Mid-life career changes usually tend to be traumatic developments. Yet a serious stylistic switch was the catalyst for Jimmy Johnson’s rendezvous with stardom. The veteran Chicago guitarist concentrated on playing R&B and soul during the 1960s and early ‘70s, but when gigs grew scarce, Jimmy refocused solely on blues. In the late ‘70s, Johnson’s acclaimed blues recordings for Alligator and Delmark showcasing his elastic lead guitar and high-flying, soulful vocals confirmed that he’d made the right decision.
At age 88, Johnson is as strong as ever on the stages of B.L.U.E.S., Buddy Guy’s Legends, and Lagunitas Brewery Tap Room. “It’s always fun to me to play onstage,” says Johnson. “When I’m playing, I really enjoy being onstage entertaining people.” But the rigors of touring have lost their charm. “I’ve had enough of the road,” he says. “You see me at home playing all the time. That’s because I don’t want to be on the road. I’ve been probably to Europe maybe two or three times, in Brazil and those places. I probably won’t do that no more. Now I don’t have to.”
The eldest of three brothers who all made indelible impacts on the history of Chicago blues (Syl Johnson and Mac Thompson being the other two), Jimmy Johnson is a native of Holly Springs, Mississippi, born with the surname of Thompson. Their father, Sam Thompson, was an amateur musician. “He played harmonica, and he played some guitar too,” says Johnson. “But he didn’t own a guitar.”
One of Jimmy’s buddies as a youngster was Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who would join piano master Memphis Slim’s band in 1952. “I picked up a guitar because Murphy had a guitar, back when I was in Mississippi,” says Johnson, who concentrated on a different instrument early on. “I was going to high school and they had a piano in school. And I used to spend my whole lunch break practicing on that piano. It was up behind a curtain in the gym.” Sacred and secular sounds competed for his attention. “My first time of singing in front of an audience, I was singing gospel,” says Jimmy. “My uncle had a Victrola, the ones you wind up, and I got to hear John Lee Hooker, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Sonny Boy Williamson.”
Johnson migrated north during the late 1940s, stopping first in Memphis and forming a gospel group, the United Five. “One (member) was my cousin, and just some young people that we knew. And we got together and formed a group,” he says. “We just sang basically local.” In late 1950, Jimmy was on the move again, this time heading for Chicago. What made him settle here? “Probably two reasons: economics and to get away from that Jim Crow!”
Syl and Mac made the same trek a year later. “I came first. I came with my uncle. So I didn’t come the hard way, like some of the guys explain how they came here and they were starving and didn’t have anywhere. But I came with my uncle and I had a place to stay. Plus he got me a job where he worked, and the third day I went on a good job,” says Jimmy. “I was a welder’s helper. And I watched him, and the next year, I got started. I was a welder. And in about a couple of years, I became a Class A Combination welder.” He held that lucrative day job until 1959.
Jimmy’s initial musical exploits in the Windy City were again sacred with the Golden Jubilaires. “My uncle was a minister, and he had a church,” he says. “The Golden Jubilaires came by the church, and they heard me singing with the choir. Sometimes I would sing with the choir, and I would sing lead. And then they asked me to join them.” Jimmy’s minister uncle was dead set against his nephew acquiring a guitar, but that didn’t stop him from buying one from harpist Billy Boy Arnold in 1958. “It was a either a National or a Kay,” he says. By then, Syl and Mac were established as local standouts, Syl as a hot guitarist on records by Arnold, Junior Wells, and Elmore James and Mac as Magic Sam’s rock-solid electric bassist.
“We were living at 2728 S. Calumet, on the South Side of Chicago,” says Jimmy, “when Magic Sam got started. The Thompson family and Sam were neighbors. When I met him, he had a guitar with no strings on it. Naturally, he didn’t have no money. And I had a good job. I bought him some strings for his guitar.” Sam progressed fast on his chosen instrument. “That’s what inspired me to go get me a guitar and start playing, was Magic Sam. Well, I had a job. I was a welder, and I made plenty money. And I was fine without playing music. But Sam would get his guitar and go onstage, because he got this little record, ‘All Your Love.’ And man, he’d go on the stage, and all the girls were going wild! He’d just get up there and all these (people) said, ‘Oh, yeah!’ And he was playing in some big places too, because I used to go with him to the F&J over in Gary. But anyway, man, I couldn’t play guitar. I had played a little bit, because Matt Murphy had a guitar, and I used to mess around on his guitar. I said, ‘Man, I’m gonna get me a guitar and learn how to play!’”
Sam wasn’t Jimmy’s lone inspiration. “Otis Rush has been my favorite guy all down through the years. Since I met him, he’s been my favorite blues player and singer. I met him even before I started playing music. It probably was around ‘56 or ‘57. Because my brother played before me, Mac,” says Johnson. “He’s the one that took me to see Otis Rush. It was at a place called the 708 Club. It was on 47th Street.”
Jimmy also crossed paths often with guitarist Freddie King, another West Side stalwart. “He had super energy. And everything he played was very energetic. Nothing laidback. He was just an energetic player, and a good singer. And his playing was very good,” says Johnson, who had the honor of sitting in with King while just getting started on his axe. “He was one of the most lenient cats I ever met. More than Magic Sam, and we sat in with his band. The first time I sat in was with Magic Sam’s band, but the first time I sat in, I got onstage and I froze. And I had to go back and practice more.”
Jimmy also spent some time during the late ‘50s in a vocal group, the Masquerades, led by the Scott brothers. But July 4, 1959 marked his first professional gig on guitar with harpist Earl Payton at a bar on 39th and Indiana. “They were kind of having a problem finding guitar players. Somebody told them I played guitar, I was Syl’s brother, and I went to play with ‘em. But I couldn’t play that well. I had just started playing,” he remembers. “I was supposed to play the 4th of July and then that Friday and Saturday. So after the first night, the next night I go back to play, they had Odell Campbell there. And he said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, we’re gonna have to get another guitar player because you just ain’t quite makin’ it!’ So I said, ‘Okay, good, it’s fine.’ So Odell was from the neighborhood, and he didn’t have no amplifier. So he asked me could he use my amp! I said, ‘Well, in this case, man, absolutely not! Because you’ve taken my gig!’ Under any other circumstances, I would have loaned him my amplifier.”
It was a temporary setback, harpist Slim Willis hiring Johnson a couple of months later. “He told me when I was playing with him, ‘Well, man, you understand that, you’re really learning, and you ain’t super good, but you’ve got good potential. I’m gonna keep you with me.’ And James Wheeler, he was playing guitar. In those days, we played like two guitars and harmonica and drums. So Wheeler, he quit because Slim wouldn’t fire me. And Slim got Magic Slim. And Magic Slim, he couldn’t play nothing but Jimmy Reed. I played all the lead, and he played the lump behind the harp. We played at a place called the Seeley Club. It was on the West Side, on Madison.
“That’s where they stole my guitar. The stage was right at the back, and somebody probably took my guitar and handed it through the bars to somebody on the outside. And Freddie King loaned me one of his guitars ‘til I got able to buy me another guitar. I had a day job; I didn’t have no problem. It just took me a little while, and I went and bought me another guitar.”
Eager to improve his technique, Jimmy sought instruction. “I can’t remember exactly where I saw this advertisement about this school, this music school called Boston Music College. And I decided to go downtown. It was on Wabash. And I enrolled in this school. But it was only two days a week. It had to be scheduled after I would get off of work. I guess it was like four o’clock in the evening, from four ‘til whatever time. I don=t know exactly,” says Johnson. “What he really taught me was the fundamentals of the guitar, and he was teaching me a lot of what I call folk chords. He taught me how a polka went. He taught me how a waltz went.”
Reggie Boyd, whose fleet fretwork graced records by Jimmy Rogers and Earl Hooker, showed Jimmy more practical guitar moves. “Reggie taught a whole lot of us. Matt Murphy, Fenton Robinson, Luther Tucker, Lacy Gibson,” he says. “He had a masters’ degree in music, and he had the reputation. That’s the way I found out about him. He lived very close to me, and I didn’t know it. We were living in the projects, and he lived a couple of buildings over.”
Still billed as Jimmy Thompson, he formed his own band, the Lucky Hearts, gigging at Cadillac Baby’s club, the Happy Home, the White Rose in Phoenix, Ill., and other local haunts. His modern R&B-styled approach earned him plenty of bookings. “I knew how to play behind people, because I would usually keep up with the Top 40 songs,” he says. “I would learn how to play them, and I could read a little bit.” Jimmy finally changed his surname to Johnson to keep in line with Syl, who became a soul star in 1967 with his smash “Come On Sock It To Me.” “Down through the years, they knew that I was Syl’s brother and they pinned Johnson on me,” he says. “When I said Jimmy Johnson, I’d do the gig where I might not have got it if it said Jimmy Thompson.”
Jimmy had come up with the catchy introductory riff on Syl’s “Come On Sock It To Me,” and he and his band waxed an instrumental version as the Deacons for Syl’s Shama label that dented the national R&B charts in 1968. That same year, Jimmy Johnson and the Lucky Hearts made their official debut with a funky instrumental single for the local Stuff label pairing “Work Your Thing” and “Get It.” One-derful! Records producer Otis Hayes supervised its recording and then passed the tape to singer Jerry-O as the backing track for his “Funky Four Corners” without permission. “He took the same music and dubbed this guy’s voice in,” explains Jimmy.
Although Johnson and his band had played behind soul stars Otis Clay, Ruby Andrews, Denise LaSalle, and Walter Jackson in top South and West Side clubs, gigs as a soul bandleader were growing scarce in 1974. So Jimmy gravitated towards the blues. “That’s when that field I was in had died,” says Johnson. “You ever hear the (saying), ‘Stop whippin’ a dead horse?’ Ain’t no use to keep whippin’ a dead horse if there’s another horse that’s still living. And I knew Buddy and Junior and them, James Cotton—man, they were making a lot of money.
“There were no gigs for what I was doing. I was driving a taxi. And Jimmy Dawkins knew who I was, but I didn’t know who he was. I had heard his name, but I didn’t know who he was. He called the stand that I used to drive for, and they gave me his (number) on my CB radio,” he says. “Back then you had to go to the telephone booth to call. And I called him, and he told me about it. And he had gigs. So I said, ‘Well, give me a few days to talk about it.’ I’ll go home and talk to my wife. Naturally, my wife was real cool. She jumped for it. I said okay. I told him, ‘Okay, I’ll take the gig.’ So I traveled around with him for about two years.”
A 1975 Japanese tour as Otis Rush’s second guitarist was a real head-turner. “I couldn’t believe it. We were like the Beatles when they came. They met us at the airport with cartoons and stuff. We were really somebody,” says Johnson. “Man, you were somebody when you went to Japan, and many days when I was playing to the audience, I could see people out there crying.”
Johnson’s first recordings as a blues band leader were live sets done for the French MCM label in the mid-‘70s. Then veteran Chicago producer Ralph Bass included him in a series of 1977 studio recordings that were shelved for years and then belatedly released as British anthologies by Red Lightnin’ Records under the unfortunate aggregate title of I Didn’t Give a Damn If Whites Bought It! (an out-of-context quote from an old Bass interview). “That’s really kind of upsetting,” fumes Jimmy. “How could you come up with an idea that stupid?”
The next recording opportunity to come Jimmy’s way was a far better experience all around. Alligator’s Bruce Iglauer chose Johnson was one of the participants in his first trio of Living Chicago Blues anthologies, which emerged in 1978 to rave reviews. Jimmy’s four selections, all covers, led off volume one and were particularly strong, Johnson reimagining Percy Mayfield’s “Serves Me Right To Suffer,” James Davis’ “Your Turn To Cry,” and Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” to fit his contemporary strengths.
“When I did the record with Alligator, I had songs, but I had already talked to Delmark,” he explains. “Then Alligator wanted to do the record, so I promised him I was going to do the record with him, but I was going to save my originals because I was still going to do the record with Delmark, because I had promised. I don’t know if I had signed or what, but I told him I was going to do it. And he said, ‘That’s okay, I’ll do all cover songs.’ So I just did songs that I liked.”
Hot on its heels, Jimmy put together Johnson’s Whacks, his full-length 1979 debut for Delmark. Aside from takes on Ernest Tubb’s hillbilly classic “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin” and Dave Brubeck’s jazz classic “Take Five” (Jimmy’s standard set closer), the set delivered all originals, some crafted in cahoots with Delmark producer Steve Tomashefsky. “I didn’t really do all of my ideas,” says Johnson. “I did part of his ideas too, because I like to be cooperative. like we’re doing something together, I don’t want it to all go my way.” “I Need Some Easy Money” and “Ashes In My Ashtray,” two of the set’s highlights, demonstrated Jimmy’s mastery of impassioned minor-key blues. “I hear a lot of the old-time people, they sing minor, and play major,” he says. “It just sounded better to me—I’m going to sing minor, so why not just flatten that third and make that chord a minor chord?”
North//South, Johnson’s 1982 Delmark followup, was again dominated by crisp originals, but Bar Room Preacher, released domestically by Alligator in 1985 after being issued initially in Europe as Heap See, reverted mostly to sparkling covers, including a reprise of John Lee Hooker’s “When My First Wife Quit Me “ “I didn’t know who recorded it first,” he says. “I just heard Magic Sam singing it, and I liked it.” “Heap See,” one of Jimmy’s own compositions (and a spine-chilling minor-key one at that), was another highlight. “It came up from a word,” he explains. “Well, I’ll tell you, you see me, I look like I’m alright, but I’m not alright. I lost my job, my wife left me, and my dog died. So I’m not really alright. I look like I’m alright, so a heap of people see, but a very few really know.’”
When the early ‘90s blues revival was at its zenith, Johnson had a brief major label hookup when his slickly produced French release I’m a Jockey was released stateside by Verve/Gitanes in 1994. Five years later, the European Ruf imprint issued his horn-laden Every Road Ends Somewhere, West Side-trained guitarist Luther Allison doing an intense guest turn. “Luther was sick then, and I guess he knew he was sick, but I didn’t know it,” says Johnson. “But he was so glad that I asked him to play on my record. And we sat down, and we were talking, and me and him both were crying! I was so proud to get him to play on my record, and he was proud to play on my record.”
Johnson weathered a horrific 1988 van crash while touring that killed two of his band members (bassist Larry Exum and keyboardist St. James Bryant) and left him unable to play guitar for an extended period (he switched temporarily to keyboards), Jimmy was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in 2016, but he never rests on his laurels. His fluidly unpredictable guitar solos and stratospheric vocal twists and turns never fail to dazzle; he sounds as though he still has something to prove even as his 89th birthday approaches.
We can all be glad he changed stylistic course in 1974.
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.