As most people reach the age when Social Security and Medicare kick in, they start making plans for their retirement. With his sixty-sixth birthday coming up in early September, Johnny Rawls hasn’t considered slowing down or changing his lifestyle. He is simply having too much fun! “To make it plain and simple, I love what I do. I live for what I do. It’s not a hobby to me. It is a way of life and a living. I take it very seriously”. Rawls still continues a schedule that has him playing 250-300 shows a year. He rarely gets to spend much time in his Wisconsin home.
Growing up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the youngster didn’t have to look very far to find some music. “I grew up around music. It was next door, down the street, around the corner. It was in the juke joints and in the churches. I started out playing clarinet in 4th grade. Then I went on to saxophone and trumpet in the high school band. When I was thirteen or fourteen, we started fooling around with the guitar. The girls liked all of the guitar players! That wasn’t hard to figure out. But joking aside, I liked the guitar started off songs like “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay” and “Soul Man”. I wasn’t too much into guitar players. But my idol was Steve Cropper. He played on hundreds of gold records and came up with significant, trademark guitar licks. He was my guitar hero – not Jimi Hendrix or Carlos Santana”.
Unlike many singers of his generation, Rawls did not grow up singing in the church. He stuck to playing guitar for one excellent reason. “I didn’t start singing until I moved from Mississippi to Wisconsin. Do you realize how many great singers I was around? There was O.V. Wright, Otis Redding, Johnny Taylor….I wouldn’t dare open my mouth around those people. When I was a teenager, Tommy Tate played drums and the lead singer in my band”. (Tate was unsung soul singer with several minor hits) There were so many legendary singers that singing was the last thing on my mind”.
In the ninth grade, Rawls was asked to play in a dance band by Carl Gates, his high school band director. The band provided support for Taylor, Wright, Z.Z. Hill, Jimmy Hughes, and Willie Hightower. It allowed Rawls to get to know the great soul singers as they toured through Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama, playing saxophone in the band.
“My brother was two tears older than me. He was able to go to all the big shows like Tina Turner or Sam & Dave. I couldn’t go. So when he got home, I was always asking about what were they driving, what were they wearing, how many pieces in the band. Then, all of a sudden, in a blink of an eye, I was on that same stage. I had imagined it all – then there I was up there. It was a dream come true. We were getting paid $11 a night. People used to raise families on $40 a week. I’d was making $25 for working a weekend. It was like I had a job at a lumber yard or something. Back then you could feed a family for $3 a day. Cookies were two for a penny. Those days are long gone”.
After moving to Milwaukee, Rawls stayed out on the road. When he was twenty-three, Rawls got a call from O.V. Wright, asking him to put together a band to back the singer. Wright had tracked him down through Gates. That was the beginning of a long stint as Wright’s bandleader. “ Like Bobby Bland told me one time, O.V. Wright and Little Willie John, two of the greatest singers that ever lived. Being are on stage with someone as great as O.V., standing beside him every night, you learn about soul, about timing, and movement. I was naturally gifted with a lot of it but I soaked it all in like sponge. He always told me never make the promoter mad – and always get paid before you sing!”.
Asked about the difference between blues and southern soul blues, Rawls was very clear on where he stands. “Everybody has different terminologies. White writers often refer to the “chitlin’ circuit,” which offends a lot of the older black artists. You have to separate the music yourself. Southern soul now is artists like OB Buchana, TK Soul, and Sir Charles Jones. Soul music used to be Wright, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett. What I am doing is soul blues, which is mixture of Sam & Dave with gospel. When you add it all up,a great song is a great song – and it is all God’s music”.
“My songs have a good rhythm. I like everybody dancing at my shows all night long. I get booked on festivals and big shows because I keep them dancing. You have to have common sense. Why would you get on a festival in front of two – three thousand people to play a slow-ass blues song? I was on a festival in California two weeks ago. I saw a band end their show with a slow Minnie Riperton song. I couldn’t believe it! Whatever momentum had going, they killed it all. That’s not common sense – shows a lack of knowledge and experience. I than God that I know better”.
After Wright passed away, Rawls recorded an album with singer L.C. Luckett, Can’t Sleep At Night, that received plenty of critical acclaim. Luckett was family, a cousin ten years younger than Rawls. Now that he was getting noticed for his own efforts, the singer started his own career and has never looked back. Eventually he signed with John Stedman of JSP Records in England, not only as a recording artist, but also as an A&R agent to find artists and produce their projects for the label. He discovered and recorded nearly twenty artists during his tenure. His favorite project, In My Time, was with a big-voiced singer and guitarist Percy Strother, originally from Mississippi, later settling in Minneapolis.
Rawls is thankful for the time he spent with legendary singer, Otis Clay, collaborating on two projects. The first one, Remembering O.V., was a tribute to his former boss. Rawls and Clay sang together on three tracks. That recording won a 2010 Blues Music Award in the Soul Blues Album category. For the next one, Rawls wanted to simply produce the album, but Clay had other ideas. “Otis told me, no, Johnny – let’s do one together. They’ll never know what hit ’em. And he was right. I was with O.V. for about ten years and I only spent a few years with Otis. But I became much closer with Otis. He became a great friend of mine. We were really close. Guys like Otis are naturally great – great person, great personality, everybody loved him. And he had so much gospel in him. He had so much power….listen to him sing “When The Gates Swing Open” – oh, my God. Nobody could do that.”
In 2008, Rawls started working with Catfood Records, headed up by bass player Bob Trenchard. His latest release, Waiting For The Train, is his eighth release for the label. But the guitarist does more than just record. “If you look on the record, it says Catfood but it also has Deep South Soul Records, too. That is my record label. So it is also my label. It all started about sixteen years ago. Bob asked me for something for this band, Kay Kay & The Rays (Texas Justice). I did it and we developed a friendship from there and started doing things together. We write music and lyrics, sometimes sharing things. He might write most of a song, sometimes I write one. I will fix them up, put the music and arrangements to the songs”.
As a songwriter, recording artist, and label owner, Rawls offers an interesting perspective on the effect of downloads and streaming services on musicians pocketbooks. “It’s a bad thing – but it’s a good thing! My song “Born To The Blues” got me 600,000 – 700,000 screens on it. I didn’t make a lot of money but almost a million people know who I am now. It’s a better thing than getting paid. I can see, as I travel across the United States, that people are aware of who I am because they heard me on Pandora, or on Bluesville, and Music Choice. It has helped me all over the world”.
He feels his new release is one of his best, and appreciates the helping hand provided by producer Jim Gaines. “ He has worked with so many artists – Santana, Tower of Power, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Neville Brothers, and more. He has the experience, a real pro. He knows every crook & turn, every beat up and down. He can do it all – produce, engineer, and mix the songs. He’s become a good friend. Every time I record, it just keeps getting better and better. My Momma didn’t tell me that. My fans tell me that. It’s different when your Momma tells you things. It doesn’t matter what you do. There could be a real ugly baby and your Momma would be saying, “Oh, that’s such a pretty child”. Everything sounds good to your mother.”
Over the course of his career, Rawls has been nominated for several Blues Blast Music Awards plus eighteen Blues Music Awards. Out of all of the artist he has known, worked with, and all of the experiences from decades of living on the road, there are several things that mean the most to him. “The first was opening for B.B. King for a show in 1986 in my hometown of Hattiesburg, MI. The other is that I am on a Mississippi Trail marker with my two idols, Tyrone Davis and Little Milton (Campbell). That means more to me than a Grammy or an Oscar. When you win a Grammy, they forget you. But that marker will stand forever, long after I am gone. I’ll be sixty-six soon, in pretty good health, everything is working, so life is good. I’m going to keep the good soul music coming!”
Visit Johnny’s website at: www.johnnyrawlsblues.com
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!