“I think there’s too much candy in music now to my liking,” says blues singer/songwriter Johnny Sansone. He explains, “Think about food as music. Food is for nourishment, and it makes you who you are. Your body is built from what you eat, and I think music should be consumed the same way. If you listen to sugary music, you’re not going to be able to understand this beautiful thing that exists in this world.”
At six foot four with a mane of white hair that makes him look like Buffalo Bill Cody on steroids, Johnny Sansone cuts an imposing figure on stage before he opens his mouth. A college graduate who swam his way through school on a swimming scholarship, he moves with the lithe spirit of a panther and hammers home his original music with a sense of purpose and grit that’s as imposing vocally as Howlin’ Wolf whom he saw once at age 12.
“I’m just a kid, and I ran away from the swimming camp to see what this was about, and they had him do this little thing in the park, some kind of little outdoor stage that they had to plug the show that night, and he came out at first playing harmonica and singing, and I was right in the front, and he looked at me. This was something that changed my life.
“I could see him looking at me, and he looked like he was gonna jump off stage and choke me. He was playing, and he looked at me and he looked like he was so pissed off, like ‘I’ll kill you,’ and I’m just a little kid, and I’m like, ‘Holy s***.’ Then, he played a little bit, and then he smiled like ‘I’m not gonna hurt ya,’ and something happened to me, and I saw that man. I was like, ‘I wanna do that.’ Like I was terrified. I don’t even remember who else was on the show.”
While barely out of his teens, Johnny did some work with Jr. Wells. “We were sitting at a table at this festival, and one of the guys from Hot Tuna were there,” he recalls about a tour with Junior. “They were talking, getting stuff together, and Buddy Guy was sitting there. So, I had a bottle of gin because I know that he and Jr. like Tanqueray, so I brought that with me, and he starts.
‘Alright, let me hear ya.’
“And I’m playing something.
“He said, ‘Gimme that!’ He goes, ‘Play it like this,’ and he played and slid it back to me, and I played it exactly like he did.
“And he says, ‘Gimme that! You don’t know what you’re doing. Let me show ya.’
“So, I slid it back to him. The whole time we were drinking, and he played the same thing.
‘Play it like this.’
“I played it.
“He’s like, ‘Man, aren’t you listening to me? What’s wrong with you?’
“And he’s like, ‘Play it like this.’
He slid it back, and I picked it up and I played something completely different, and he goes, ‘Now, you got it.’
“It took an hour for me to understand, He was like, ‘You are you. Why are you letting me tell you what to do?’ He was about life stories. He could make you realize, ‘Wait a second. He did good so he’s gonna share it.’”
Howlin’ Wolf’s imposing stage presence and Junior Wells’ harmonica lesson weren’t Johnny’s first forays into the secrets of a great entertainers. His father was played saxophone with Dave Brubuck in World War II. “My father came to me when I was eight years old, and he would say, ‘Show me what you’ve learned.’ I’d play, and he’d take the horn, and he’d play. ‘It’s like this,’ and he’d play one note. ‘Your tone and your phrasing is such a beautiful thing. I don’t care how fast you play or what you want to play, you’re gonna get this.’ And that always stuck with me.
“‘You’re gonna play. You’re gonna take lessons,’ and I looked at him and I was like, ‘I don’t know anything about it,’ My dad died when I was 14. I realize now that he looked at all of the kids, and said, ‘This guy – this guy, he will carry on what I wanted to do. He can do it.’ I didn’t know that I had to carry the saxophone, too. You take these lessons which I hated to do because I would have to go to basement to an Italian guy’s house, and he smelled like garlic and wine, and I hated it, and he’d show me something to play, and I’m just a kid.
Another beautiful thing that Dad told Johnny was that the day is too short to go without good food and good music. “Some day you’ll understand when you meet girls,” he said. “He’s telling me some pretty important stuff, and it (sunk) into me. I know there are a lot of guys that are great blues musicians that want their kids to play the blues, but music is music, and just like any art form, it’s hard to understand what you want to do, but I wish there were more programs where kids.”
Music has always been the essence of life for Johnny, but swimming was his ticket to ride. Both required discipline. “I remember saying from the time I was eight years old, I had to get up at five o’clock in the morning and go jump in the pool and swim until it was time to go to school until I got out of college, and I said, ‘For the rest of my life I will not wake up until I want to.’
“I couldn’t wait to get out on the road. I couldn’t wait to play music. I was an athlete in college. It took every bit of my time. I was lucky to even listen to music, let alone play it. So, it was really difficult. You have to keep a scholarship. You have to keep (doing) what you’re doing and essentially it’s more like swimming which I did. It takes a lot more than eight hours a day, and then going to school, so there was no time.”
So, how does a guy from New Jersey who has a swimming scholarship to a school in Colorado end up in New Orleans? “Culture! I love great food, and I love great music. I’ve been to so many different places and traveled all over in search of the soulfulness and what moves me, and I found it in a lot of places, but the roots I guess are in why people get married. They say, ‘I can’t live without this person. I have to (be with) this person.’ That’s kinda how New Orleans was to me. Kinda like the place I knew I was s’posed to be from.”
After graduating, Johnny lived in Colorado, Austin, Florida, Chicago, Boston, and Chapel Hill before settling in New Orleans. “I tried to be a hobo and to be on the road much as I could. When I got out of college, that’s what I did. I traveled and lived in every city I could and absorbed everything I could from that place to try to bring that soul into myself so that I would understand that kind of music, and it worked.
“To go to New Orleans and see how many different kinds of music were being condensed within 100 miles was really an amazing awakening. So, a lot of the music that I already had bought – I bought records as a kid and didn’t understand. There are really so many people there who can play that were influenced by this music, and you didn’t have to go that far to find something completely different.
“I lived in Texas, and there’s great Texas blues, and you could go hear Tex/Mex music. You could hear great country music, incredible songwriters, beautiful folk music, and the blues, but when you go to Louisiana, everything gets condensed into a form I haven’t seen anywhere else, heard anywhere else. That’s what I was looking for. I wanted to take my entire record collection and jam it into six songs.
“It seemed like it worked, and then on top of that out of all the places that I’d ever lived in a certain amount of time I found the people welcomed me there, and they wanted to know what I cared about and what can you show us that we don’t know.
“It was a beautiful awakening. It took me a long time to actually move there. Just like every other place I went to, I stayed for as long as I could. Then I always wanted to come back, and I think that’s what’s happening in that city right now. People are coming there, and staying there for the reason I did.”
Swimming and singing are both Zen experiences for Johnny. He still swims, but it doesn’t’ rule his days anymore. “I don’t look at the two as the same. I think the winning spirit is something I was brought up with as an athlete, to go in and to give everything you’ve got all the time, and I think that’s (similar to how I play music). When people have job and a lot of times I think they go to their jobs, and they get as much done as they think they need to in order to keep their job.
“When you’re an athlete, you can’t do that. Maybe late in life we find out I could lose this job if I don’t do more than I was supposed to do. Then you find out I did more than I was supposed to do and the other guy got the job I wanted, but when you’re up against another guy, and he’s faster than you, you have to beat him, and there’s something to be said about applying yourself toward something and that’s what I’m saying about understanding your craft and practicing all the time. I don’t know if it’s that. I think it’s the discipline of making sure that everybody around you will understand what you’re doing means to you because that becomes something they can understand, and they do that themselves.”
Johnny feels it’s an artist’s job to find himself. “I think he disconnects himself from what anybody actually thinks about what he’s doing. He’s not doing it for them. He’s doing it for himself, and he’s putting everything he can into it. This is a hypnotic state to a certain degree. It’s completely different. He doesn’t know what’s going on around him. There could be nobody there, and he’s going to do the same thing, and that thing, that hypnosis, goes into people’s hearts. He doesn’t care. His job is to find himself.
“This is why we have such great recordings. When you think about something like Stax. I mean it goes on forever, but these people were not in front of an audience. They said, ‘Roll the tape,’ and these guys put out. They were probably crying. You can feel that on those records. I don’t know if that happens anymore.
“I don’t know how digitally processed they made anything from a certain year. When did it actually start and how did it go? And when is (analog recording) gonna come back? What happened to the actual process of I sing? These guys (today) play, and then somebody enhances it enough so that it sounds good enough to be put out. Some of our favorite records were made that way.
“I feel like sorry for those consumers from here on out unless something changes. We all have a way to go back just like we did when we bought Chess records, when we listened to those things. How did they make the echo? “Well, you’ve got boxes that do all that shit now. We don’t need all those techniques. They recreate that.”
If Johnny Sansone had only put out one album, The Lord Is Waiting The Devil Is Too (2011), it would be good enough for me to put him in the same knitch with his mentors Howlin’ Wolf and Jr. Wells. A mountain of a man, his Zen-like presence is mesmerizing, his tone showing the results of the early lessons of his father, his competitive swimming experience shining through his spectacular focus on the song at hand. He often works with Anders Osborne, has been a staple of The Voice of The Wetlands Allstars, he is fiercely independent and woefully under appreciated in the blues world. I asked him how he got the nickname Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone.
“Ok, interview’s over now,” he joked. “I’ll tell you exactly what happened very quickly. I was trying to play music well, and I was an athlete, and I was just a ball of energy, and I could pretty much do anything. So, I would play harmonica really bad, and I would like jump up on top of the upright piano, and then I would do a back flip off the piano, and never miss a note. Then I would jump over the bass player’s head, and then I would jump into the crowd, and nobody knew what it was, and everybody would start saying, ‘That guy that jumps around, that jumpin’ guy, he’s going to be there tonight,’ and somebody said, ‘The jumpin guy, Jumpin’ Johnny.’
“So, I ended up being this guy Jumpin’ Johnny. The reason I had to get rid of this Jumpin’ Johnny was because there are three other Jumpin’ Johnny’s in this world, and I won’t say they’re better or worse than me. I’ll just say I don’t want them confused with me. So, I’m not Jumpin’ Johnny. They’re Jumpin’ Johnny, and I’m Johnny Sansone, and thank you very much.”
“I think it’s better to look forward to something than to be just waiting to get it over with. To me it’s always whatever I’m doing now and whatever I’m looking forward to coming next which is not to minimize stuff I’ve done in the past and I’m proud of, but once it’s done, it’s done.”
Visit Johnny’s website at: www.johnnysansone.com
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.