Even in today’s ever-changing times, there are still a few undeniable givens that are seemingly chiseled in stone; things you can count on year-after-year.
If you want to find the sun, look to the east in the morning and to the west in the evening. If you want to find the Duke University Blue Devils in March, look in the NCAA basketball tournament. If you want to find more alligators than you can shake a stick at, look in the swamps of Louisiana. And if you want to find Chicago bluesman Johnny Drummer, look inside Lee’s Unleaded Blues on the city’s South Side.
A pillar of consistency and a role model for those that still take pride in the jobs that they do, Drummer has held court at Lee’s Unleaded Blues on a weekly basis for 20 years now. That, my friends, is the very definition of stability.
According to Drummer, the key to keeping a long-standing nightclub gig – in what can sometimes be a very fickle and unforgiving business – is a simple one.
“Your crowd. If you can draw a crowd, you can keep a job. If you’re not drawing, you’re not going to be there. When you have them standing in line outside, waiting to get in before you even hit the stage, you’re doing something right. I have people of every color from all over the world come to see me there,” Drummer said. “There’s not many people that can say they’ve held one job, at one club, for 20 years straight. I’ve played many places – I’ve played every club on the North Side that you can name – and I can do what I want, but I’ve played there straight from 1994 to 2014. And really, I even played there back before it was Lee’s Unleaded … I played there back when it was Queen Bea’s Lounge back in 1974. But I’ve been able to go overseas four or five times and when I get back home, my gig (at Lee’s) has always been there, waiting for me to get back.”
Drummer is certainly hard to miss on the bandstand, prowling around and juking back-and-forth with his Roland AX-7 keytar strapped around his neck. Where most blues pianists and keyboard players prefer to play seated behind their instrument, Drummer finds the apron of the stage, where he can go toe-to-toe with the guitar player, a much more inviting and enticing environment.
“Well, the guitar player would be out front slingin’ his guitar around and I’d be stuck back behind the keyboard. So when they came out with the strap-around (keyboard), I said, ‘OK. I’m gonna’ get mine, now.’ So I jumped out front and started slingin’ mine around, too,” he laughed. “That’s how that happened. I get out there and get to battlin’ with the guitar player and be all over the place having fun and the people love it.”
Though he’s long been known worldwide as Johnny Drummer, his birth name is really Thessex Johns.
“Well, my last mane is Johns and my friends started calling me Johnny back in the day. When I started playing drums, they started calling me Johnny The Drummer,” he said. “I happened to be watching a movie one time called Johnny Guitar (a Sterling Hayden western from 1954) and I liked that movie, so I just scratched out ‘The’ and started going by Johnny Drummer. That’s how I came to be called that for all these years. That movie (Johnny Guitar) has become one of my favorites.”
As he alluded to, and as his name implies, Drummer was indeed at one time, a drummer. But somewhere along the way, he went from sitting at the back of the stage behind the group to holding fort at the forefront, with the band behind him.
“I always did sing, but the way I ended up out front was, my band was playing one night at this club on the West Side, backing Syl Johnson and Jimmy Witherspoon. One night, I can’t remember if it was Syl or Jimmy, but one of them was late getting there. They asked me to open up the show and so I did. After that, the club owner said, ‘We hired a drummer and we want you to stay out front. You’re doing as good a job as they (Johnson and Witherspoon) do.’ So I just kept on doing it and people kept on hiring me,” said Drummer. “I’d be playing two or three clubs in one night. I would play a two-o’clock club and then a four-o’clock club. I’d do a set at the two-o’clock first and then I’d run do the four-o’clock and come back to the two-o’clock club and close it out and then turn around and go close the four-o’clock club down. I did that for a long time.”
Drummer’s latest album – Bad Attitude (Earwig Music Company) – features 13 soulful and bluesy originals penned by the man himself. While he’s not opposed to playing other artist’s songs on the bandstand, when it comes to business inside the recording studio, Drummer likes to take matters into his own capable hands.
“I like to tell my own stories. I really don’t feel like doing other people’s stuff. I mean, out in the clubs I do some (cover songs) to please the crowd sometimes, but I’m not really interested in recording them,” he said. “I figure they’ve heard them songs already, so why bother recording them again? I really think it’s to my advantage to do my own stuff.”
His material has all the elements that make up a good blues tune, but at the same time, Drummer has always managed to insert large helpings of his own personality into the music he crafts. This means there’s plenty of humor – along with loads of double entendres – in a Johnny Drummer song. Cuts like “Another Rooster is Pecking My Hen” and “Bit Her in the Butt” off Bad Attitude bear witness to as much.
“Sometimes you can just say something and I’ll pick up on it, even just one word, and I’ll say, ‘Wow, that sounds like a song.’ And then sometimes I’ll take a certain subject and write a song about it,” Drummer said of his song-writing style. “I just pay attention to the stuff going on around me and that’s how I usually come up with my songs.” Earwig also issued Drummer’s three previous CDs – Rockin’ in the Juke Joint (2007), Unleaded Blues (2001) and It’s So Nice (1999).
His songs have always managed to combine elements of the more traditional Chicago-style blues with a rougher and rawer Delta feel. That’s largely by nature, since Drummer was born and raised in the small town of Alligator, Mississippi (a stone’s throw from Clarksdale) before he first moved to the Windy City as a young man.
“That’s just me … every note you hear, whether it’s good or bad, is just how I am. I guess the way that I sound does have something to do with me being born in the Delta and then living in Chicago for so long,” he said. “I was born right where Muddy Waters and all of them were born. I always say that we’re from the same cotton field. That’s where the roots of my blues come from, Mississippi.”
Drummer’s first stint in Chicago in 1954 lasted barely eight months before he packed up and headed back south at age 17. But upon release from the army (where he first started playing the drums in earnest) in 1959, Drummer found himself back up north in Chicago. It wasn’t long before he started playing music at various clubs with various musicians.
“When I got back to Chicago, I started playing with them old blues guys like Lovie Lee …I think the only way I got a chance to play with them was because I was the only one who had a car …but that’s who I got started with, and in the band at the time was Carey Bell and the Applewhite brothers,” he said. “And after I left Lovie Lee, I started playing with Birmingham George and played with him awhile before I hooked up with Eddie King and stayed with him awhile.”
In the early-60s, Drummer first entered the studio with King, Willie Black, Roy Johnson, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith and Otis Spann.
“Yeah, it was around 1962 that I cut a record for Wonderful Records. The songs I did were “Lookin’ for My Baby” and “I Can’t Stop Twisting,’” he said. “They wanted me to come back with another song, but I didn’t have another song, so the record never came out.” Drummer also cut some tunes in 1965 – featuring help from Lonnie Brooks – but those records, too, were never issued.
It was while he was still with King that Drummer suddenly found himself a bandleader … and with a new name for the band he was now in charge of.
“We were playing this club one night and Eddie (King) and the club owner had some difficulties and so Eddie decided to leave (the gig). Well, the club owner came up to me and said, ‘Why don’t you just take over the band?’ So I took over the band,” laughed Drummer. “And one night (not long after that) we were playing at a place and they asked what the name of the group was. Well, the first thing that popped into my head was Johnny Drummer and the Starliters. I don’t know how I came up with Starliters, but it’s been Johnny Drummer and the Starliters ever since.”
Cats like Sammy Lawhorn, Lefty Dizz and Eddie Shaw were one-time band-mates of Drummer’s back in the 1960s and one fateful evening in 1966, Drummer very nearly became a member of Muddy Waters’ band.
“Mac Arnold – who had been playing with me – started playing bass for Muddy and they was playing in downtown Chicago and I went where they was playing one night. Mac handed me his bass to play a number with Muddy. Muddy knew I played drums, but he didn’t know I played bass. So I played one number and went to get up and Muddy said, ‘No. Sit back down.’ So I played another one and he said the same thing. Every time I went to get up, Muddy would have me play another song and I ended up playing almost the whole night with him,” Drummer said. “Well, a week or so later, Mac left Muddy to start his own band and Muddy called me and asked me to go on the road with him. But the only thing was, I was working for the city (Chicago Board of Education) and had a good job, so I had to turn him down because I was making more money (at his day job) than he was offering. It was an honor, though. He had Mojo Buford on harmonica, Otis Spann on piano, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ on drums and Luther ‘Georgia Boy’ Johnson on guitar at that time. I missed out on a lot of stuff back then because of that job. I missed one of the first times that Junior (Wells) went to Africa, because of that job. I missed going overseas with the Myers (Louis and Dave) brothers, too.”
He may have missed out traveling across the globe with Junior and the Myers, but that doesn’t mean that Drummer didn’t play plenty with them. He sang with the Myers and even recorded an album with them in 1976 for the French label MCM. And the harmonica skills that Drummer possesses today are largely due to the insistence of the legendary Wells.
“Junior had gave me a harmonica back in ‘65 and I took it home and gave it to my son. Well, Junior gave me another one in 1974 and hit me upside the head with it and said, ‘Man, you’re going to blow this!’ He started showing me little licks and things on it. Every time I would see him after that, he would go, ‘Where’s your harp at? You’re supposed to keep that thing in your pocket.’ So I started keeping it in my pocket and thanks to Junior, I started playing harp,” Drummer said. “Junior was nice … we hung out and played and traveled some … he always told me that I sang just like Junior Parker and that I had a harmonica voice. He really stayed on me with that. We had a lot of fun together.”
Although his two-decade long stint at Lee’s Unleaded Blues is more than enough to cement Drummer’s standing as a man who is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get the job done – night-after-night-after-night, he was also a member of the Chicago Police Department from 1974 until his retirement in 1994. “A lot of people didn’t even know I worked there, but I did for 20 years,” he said. “But I never stopped playing music during my time at the police department. I mean, I played 39 straight New Year’s Eves up until a couple of years ago. Until that time, I had never been off on New Year’s Eve from the early 1960s onward.”
Even though his streak of playing nearly 40 consecutive New Year’s Eves has been snapped, the 77-year-old Drummer still plays music anywhere he can, anytime he can. And he plans on that being the case many years into the future and even scoffs when the idea of retirement is broached.
“Musicians don’t retire, they just die,” he laughed. “We play as long as we can and that’s what I plan on doing. That is, as long as people still enjoy what I do. If I thought the people weren’t enjoying it, I would retire.”
Drummer feels like in order for the blues to continue to grow and to prosper, it needs to take a hint from what’s going on in the country-and-western world these days.
“There’s still room for the blues to grow, it just needs more publicity. We just need the right people to record it (the blues) for it to get publicity and the right air-play. You’ve only got seven notes in music, you know? It’s what you do with them that counts. County-and-western has got all these young kids making music and all these other young kids (in the audience) see that and they want to play it, too,” he said. “The blues needs that to happen, too. But the blues will never die. Young players are still picking up on it – they may be from Japan or from Chicago or somewhere else – and as long as they keep picking up on it, there’s the chance that they will get the right publicity and air-play like some of these young country artists are getting. And that’s nothing but good for the blues.”
Visit Johnny’s website at www.johnnydrummermusic.com.
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine