“I was one of the first cats that was travelling all over the world without a recording, without any kind of accolade other than, ‘There’s this left-handed guy in Chicago named Carlos Johnson. You gotta hear him play!’ That was my ticket for going overseas, to having gigs, to making money, to playing with all the top blues players in Chicago.”
Maybe it’s because he’s left-handed, but Chicago blues guitarist Carlos Johnson is not your standard Chicago blues guitarist. “I think left-handed people in general are creative in all aspects and not just music – like da Vinci in art and in science – because we have a tendency to push and always be outside the box. It’s not our fault. We were made ass backwards. We’re wired to think absolutely opposite to everyone else basically.”
It figures that this Chicago stalwart would have Otis Rush, Lefty Dizz and Albert King prominently in his resume. All are left-handed. “We all have the same approach especially with the pulldown, because most right-handed guitar players when they want to get that Albert King type of pull, they have to push up with it playing strung right handed. Now with it strung the other way, that’s a different story. Then, we have a different problem.”
Johnson can play a guitar that’s strung left-handed or one strung right-handed. “I do most of my writing strung left-handed. It gets all emotion. I’m not thinking about arpeggios or anything. It’s so natural to me. The theory, believe it or not, is different for me to play the things I play on my guitar strung right-handed. It’s a little difficult for me to play it strung right handed. I can do it, but it’s easier for me to play the same thing strung left-handed.”
For Johnson, creating music on a guitar strung left-handed is like reading poetry in English when that’s your native language. Reading poetry in a second language like Spanish is analogous for him to jamming on a right-strung guitar. “Absolutely. Absolutely! Absolutely! It’s another ‘language’ that I had to study, (but) we adapt unconsciously or consciously, It’s so immediate that it’s second nature. Over the decades, I think it might be in our gene pool that we can adapt musically. We don’t think twice about picking up a pair of scissors, and they’re 99% right handed, but we use ’em without even thinking about it.”
Johnson’s affection for his left-handed mentors is palpable. “I’m doing Albert King at the (Chicago Blues Festival). I was thinking of listening to a couple of songs that I’m going to do. Even though Albert King tuned his guitar different, his melodic approach and his vocalizing of the guitar is so fluid, it’s like liquid blues gold. It’s amazing. I’ve listened to a lot of guitar players that go after Albert King. Stevie Ray Vaughan is probably the top of the list, but when you get down to the nitty gritty, there’s no flow like Albert King. You can try and duplicate it and copy it and pay homage to him, and there are good things, but when it comes down to it, just sit back and enjoy the ride.” (chuckle)
Much less well known outside of Chicago is the apt-named Lefty Dizz, the late associate of Johnson who matched his guitar prowess with a humorous sense as an entertainer, but Johnson cautions that he was way more serious than the casual listener might discern.
“We were always laughing. I don’t think there was ever a time me and Lefty were together if it wasn’t for laughing because he was very humorous when he was taking the guitar and flipping it around with the neck and turning it upside down and mimicking guitar with his mouth. It was a real – it is fun to watch. He was very entertaining. But he took himself seriously as far as his playing. As far as his performance, that was all Lefty. That wasn’t a show to try to – that was him for real. But musically, he knew how to separate his entertainment ability, technical Derek tability and his guitar playing which was amazing.”
Carlos Johnson’s best memories are of playing with Otis Rush. He recalls a particular date in Japan. “Yeah, we had fun there. I think it was Derek Trucks playing on the venue with us. We got to the finale, and I’ll never forget that all during the tour I think Otis had a little struggle with is vocals, and he was singing fine, but we had to tweak the mike a little bit here and there, blah, blah, blah.
“We started playing, and he came out with this voice from heaven. It was from the God! It was thunderous. When he did it, the whole place erupted. I lost my spot on the guitar. We were crazy. He was singing his ass of and I found my spot back, and I said, ‘Hit it, Otis.’
“It was one of the most high points of my career that day. I was doing whatever I could use, whatever I had to do to make sure we had a good show. The band was kicking, Otis was playing. That particular day, his voice, he just reached down, and it came out, and you could not see a dry eye in the audience. Thousands of people, everybody was crying. I was crying. The audience was crying.”
Johnson is ubiquitous on the Chicago scene and has played all over Europe even though he has very little recorded music under his own name. The album Diversatility was in the making at the time of his last Blues Blast interview in 2013, and he still hasn’t got it done. “I’ve been writing this music and this album for a long time. I had my own company, Blues Hand Productions, and we were just about to do it, and family things happened. My mother passed away, and it just put a whole halt on everything, and just as I was getting back into the creative, happy mode, Trump comes along. So, now I’m changing lyrics. I’m adding some songs and taking some songs out. So, I’m trying to keep things in the right moment where I can have the most impact.
“I know people are waiting, and I’m sorry for the long wait, but I have to do it this way, and everybody will be happy once it’s complete. I’m taking my time in doing this. I’m not a rich man. I have a family. I’ve got bills and sometimes things get set back, but trust me. It’s going to be worth it. I’m still doing other projects. I’m still doing other things. I’m busy.
“The disheartening thing in this is when I look in Facebook and I see all the blues bands and everybody’s working, working, working, and I sent promos to festivals, even just clubs and when I get the reply back and I see the amount of money they just made, I say, ‘Well, oh, my God. This is not fair.’ So, we’re almost back to where you have to have a string of gigs to get to a place in order to make a buck, to make some money. And to me, I’ve never done it.”
One of Johnson’s current projects is the soon-to-be-released Chicago Plays The Stones to be produced by Larry Skoller who produced two Grammy-winning CDs that Johnson played on: Chicago Blues, A Living History (2009) and Chicago Blues: A Living History Continues (2011). On their 2016 Blue and Lonesome, the Rolling Stones paid homage to their mentors, the post-war Chicago blues artists. On Chicago Plays the Stones some of the same artists from A Living History return the honors. Johnson plays “Out of Control.” Other cuts include: John Primer on “Let It Bleed and “Angie,” “Playing with Fire” by Billy Boy Arnold, “Satisfaction” by Ronnie Baker Brooks, Billy Branch doing “Sympathy for The Devil,” “Gimme Shelter” by Lou Ann Faine, Jimmy Burns on “Beast of Burden and “Dead Flowers,” “Miss You” by Mike Avery, and Omar Coleman doing “I Go Wild.”
“(The Stones’ blues album) was cool because it gave recognition of where the shit comes from,” says Johnson. He doesn’t feel that this always happens in a musical form that is African American in its origins. “The blues is an African American heritage handed down that we like to share. It belongs to everyone, but it is ours. I appreciate that they like the genre of music, but what I don’t appreciate is when I see these same cats opening up Shay Stadium, an amphitheater, making shitloads, shitloads of freaking money, and the very same cats if they would walk in the West Side clubs, they would get their asses tore up like shredded wheat.
“We (African American blues musicians) are the Picassos and the Van Goghs and the da Vincis (of blues). Through the years, since the inception of the blues, we have never gotten the recognition of the Picassos in the manner that they (white artists) have. In other words, they have taken free license. You have the Mona Lisa. It’s priceless. Then, you have someone, an artist who says, ‘Oh, I really like the way this guy painted. This is marvelous. I think I paint like this, too.’ And so, he also paints the Mona Lisa, and the powers that be say, ‘Let’s like this Mona Lisa. Let’s look at the Mona Lisa. Look at this copy.’
“Then, through repetition of that you come to find out the copy has come to be more valuable than the original works of art. They have made the replications and the copies so valuable that the original works of art have almost become worthless other than recognition of it being original. To me that’s disheartening. I wish it was different. Maybe that’s why the blues is so different because it’s the underdog of the music industry.
“Something’s wrong with that picture, and I give credit to the cats that give to the blues like the Stones when you see them down at the Checkerboard. You can tell that they really genuinely do care about our heritage, our music.
“This is no joke to them. This is real, but the way that the powers that be- can you imagine if we did this for instance – and this is not the only Stones tribute album. There’s an album in Poland also where my friends in Poland a tribute to the Stones. So, The Stones have reached an inordinate amount of people which is a good thing, and I really do applaud them for giving us recognition. It’s not up to them to run the industry.
“They’re doing what they can. They’re doing what they possibly can, and they can only do so much. They can only do so much. This is a huge step forward to giving us more monetary recognition, and I hope this has a phenomenal effect where all these superstars who’ve gotten their coming up in the blues will reach back like Santana did with John Lee Hooker (on The Healer) so forth and so on because let’s face it. We are not in control We control the music, but we don’t control the industry. We’re doing the Stones like the Stones did Chicago. I don’t know if we’re returning the favor (Chuckle). I think we’re doing tunes that are appreciated. I think the returns are going to be a little lopsided. (Laugh)
“It shouldn’t be that Leonardo daVinci had to convince the dean of the art school to let him teach. This is my problem. We have a bunch of daVinci’s trying to teach being blues artists, let us make the money.
“So, the only regret that I have in doing it this way is that my band suffers a little bit because they have to do so many other things to make ends meet because I refuse to offer them pennies to come and work, the caliber of musicians, I have.
“I love sharing my music. I love showing young cats different things. There are young cats coming up now that are going to be fantastic, even though they play a little rockish. Sometimes that’s their flavor. When I was young, I wanted to play like Muddy Waters, but the young kids now they want to play more like Stevie Ray Vaughan or another high-powered blues player. Completely opposite! But that’s good as long as they keep it in that vein.
“I don’t mind people stretching out and putting their own take and twist on the music, but there’s a thin line between revolution and extinction. You can only take it so far until the original becomes extinct.”
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.