“You don’t keep the blues, you play it.”
Johnny Tucker recorded his new album Seven Day Blues old school like Sonny Boy Williamson did. He invents it as he goes along. “I ain’t the kinda cat that walks in the studio with papers and all this shit, this song, that song. I don’t do it like that. I don’t have no nuthin,’ no pencil, no paper, no nothing.
“When I walk into the studio, the band is already there. I want ’em to play a blues song in G, and I count off. Now, we can’t do it but one time. I say, ‘Y’all, we can’t do this song but one time because I forget it ’cause I’m remembering it as I do it.’ I’m doing the words, all that stuff, the music, the words, the timing, the stops and the goes.”
One of 16 children, eight boys and eight girls, including two sets of twins, Tucker’s played the blues for 58 of his 72 years, including decades with Texas bluesman Phillip Walker. Nothing much gets by him.
“A lotta people say they love playing the blues, but a lotta people might love playing it, but it’s hard to play, man, ’cause if you ain’t putting everything where it’s supposed to be, you’re not playing the blues.
“When I was with Phillip Walker you come to a Phillip Walker show you got to meet Johnny Tucker. You a bass player or guitar player, you got to meet Johnny Tucker. We talking about good times. Boy, we gonna have some fun. We had some good times. We playing 100%. Ain’t no messin’ around. Ain’t no jokin.’ We get together, we gonna play 100%. Whatever you play, it’s gonna be played 100%.
The son of a sharecropper and his wife, Johnny was the first of seven to be born after the family moved from Texas to Fresno, California. His mama had a knack of making things look – and smell – better than they were.
“We had a good time, man. Mama’d cook a big pot of beans. She’d cook those beans and make it smell like there’s a bag of meat there, but we’re looking for the meat, you ain’t got none.
There’s no meat in the damn beans. I found out what was happening was the way she was doing it, and the whole kitchen was smellin’ like ham hocks. Nothing but ham hocks. She would take the ham hocks and put it with the beans and put it in the freezer and freeze it.”
Then, she’d cook the beans separate from the ham hocks. “Man, we had every kid on the black. Everybody want to eat some of those beans. She fed the whole block, man. She was just like that all the time, Yup.”
Asked what it was like growing up with so many brothers and sisters, Johnny answers in one word, “Busy! So busy!” Daddy played guitar on the front porch for Johnny’s mom, and the kids made the best of their hard scrabble condition.
“We was all into music, but we had to make our instruments. I was beatin’ on cans and shit. My brother played guitar, but he didn’t have a real guitar. So, we’d be pickin’ cotton early in the morning, and we’d take some tires and throw them on the fire. We burning those tires ’cause it’s foggy. And you cannot pick the cotton early in the morning ’cause the cotton get wet, and we’d have to wait until it kind of dries off. So, we burned the tire, and that tire got some wire in it.
“So, my brother got a flat board. He nailed three nails up at the top and three down at the bottom, and we got that wire off of the tire. That kind of wire expands. You can really tune it up. And he made a guitar out of it, man. And he was playin’ it with a match book to keep his hands from hittin’ the wire. Oh, man, he musta played that for a year before he got a real guitar.”
Johnny’s father told the boys not to worry about the chores. “He told us, he said, ‘You guys go on and play,’ and my ex-brother-in-law asked me, he wanted to get me some drums. I ain’t heard of no drums in my life. I was beatin’ on cans, and it took me two days to set them drums up. I see it wasn’t but four pieces, but it took me two days to set those drums up. It didn’t feel right.
“Then, I put on James Brown. No, Lowell Fulson, Tramp, that record, Tramp. I put that record on. I got behind those drums, and I played that record just like I heard it on the (phonograph). I said, ‘I could play this all year.’ My daddy said, ‘You all play in a band and play down at the club. Y’all gonna make about $12 a night.’ You make $12, and y’all don’t have to go pick no cotton.’ Whoa. That was the treat of our life. We was the happiest kids in the world during that time.”
It certainly beat picking cotton.
Johnny met his childhood hero James Brown when he was 19. “James had an unusual style, man, ’cause he had three drummers, and back during that time you didn’t have no band. No band didn’t have no two or three drummers. They only had one drummer, and James Brown was the first cat that came out with three drummers. He just (plucked) one at a time, and that’s where I got – when I left California and learned how to play when I got to New Orleans and places like that, I played altogether different kind of (drums). The sound was different and everything.
“I met James back in ’65 in Nashville, Tennessee. I was with the Five Royales. I stayed on the road for a long time singing the backup and, harmony.”
A seminal rhythm ‘n’ blues vocal group first formed in 1953, The Five Royales influenced many rock groups. Their “Dedicated to The One I love” went top 40 when covered by the Shirelles and the Mama and Papas. Ray Charles covered “Tell The Truth.” James Brown and Mick Jagger covered “Think” and Memphis’ premiere guitarist Steve Cropper released Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales in 2011 featuring vocalists Lucinda Williams, Sharon Jones, Bettye LaVette, Delbert McClinton, Willie Jones, B.B. King, Shemekia Copeland, Buddy Miller, Dan Penn, Brian May, Steve Winwood, John Popper, and Dylan LeBlanc.
Johnny would go on tour with Texas bluesman Phillip Walker for much of his career, starting off as a featured singer doing a James Brown act singing top 10 hits of the times. “I wasn’t a drummer all the time. I started off being a singer. I went to do the James Brown show with Phillip and Be Bop.”
But necessity is the mother of invention. “Phillip’s drummer called his wife in Dallas, Texas, and she told him if he don’t get home now, he can’t come home. (Laugh) He told Phillip, ‘Hey, man I gotta go. You can have the drums, and I don’t know. Find somebody who can play ’em, but I gotta go home. I gotta go home right now.’
“I’m sitting around waiting, ’cause I’m a singer. That was my job. So, we get through rehearsal, we ain’t got no drummer. Phillip didn’t know I knew how to play drums. So, he asked me, ‘I heard you play drums.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I play good as I can play with y’all.’ So, he says, ‘You think you can keep up?’ I says, ‘Yeah. Man, I played with Phillip for 18 years.”
The newly released Seven Day Blues is only Johnny Tucker’s third album following his 1997 Stranded CD with “Broadway” Thomas and 2006’s Why You Lookin’ At Me? It contains 15 originals, all shuffles in a Muddy Waters vein with a Lazy Lester/Slim Harpo Excello looseness about the production. Most of the songs are about women and the yin and yang of loving them and trying to deal with them at the same time. It was recorded live at Big Tone Studios in Hayward, California on new-retro Sun Studios-styled tube amps. Artists appearing include: Big Jon Atkinson, Troy Sandow, and Scott Smart, who traded off on guitars and bass along with drummers Malachi Johnson and Marty Dodson. Bob Corritore is listed as “project assistant” and shares harp duties with Sandow on half the album. Bob Welch added organ and Kid Ramos and his guitar make an appearance for one cut, “Tell You All.”
Johnny had never worked with any of these artists before recording this album, and none of the songs were written out in advance.
“If I cut it off somewhere I even forgot what I was going to say. I even forget the words I was gonna do. What I have to do is I have to go ahead and do the whole song. Don’t stop it, not one time. And when I get through with the song, then we listen to it.
“We did a good job. The cats played good. They sound good, and we all got along. We got to breathe. Nobody had nothing’ to say. That’s all they did was play and enjoyed what they was playin’. We were all having fun. That’s one thing we did have is fun.
“I can do bass lines with my mouth and those are just regular bass lines. Know what I’m saying? It’s real easy for a band to play with me ’cause I give ’em the bass line, and then I just get the guitar player to play what you feel and that’s the whole song right there.
“I didn’t play no drums. No drums in it. I just told ’em, to do me a song in G and counted it off for ’em. One thing about blues. Blues only got so many changes. It ain’t no complicated thing. You got so many changes you gonna hear every time you play the blues. You gonna go to these spots.”
Johnny particularly enjoyed working with Bob Corritore who seems to play harp on half the CD releases of the last five years. “He’s the easiest cat in the world. Lord have mercy. He’s the easiest cat in the world I ever worked with. I think I looked up at him one time when he was doing his solo. All the rest of the time he already knew who I was. Man, we got along. He’s a beautiful cat, too, man. Yeah, we had a good time. We had a good time. Yeah, I loved every minute of it.”
Kid Ramos plays guitar on one cut. “We did shows together a lotta times when I was with Phillip. Yeah, we did a lotta concerts together, blues festivals and stuff like that when I was with Phillip Walker.”
Johnny’s been writing songs “all my life, all my life. I’ll sit down, and before you know anything, I’ll put it on my song, Put some words down.” And though he may create the songs on his album extemporaneously, once they’re recorded, the words are set. He never changes the lyrics. “No, no, no, no. I gotta learn it. I gotta learn this whole CD. I have to listen to it and listen to it and listen to it until I learn it, the whole CD. I gotta sing the whole CD. It’s mine. That’s the time I listens to it when I’m by myself and stuff like that. Once I learn the words, it’s a piece of cake ’cause it’s my song.
“I’ve learned one thing. When you’re real about yourself, they gonna hear you. You can’t make believe yourself.”
Johnny’s wife is his manager. He told me he was having a CD release party on April 27th. His wife corrected him. It’s May 27th. “She say May! You don’t say no to your manager. We all right. I tell her all the time. I say, ‘Baby, we the happiest people in the world. Nobody in the world is no happier.’ It’s good. My wife told me. (I said) I’m kinda tired.” She said, ‘How can you be tired when you be layin’ up there sleepin’?’ She took a picture of me in my sleep while I was makin’ up a song in my head.”
For more on about Johnny’s new album visit http://highjohnrecords.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.