in August .

But for $8 or so, you can often catch him at Red’s Lounge, a small juke joint where Big Jack and his band play facing the bar, and what a bargain: He plays three 45-minute sets from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. not far from where Muddy Waters made his Library of Congress recordings at the nearby train depot in 1942. Honeyboy Edwards, now 90 and living in Chicago, also made his LOC recordings and played on Fourth Street near Red’s around the same time and still plays now and then in Clarksdale.

Johnson, a former oil company truck driver, is as powerfully built as Muddy Waters with a voice to match, although Big Jack is probably the better guitar player.

His blues rocks and swings and moves you like a thunderstorm blasting through the night.

Big Jack’s playlist includes “If You Love Me Like You Do,” “Oh Darling,” “Since I Met You Baby,” “Have Mercy Baby,” “Rock Me Baby,” “That’s All Right Mama,” “Kansas City,” “Catfish Blues,” “Driving Wheel,” “Clarksdale Boogie” and much more.

If these songs don’t get you on your feet, better find a doctor to check your pulse.

This is American roots music at its best, born in the Delta and spread across the globe, copied by Eric Clapton, the Beatles and every rock group and lounge band from Bakersfield, Calif., to Moscow, Idaho, to Moscow, Russia.

Only nobody plays it better than Big Jack.

The first time we heard of Jack Johnson was when we walked into the Blues Museum in the old Carnegie Library in Clarksdale back in 1998, and the manager said “Off Yonder Wall” by the Jelly Roll Kings (Fat Possum Records) was the best CD he had for sale.

The manager, who obviously knew his music, had tipped us off to one of the great blues groups of the last 40 years. The Jelly Roll Kings consisted of Frank Frost on harmonica and keyboards, Sam Carr on drums and Big Jack Johnson on guitar.

Frost, a native Arkansan who was still living in Helena then, has since passed away. Carr, another Arkansan, lives across the river not far from the casino near Lula, Miss. Carr is 80 and is considered the best drummer in the Delta. Johnson joined the Jelly Roll Kings when he was just a kid, and the two still play together occasionally, but these days Big Jack has his own group or picks up a band when he travels around the world, which he does often.

(Carr, by the way, is the son of Robert Nighthawk, a brilliant slide guitarist who died in Helena in the late ’60s. Nighthawk, whose real name was Robert McCollum, and Frank Frost are buried in the same cemetery in Helena.)

“Off Yonder Wall” is one of the greatest blues CDs of all-time and was produced by the late Robert Palmer, a Little Rock native who wrote about music for Rolling Stone, Down Beat and the New York Times. He is also the author of “Deep Blues,” a fine history of Delta blues and its migration to the North.

We’ve been buying Jelly Roll Kings’ music ever since our first trip to Clarksdale, although we can’t afford everything they’d put out: A used LP version of “Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down” (Earwig Records) sells for $6,500 (that’s right) from a mail-order record dealer in Oregon.

When I asked Johnson if he might sell me an LP of “Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down” for $100, he said, “I wouldn’t sell it for $100,000.”

There are very few LP copies left, although Earwig’s CD version is available from the company’s Web site. Earwig also plans to reissue the vinyl version as a two-LP set next year. It will cost a lot less than $6,500.

Look for it and catch Big Jack live.

Big Jack Johnson Discography:
“Big Boss Man,” Frank Frost
“Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down,” Jelly Roll Kings
“Off Yonder Wall,” Jelly Roll Kings
“The Oil Man,” “Live in Chicago,” “Daddy, When Is Mama Coming Home?,” “All the Way Back,’’ “We Got to Stop This Killing,” “Roots Stew,” “The Memphis Barbecue Sessions,” Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers.