Big Jack Johnson – Stripped Down in Memphis
M.C. Records MC-0090
9 songs – 41 minutes
When Big Jack Johnson died at age 70 in 2011, the planet lost a giant figure in the world of Delta blues. But he lives again here as he joins forces with harp players Kim Wilson and George “Wild Child” Butler and delivers a bare-bones, deep-in-the-pocket set of tunes from the M.C. Records vault that see the light of day for the first time ever.
Born in Lambert, Miss., and one of 18 children, Johnson was known affectionately as The Oil Man because he supported his own 13 kids by delivering fuel for Shell Oil during the day. The son of a fiddle player, he was influenced by the electric guitar stylings of B.B. King and started working professionally in his dad’s band at age 18.
After polishing his skills with Earnest Roy Sr., C.V. Veal & the Shufflers and Johnny Dugan & the Esquires, he picked up the bass and joined forces in 1962 with drummer Sam Carr and harmonica player Frank Frost to form the Jelly Roll Kings, one of the most important trios ever to emerge from the Delta, recording a couple of albums in their 15-year career before he went solo with his debut CD, The Oil Man, on Earwig in 1987.
Possessing a booming voice and doubling on guitar and mandolin, Big Jack’s at the top of his game on this one. The songs here were culled from outtakes from two previous releases, 1998’s Lickin’ Gravy and 2000’s The Memphis Barbecue Sessions. But they’re far more than that – especially when you consider that the Memphis album captured the W.C. Handy Award – precursor to the BMAs – for country blues album of the year. A Blues Hall of Famer, it was his only win despite about a dozen nominations.
Produced by M.C. head honcho Mark Carpentieri, both of these sessions were recorded at Memphis Sound Works where they were engineered by Posey Hedges and were captured in duo settings. Wilson, the founder and front man of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, shines on five cuts, ripping and running on harp without benefit of amplification. A native Alabaman who recorded in Chicago with Willie Dixon, Jimmy Dawkins and Cash McCall in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Butler was a skilled reed player and vocalist, too, which comes through loud and clear on his four cuts.
A laid-back, fun effort in which the artists were obviously enjoying themselves, the action kicks off with The Oil Man and Kim putting their own spin on Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” Wilson invokes first-generation masters as he plays counterpoint to Johnson’s string work to open, working the full range of the diatonic, before Jack’s rich voice takes command. Wild Child sits in for the Big Jack original, “Run Blues Run,” next with Johnson keeping tempo with a heavy foot as Butler lilts across the reeds with a much lighter attack.
The Oil Man swings on electric six-string to kick off Andy Gibson’s familiar instrumental, “The Hucklebuck,” before trading measures with Kim who delivers a fiery closing solo. Up next, Wild Child’s at the mic to deliver his own song, “Aching All Over,” an unhurried complaint about being mistreated by his lady. His hushed reed work is mirrored by Big Jack’s restraint on guitar, which makes his powerful pipes even more potent throughout.
Johnson’s prowess on mandolin comes to the fore in “Part Time Love.” Made famous by Little Johnny Taylor, it drives steadily forward with The Oil Man on vocals and Wilson doubling the notes emanating from his stinging strings, before launching into a sprightly instrumental cover of Big Jack’s “Alcohol.”
Another Butler original, “See Me Coming,” follows with Johnson giving Wild Child full rein to rip, run and talk over the guitar for the first half of the instrumental, gives Big Jack a break and then takes command again to close. Their cover of Big Jack’s “Going to Norway” swings steadily throughout before Kim joins the action for a sprightly take on organist Bill Doggett’s instrumental “The Hully Gully Twist” to close.
If you’re a fan of acoustic blues, you’ll definitely want this one. Strongly recommended.