Johnny Ray Jones – Way Down South
Moondogg Records MDR 1077
11 songs – 41 minutes
A native Southern Californian who sings with soulful swagger, Johnny Ray Jones has been a professional musician since the 1980s, but flew under the radar until releasing the debut album Feet Back in the Door in 2017. This stellar follow-up – which was produced by Grammy winning producer/percussionist Tony Braunagel – should take his career to an entirely different level.
Johnny was immersed in the Los Angeles music scene from his youth, when he drove the legendary Sam “Bluzman” Taylor to gigs and recording sessions in exchange for voice lessons. He proved such a good student that his godmother, Tina Mayfield – Percy’s widow – eventually hired him to perform at her club, Blues Unlimited, on a weekly basis. He’s worked alongside John Fogarty, Big Joe Turner and L.A.’s favorite blues-rockers, The Red Devils.
Jones mixes blues, roots and soul into a seamless package here. He possesses a warm voice with low-end range that’s one part velvet and one part grit. The album was recorded, engineered and mixed at Ultratone Studios in Studio City, Calif., by Johnny Lee Schell, Braunagel’s bandmate in both the Taj Mahal Band and Legendary Blues Band, and features a lineup that includes a who’s who of West Coast talent, including Coco Montoya, who sits in on six-string for one cut.
Schell delivers stinging, well-modulated guitar throughout with Braunagel on rhythm. They’re joined by Mike Finnigan on keys, James “Hutch” Hutchinson on bass, Lenny Castro on percussion with Maxayn Louis and Kudisan Kai providing backing vocals. They’re enhanced by Joe Sublett on tenor sax, Richard “La Bamba” Rosenberg on trombone, Mark Pender and Darrell Leonard on trumpet, Marty Grebb on baritone sax and piano and Jimmy Powers on harmonica. Julie Delgado and Nita Whittaker provide additional vocals.
Jones only penned one of the 11 cuts on this disc, but he truly makes the ten covers his own, beginning with Tony Joe White’s uptempo rocker, “Steamy Windows” – no coincidence because some critics have labeled him as the second coming of The Swamp Fox, who left us four years ago. It’s no small feat, but Johnny actually kicks it up a notch. He dips into the Otis Redding songbook next, putting a blue-eyed soul spin on “I Got the Will” before a pleasant update of “Don’t Burn Down the House,” once a ‘70s hit for both Albert King and Gladys Knight & the Pips.
“Way Down South,” penned by Red Devils harp player Lester Butler, features a full horn section and a funky beat before Johnny pays tribute to Bluzman covering his original, “Shine on Me.” Another White pleaser, “Tunica Motel,” follows before the self-penned “L.A. Fog.” Featuring Grebb with Montoya on lead guitar, it’s a medium-slow shuffle that describes the joy of hooking up with a lady who “put the rock in my roll” after “a life that’s never been peaches-and-cream.” The fog’s lifting and the singer looks to nothing but good times ahead.
Three more well-executed numbers — “Ninety Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)” penned by Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd and Wilson Pickett, Redding’s “Give Away None of My Love” and Memphis soul-blues giant Toussaint McCall’s “Nothing Takes the Place of You” – bring the set to a pleasant close.
Don’t miss this one – it’s that good!