Donald Ray Johnson – These Blues | Album Review

donaldrayjohnsoncdDonald Ray Johnson – These Blues: The Best Of Donald Ray Johnson

Mar Vista Music MV7

13 songs – 59 minutes

Canadian-based Grammy winner Donald Ray Johnson reprises his solo career with this hard-hitting collection of material gathered from six previous recordings.

A native of Bryan, Texas, who now calls Calgary his home, Donald Ray is a full-throated vocalist and outstanding drummer who came to prominence internationally about 35 years ago when he provided the time-keeping for A Taste Of Honey, the female R&B duo who were the first black group ever to win a Grammy for Best New Artist.

But Johnson’s blues roots run deep. His love for the drums began at age seven. By age 14, he started playing professionally behind Nate Dove, a Brazos Bottom piano legend. Before he was out of his teens, he beat the skins for local organist Joe Daniels and guitarist Lavernis Thurman, often appearing on their Saturday night radio show. A stint in the Navy with two tours of Vietnam followed, with Johnson settling in San Diego and got involved in the Los Angeles blues scene, eventually joining the Phillip Walker and Joe Houston bands. He’s also toured with Big Mama Thornton, Smokey Wilson, Teddy Pendergrass, the Isley Brothers and Maurice John Vaughn.

Now a Canadian citizen, Johnson emigrated to Calgary more than 20 years ago, and has received high honors North of the Border in the ‘90s, being named Best Canadian Male Blues Vocalist by two different organizations and being nominated for Best Blues Drummer. Recently, he was among the Alberta Recording Industry Organization’s nominees for Best Blues Artist.

This collection of Memphis and Chicago style soul and deep blues kicks off with a cover of “Ain’t No Fun To Me,” a minor hit for Al Green and includes nine originals and three more well-chosen cover tunes. Next up, the straight-ahead original blues, “Gone So Long,” which asks the question: “You’ve been gone so long/When you comin’ back.” It’s a swinging lament about a woman who spends all night with “friends” – and all of her “friends are men.”

The tempo picks up for “These Blues,” a guitar- and horn-driven tip-of-the-hat to the style of music Johnson holds dear. A cover of “Always On My Mind” leads into the smooth original “Slow Down Baby.” Donald Ray’s voice is on full display for the burner “Here To Stay,” about the return of a lost love, before the tongue-in-cheek drinking song, “Me And Jack (Daniel’s),” in which the singer’s suffering the effects of a fight with the bottle the night before.

Johnson does Johnnie Taylor proud in a silky cover of Taylor’s classic, “Last Two Dollars,” before three more powerful originals – “No Guitar Blues,” “It Ain’t Easy Being Blue” and “Thrilling You Killing Me.” The first is a complaint about getting the blues from watching the TV news; the second details why the singer has the blues; the third a straight-ahead grinder about a guy in love with a woman who has another man. A funky cover of bluegrass pioneer Hazel Dickens’ “Working Girl Blues” precedes the final tune in the package, “It’s Time,” a musical signal that romance is at hand.

Available through the artist’s website and all of the major online marketers, These Blues is total class from beginning to end. It’s a great introduction to an artist who deserves more exposure South of the Border, where his career began.

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