Cover photo © 2022 Joe Rosen
What’s all the noise about BigLlou Johnson, the singer…the singer?… What?!? Everybody knows he’s an emcee and the host of SiriusXM’s B.B. King’s Bluesville. But a singer? What the…
That’s right, children! In case you not paying attention, Johnson’s soul-blues disc, Bigman, has been soaring at the top of the charts since its release – and it’s no fluke. After all, you might not remember, but this is his second CD – a long-awaited follow-up to They Call Me Big Llou, a 2013 Blues Music Awards honoree as best new artist debut album of the year.
In addition to his work on the blues stage, BigLlou’s also an actor and one of the most in-demand talents for voiceover work in movies, TV and commercials, too – a seemingly cushy life that might make you wonder why he’d want to spend his time and money fronting a band, too.
But as Blues Blast learned recently, the answer is simple: It’s something that’s always been in his blood, having spent his youth in R&B bands and recording and touring internationally as a member of a four-piece acapella gospel group.
Johnson grew up at Roosevelt and California on the West Side of Chicago and played tenor sax from age 11 influenced by Stanley Turrentine. “I played in a band from grade school through high school,” he says, “and I was considered to be quite good. But I quit when I got to Columbia College (the non-profit liberal arts institution that’s produced Pat Sajak, Conan O’Brien sidekick Andy Richter, Avatar cinematographer Mauro Fiore and dozens of other talents in both entertainment and business).
“I was the only one in my family who took up an instrument. But we all grew up singin’ in Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church every Wednesday and Sunday – until girls started takin’ up my time instead of the Good Book (chuckles).
“My mother’s best friend would always take me to the corner liquor store, where they played nothin’ but the blues. I remember her proppin’ me up on the bar as a child, blues playin’ and her tryin’ to get me to drink off her finger and stuff like that. That’s one of the reasons I curse so much now (chuckles).
“My first job at 13 years was workin’ weekends at Paul’s Menswear in Jewtown (Maxwell Street), where there were blues cats jammin’ their ass off on every corner. But growin’ up, blues was nowhere on my radar,” says BigLlou who recently rebranded himself by fusing his trademark name into one word.”
It’s no secret that the blues started losing its luster in the black community in the ‘60s, when the great majority of African-Americans turned their backs to it because of its roots in slavery – something that has continued for decades but is now changing with the emergence of more and more talented youngsters of color. And it was no different for Llou on the West Side.
“Every time you’d leave the house, people would be doo-woppin’ on the street corner,” he remembers, noting that R&B dominated everything. “I was the Barry White in the neighborhood as a teenager in my band, Deep Involvement. Playing cover songs was all the rage back then. We never thought about doin’ any originals. It was all Earth Wind & Fire…Isaac Hayes…Arthur Prysock (another deep-voiced talent).
“My first paying gig on tenor sax after Deep Involvement came with a very well-known doo-wop group from the Midwest – I can’t remember the name — at the Keymen’s Night Club on Madison Street,” an upscale hangout in the heart of the West Side. It was owned and operated by disc jockey Thomas Lewis, who died in a fire along with his wife when the building — and their basement apartment — was consumed by flames on New Year’s Eve 1994 about 20 years after it became The Factory, a teen dancehall that operated until it burned.
A large man with a warm personality, BigLlou was seated behind the desk in his home office/studio when we spoke, far more dressed down for the meet-up than his customary appearance on stage, where he wears some of the flashiest threads in the business — a habit he acquired early in life.
“We always took to the stage dressed to the nines with Deep Involvement,” he says. “It’s somethin’ we learned growin’ up. Cats from the country and other folks that didn’t grow up on the West Side, they didn’t do that.
“Today,” he chuckles, “people like to ask ‘How many suitcases did Llou bring on the blues cruise?’ because I like to dress to impress!”
Johnson became enamored with both Negro spirituals and gospel while growing up in church. And the late Paul Robeson has been a major influence since discovering him while in high school. One of the most important – and impressive – figures of his generation, Robeson was an All-American football player with a law degree from Columbia University in New York who rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance as a deep-voiced vocalist on concert, an actor in movies and on Broadway and a social activist around the globe before becoming involved in the Civil Rights movement.
““I fell in love with his accomplishments, but more important, his voice,” Llou says. “He was huge in Russia, where he worked for workers’ rights. They named a mountain after him. If life hadn’t gone the way it led me, I thought I was gonna use my voice like he did as a champion for those who were not so fortunate.
“It’s on my bucket list to go to that mountain and sing like he did.”
While it’s true that Johnson’s career has gone in a completely different direction, he has followed in Robeson’s footsteps by performing classical music — and learning how to control his voice — as a member of the Oak Park Concert Chorale in suburban Chicago. He was also in the lineup of the Sue Conway Victory Singers for a while, the first-ever gospel group to appear at La Scala opera house in Italy.
His work also includes also an album with vocalist Dorota Jarema, a superstar in Poland, and, closer to home, another folk icon Andrew Calhoun, who carries forward another Windy City music tradition. And, for a couple of years, BigLlou was a member of Phava, the acapella quartet Phava that toured internationally and recorded one album, Already Been to the Water.
Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf – both deep-throated vocalists with similar range – have always had a major hold on Johnson, too.
“Comin’ from Chicago,” he says, “I’ve always been enamored of Chicago blues cats, particularly Wolf…his personality and everything else. It’s not that I tried to mirror myself after him or any of that, but we were both big boys – and I fell in love with everything that he was.”
Now a familiar voice across America through his SiriusXM gig, BigLlou’s broadcasting career actually began early, too. He attended Westinghouse High — a school that’s produced jazz greats Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams and Errol Garner and basketball legends Mark Aguirre, Hersey Hawkins and Eddie Johnson, too — and started reporting school news over WVON — the radio giant owned by Leonard and Phil Chess of Chess Records fame – in an era when deejays Herb Kent — “The Cool Gent,” E. Rodney Jones, Pervis Spann – “The Blues Man” and Soul Train creator Don Cornelius held court.
“I always wanted to be an announcer or an anchorman,” Johnson says. “But that didn’t happen.
“My first job after college was runnin’ the board at WIND (then a talk-radio station). But after a month, they told me: ‘Sorry, Llou, but the station is going Spanish. It’s gonna be called ‘La Tremenda’…the wind in Spanish. That was the end of that!”
A job working with computers followed before Johnson launched Phoenix Talent Agency, the only black-owned and operated business of its kind in the Windy City. Initially providing extras for TV shows and movies, his roster eventually included childhood idol Turrentine, a young Halle Berry, Queen Latifah and other rising stars and his clients were regularly featured in movies produced by Robert Townshend.
Johnson sold the firm after a 15-year run in 1996 after landing a role in his first commercial for McDonalds and deciding to step out of the shadows and become “talent” himself. His unusual spelling of his first name came about when he joined the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, both of which barred registrants with the same name.
“It’s no secret that my name’s pretty common,” he says, noting that he finally added the second “l” to his birth name after running out of options.
“I went with L-l-o-u,” he jokes, “because I’m twice as nice!”
Now known as the “sexiest voice in the blues,” Johnson has appeared in several stage plays, commercials for White Castle, Kraft Foods and dozens of others in the years since. As an actor, his film credits include both Barbershop movies, Nothing Like the Holidays, the TV shows Ballers with Dwayne Johnson on BET and Mix It Up with Courteney Cox on WE.
He’s also the voice of Pete the Horse for the animated children’s video series, Jasper the Mule, and much, much more. And just prior to speaking with Blues Blast, the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences presented him with its 2021 SOVAS Award for Phillips 66 oil company’s Live Life to the Full advertising campaign.
BigLlou’s been based out of suburban Los Angeles for about a decade, deciding to abandon Chicago for the West Coast after producer George Lucas brought him west to work on the film Strange Magic, his final animated feature prior to selling his company, Industrial Light & Magic, to Disney. “I played Pare in that one and sang ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love,’” he says. “I came out for the last sessions and loved it so much, I stayed.”
Johnson’s involvement with the blues community took off in earnest in 2008 after the two giant satellite radio stations merged to create SiriusXM and program director Bill Wax hired him for the B.B. King’s Bluesville gig. And he spent hundreds of hours in the studio listening to albums during the first couple of years as homework to fill in the gaps about his knowledge.
“Blues was callin’, and I’m glad it did,” he says, noting that he spent his first couple of years filling in his gaps of knowledge about the music by listening to albums in the studio all day. It’s a job that’s led to steady work as an announcer at festivals across the country and all of the big events, including the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, the BMAs, the International Blues Challenge and, most recently, the Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas. “And I owe Bill everything for all that I am in the blues today.”
That includes initiating a career as a recording artist, too.
“When I came up with the idea for my first album,” he says, “Bill insisted that I should do it, but told me: ‘Don’t use all the famous people you know. Bring some people (younger talent) up with ya.’
“And that’s what I did.”
Recorded at Rax Trax in Chicago immediately after Johnson returned home after playing a homeless priest in the comedy horror movie, Devil in My Ride, it was co-produced by harp player Russ Green – who, like Llou, has an extensive background in theater, but studied harmonica under Sugar Blue and has toured with John Primer — and Keith Stewart — Llou’s close friend and business partner –who was a member of the ‘70s soul group, Heaven & Earth. Among the lesser known talents in the lineup was guitarist Mike Wheeler who’s gone on to two successful CDs for Delmark.
Bobby Rush also provided some sage advice, too, planting the seed for what became the album title and title tune during a conversation over breakfast when they crossed paths at the BMAs.
“I said: ‘Ya know, I’ve been talkin’ to Bill about doin’ an album,’” Johnson recalls. “’Let me ask you: ‘Why is it that you be puttin’ your name…Bobby Rush, Bobby Rush…in your own music so much?’
“’The reason I do it,’ he said, ‘is so people will remember who the hell I am for those who don’t know. When you make a record, put your name in it so people know who the hell you is!’”
Johnson took the suggestion to heart, opening the CD with “They Call Me Big Llou” before powering through a collection of covers, including Solomon Burke’s “Flesh and Blood,” the standards “Rock Me Baby”, “300 Pounds of Joy” and “Help Me,” a bluesified version of Barry White’s “Your Sweetness Is My Weakness,” Tyrone Davis’ “DOGG” – a tune penned originally with Snoop Dog in mind — and Earl Thomas’ “Git Me Some.”
The BMA honors came as a shock, Johnson admits: “When they hollered my name at the awards, I didn’t know what to do! My niece hollered at me: ‘Get up…get up!’ I wasn’t prepared.”
In his world, however, it was only natural.
“I’m always apprehensive about awards,” he says. “Even though I’m an actor, a performer, I don’t take rejection well — and I don’t toot my own horn. I may play at it a little, but when it comes to doing it, I consider myself truly humble.
“Every accolade and blessing that comes my way, I’m totally, totally grateful.”
Why did it take Johnson so long for a follow-up? After all, he’s spent part of the past decade toured the U.S. and Europe in Big Llou & the Bluesville Revue in the company of Zac Harmon, Bob Corritore, Nellie “Tiger” Travis, Johnny Rawls, Jimi “Primetime” Smith and others. His voice has also been ingrained in the grooves of several other projects, including the Blind Dog Smokin’-Bobby Rush album, Decisions, songs that appeared on the 2014 compilation, The Longshot Sessions II and work with hip-hop artist Raury, too.
Let’s not forget, he also appeared on Chris “Bad News” Barnes’ pleasing Live CD and on Shari Puorto and Doug Woolverton’s Lightning’s Lessons: Learning Through Music Vol. 1, an album that introduces blues to children, too. And the duet he shares alto powerhouse Gina Coleman and her band, Misty Blues, new album, One Louder, is currently tearing up the charts.
It’s not like he didn’t have other things on his plate.
“My life changes every time the phone rings or I get an email,” Johnson insists. “I get one project and – whatever it is – it takes weeks of my time to get it right. It could be a play, a film, a commercial or somebody else’s project. Unlike a musician, whose fulltime job is to do that, my job’s as an entertainer, as a voice, which encompasses a lot of stuff.
“I’m pulled in so many different directions all the time, it’s hard for me to focus – because I don’t have a team like Steve Harvey, although I would like to see what that’s like someday (laughs)! But COVID gave me the time, inclination and the financial resources to get the new album done the way I wanted.
“After I won the award, I tried for a couple of years to do another one, and it just didn’t work out. Every time I got a chunk of money, Russ and I would get a group of musicians and songs and record ‘em at the same studio in Chicago that we did the first one at. I’d listen to the songs and that’d be about it! I guess I wasn’t excited about ‘em as I was the first time.
“Then I did it again when Blind Dog Smokin’ came into town. We recorded two or three songs and…it wasn’t the band…it was me. My vocal stuff just wasn’t happenin’.
“So what you hear on Bigman is probably the third or fourth iteration of those songs bein’ played and recorded. I didn’t get happy with those tunes until I called my god-nephew, Terrence Grayson, who plays bass for Victor Wainwright. I said: ‘Let me see if he can help me out.’
“He said: ‘I got you, Unc! Send me the songs!’ And what he sent back…I was crying, I was floored…it was beautiful. It was the perfect melding of what Memphis and Chicago have.”
At that point, Llou says, it was time to “find the voice to fit that – without trying to duplicate what everyone else had done before. I didn’t want to be the Barry White of the blues. I didn’t want to be the new Willie Dixon. I knew I wanted to be intrinsically BigLlou – whatever that happens to be.”
Johnson came across as primarily an old-school blues shouter on his first disc, but one listen to the new one demonstrates that he’s achieved his goal. He’s transformed himself into a complete singer with far more range, dynamics and sensitivity than he exhibited before.
But it still took a while for him to find his footing.
The music was basically set in stone after being laid down by an all-star lineup that included guitarists Gino Matteo, Joe Louis Walker and Isaiah Sharkey, Wainwright on keys, Felton Crews on bass, Woolverton and Mark Earley on horns, Anne Harris on violin and a host of others. And Johnson flew to Chicago and spent a week with Stewart, laying down vocals, but they still weren’t right.
“We recorded eight songs,” he says, “and I hated them all! There goes thousands of dollars down the tube (laughs)! Fast-forward two months and I’m talking to Ellis Hall – the modern-day reincarnation of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, and my next-door neighbor – on the phone. When I told him of my situation, he said: ‘Llou, bring your ass over here. I gotcha!’
“He turned me on to his song, ‘I Got the Fever’ and said: ‘I want for you to record it.’ He’s real churchy on it, and I told him I couldn’t do it. He told me: ‘I don’t want you to. I want you to find your voice with it.
“That’s what we’re gonna do…find BigLlou in this.’”
One of the most interesting tunes in the set, it combines blues and jazz elements with strong sexual overtones. “Like the rest of the CD, it breaks out of the standard one-four-five blues progression,” Johnson says. “It’s all blues, but it comes at you from different angles — contemporary blues on crack!”
It might surprise some listeners to find that one of the other numbers is an updated, electric version of acoustic master Doug MacLeod’s “Chill on Cold,” Llou says. “He gave it to me Doug MacLeod-style…acoustic guitar and nothin’ but him doin’ the talkin’. And Russ took weeks gettin’ the harmonica intro just right. I’m glad he did! It’s huge now!
“And when Doug heard it, he gave me the greatest compliment: ‘I love what you’ve done with my record! You made it yours.’”
All Johnson is hoping for with Bigman, he says, is the opportunity to be heard, adding: “In doing so, if it encourages you to do something decent, something good…whatever that is…then my job is done!
“I’m sorry that I didn’t embrace the blues early in my career like I did R&B. I think everything happens when it’s supposed to happen. It’s very humbling.
“The first album, even though I won a Blues Music Award, people don’t see me as an artist. It reminds me like it was for me a lot on the playlot tryin’ to play basketball. I was tall and I could play, but I was fat, and nobody chose me except my brother. Same thing with the blues.
“I’m still sittin’ there and nobody chooses me to come up on stage to jam. What the fuck’s up with that? People I consider to be my boys and my girls, they still don’t see me other than bein’ BigLlou from B.B. King’s Bluesville. Maybe this new album will change all that!”
In the meantime, BigLlou’s still a very busy man. He was getting ready to play the English-speaking voice of God for the Audio Bible Production Project, which will be recorded in six languages and is projected to deliver an experience akin to a surround-sound movie when listening with headphones. And he’s already making plans for his next CD, a spoken-word effort laid down atop blues and jazz.
“All my life, all I’ve wanted to do is make people smile by something I created. My mother used to say: ‘All they need to do is hear you, boy,’” BigLlou remembers, noting: “This has been a good year so far!”
He remains deeply grateful to all the folks who’ve stuck with him along the way. “To all my bluesy friends,” he says. “thank you very much from the bottom of my big ol’ bluesy heart. Everything I do I do with you in mind in an effort to carry on the traditions.
“Thanks for supporting me when I’m hosting and trying to bring on the headliners as entertainingly as I can and with all the excitement and jubilation that they deserve. And thanks for supporting my recordings. Every time I work, I feel the love coming back to me – and I want to keep that give-and-take as long as I can.
“Thanks so much for stickin’ around the blues and stickin’ around me. I’m BigLlou from B.B. King’s Bluesville…satellite radio channel 74… (signing off with the title/catchphrase of another song from the album)… ’Shucky Ducky (Quack Quack)!’”
Check out the recent review of BigLlou’s Bigman album Here: www.bluesblastmagazine.com/bigllou-johnson-bigman-album-review
Visit Johnson’s website for more on his music and where he’ll be appearing next at: www.bigllou.com.