Luther 'Guitar Junior' Johnson
All Music Guide
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What makes the great ones great? In the insular world of blues and soul music, the great ones have a unique way of playing that's like a signature, an instantly recognizable voice. Names like Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Freddy King, and Magic Sam all come to mind. These are the greats who have inspired bluesman Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson. With Talkin' About Soul, Luther not only pays homage to his musical heroes and mentors, he joins their ranks.
Creating a feeling from a musical groove, that's Luther's signature. He authors each groove with a driving guitar riff. "Talkin1 About Soul," which kicks off this program, is an update of a song he wrote and originally recorded in 1972-Luther's first 45 for Chicago's Big Beat label. One chord suffices as a brash and bold declamation, a communal invitation to "get some soul goin' on." When Luther sings, "It's all in my feet, it's all in my bones, yeah," he commits his entire being to get you up and dancing. He tears into his grape-colored Fender strat, squeezes and bends strings, and makes his guitar sing...that's part of the signature. DJs across the south started to play Luther's song back in 1972. The single created a demand for "live" appearances, which Luther couldn't fulfill due to a horrendous flood. "I couldn't make it through that high water."
As a teenager, all of age fifteen, Luther Johnson, Jr., wandered from a small Mississippi city to a bustling magnet for a country boy's dreams, Beale Street in Memphis in 1954. "That's where I first saw Muddy Waters," Luther recalls. "Muddy walked on stage wearing a yellow suit and singing 'Forty Days and Forty Nights.' That REALLY made an impression." Soon after, Johnson's family, like many others in search of opportunity, moved from Mississippi to Chicago.
A fresh-faced new arrival to Chicago, Luther was first a dancer, singer, and bass player, dubbed "Little Junior." "I didn't play no lead at first." While visiting a first cousin in St. Louis, Luther gigged with the Little Junior Robinson Blues Band. Junior Robinson played bass, requiring Luther to pick up lead guitar. Luther remembers this transition by the year, 1959, when Ray Charles ruled the airwaves with "What I Say." Upon returning to Chicago, Luther's newly acquired penchant for combining guitar leads with a Ray Charles hit turned some heads. Luther's version on this disc of "I've Got a Woman" marks the first time he's cut a Ray Charles tune, and without a guitar. With a vocal tour de force, Luther conjures up the church-like exaltation of a choir boy sneaking off to a brothel, taking this tune way across town.
During the 1960s, Luther honed his skills as an entertainer at house parties and in folks' backyards. In the clubs on the west side of Chicago, soul music mixed with a distinctive blues guitar style, where one guitarist created an entire band sound, alternately playing lead and then rhythm. Sam Maghett, known as Magic Sam, held sway over most comers as boss of the westside soul sound. Luther was into cars and drinking. He could navigate his way around Chicago by back alleys alone, cleverly avoiding street traffic and the police. He developed quite a following as a dancer, with his older sister Daisey as his partner, with renditions of dances like the watusi, the Charleston, funky four corner, the chicken, and the black bottom.
When Magic Sam heard Luther sing Sam Cooke's "Somebody Have Mercy," he immediately signed Luther up. Luther played in Magic Sam's band in the mid-1960s as second guitarist, singer, dancer, under the nickname "Black Junior." Luther recollects: "I played a white guitar., .an old Danny electric... 'cause I couldn't afford no Fender like Sam had. Every Monday night we'd be broadcast on WOPA by DJ Big Bill Hills. Eddie Shaw was on sax... .We played blues on the west side and sometimes up to Madison and Milwaukee. Sam fired me and hired me sometimes on the same night. I'd be drinking, get drunk and fall asleep in a booth, then get fired., .then I'd wake up singing 'Somebody Have Mercy'... the crowd would go nuts and Sam would hire me back again." Luther totally quit drinking years ago. His will for living and passion for music became his sole focus. This new recording of "Somebody Have Mercy," previously cut by Luther on his very first LP session for a US label, Alligator's Living Chicago Blues Series, not only outdoes his own previous version but perhaps all versions, including the Sam Cooke original.
The Isley Brothers song "It's Your Thing" was the epitome of a 1960s radio-friendly danceable soul tune. Bobby Rush, who then played bass in Magic Sam's band, wrote a take-off called "Til Pay You Back," which Sam recorded as a single-the B side an instrumental dance track version. Luther creates his own vibrant variant here, again coming up with a version that rivals its predecessors.
Blues players who succeeded on the radio were in another league. Luther saw Freddy King at The Squeeze club in Chicago, when Freddy's guitar instrumental "Hideaway" was a certified hit. With "Lonesome Whistle Blues," Freddy King's next charting record following "Hideaway," Luther delivers another heartfelt cover. The vocal harmony, a blues moan that imitates the sound of a train whistle, brings out the music's rural and gospel roots.
Remaking a tune like "Poison Ivy," originally a Chess single by Willie Mabon, reminds us that Luther played rock 'n' roll on his first steady gig in Chicago. Drummer Ray Scott, leader of Scotty's Rock N Roll Band, taught Luther guitar by humming riffs that Luther would then attempt to copy. Luther's trademark was to dance while he sang and played. One night at Kansas City Red's nightclub on the west side of Chicago, Luther decided to jump off the stage and do a James Brown split, onto a sagging wooden dance floor, covered by carpet. Luther crashed straight through the floor, ending up in the basement, covered with plaster dust and splinters, never missing a beat.
"Crazy Over You" is a fine example of Luther's ability to craft a soul tune that's catchy and real, a decades-old composition of his, recorded here for the first time. Had it been released as a 45 in the 1960s, "Crazy Over You" might have been a hit single. The song has a timeless appeal that should interest today's radio and movie soundtrack supervisors. Luther's guitar solo, expressively surfing over horn sections swells, embodies the techniques and tricks, the hammer-ons and pull-offs, of a master guitar stylist riding a perfect musical wave. Aspiring younger guitarists should take a page from Guitar Junior's book. Fewer notes can say more when it comes to a blue feeling of the heart. While Luther is "speaking" with his guitar, he's also strutting and weaving and bobbing his head, high check bones protruding, in perfect time with his fret board attack.
Twenty years can be a long time or just a beginning. Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson was one of my first clients when I founded Concerted Efforts two decades ago, as a music management and booking agency. Several of the players on this session go back even further with Luther, and several join him here for the first time. In guitarist Brian Bisesi, Luther found his perfect foil, a simpatico guitarist, and a musician with a great ear for selecting material and for getting the right sounds happening in the studio. "I've been knowing Brian for over twenty-five years, and he'll be by my side whenever I cut," Luther insists.
By now it's fairly well known that Luther landed a featured spot with the great Muddy Waters Blues Band for most of the 1970s. In 1978, a blizzard roared through the Northeast, while Muddy and the boys were performing in Boston. Luther slipped on the ice and badly dislocated his left elbow, ending up in a hospital bed at Mass General at the same time John Wayne was in for open heart surgery. Luther got to meet "The Duke" in an unlikely setting.
Muddy Waters asked Brian Bisesi to stand in on guitar for several months while Luther was on the mend. "He's like my older brother," says Brian of Luther. Brian encouraged Luther to step out as a band leader in 1980, and to move to New England where he'd be more readily treasured by blues fans than back in Chicago where the field was overcrowded. Brian played guitar with Luther at the Blues Night in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1982, released as a "live" album on Atlantic, winning a Grammy Award.
Bassist Randy Lippincott has toured and recorded with Johnny Copeland and Ola Dixon as well as with Luther. He and Brian both play oh Luther's previous Telarc disc, Got To Find a Way, a Grammy Award nominee in 1999 for Best Traditional Blues Album. Randy's affinity for funk, soul, and blues is a great asset. As a member of Luther's band, Randy has grown used to being mentored by a former bass player.
When I first heard drummer Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith at the 1999 Chicago Blues Festival, I was astounded. Blocked from visual view of the stage, I heard a drummer whose playing sounded youthful and full of fire but with a strong awareness of older styles. Kenny's dad is the legendary blues drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Luther's band mate with both Muddy Waters and in the Muddy Waters Tribute Band. Willie deserves much of the credit for the approach of his son, just twenty-six years old at the time of this session. Kenny can swing hard, play a mean shuffle, and really mix it up when thrown one of Luther's funkier grooves. I predict that you'll be hearing a lot more from Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith. Kenny already holds his own with the greats, providing the glue that held this session together, allowing Luther to blast off at his best.
Harpist Jerry Portnoy is, like Luther, a former Chicago resident who relocated to the Boston area. They toured together with Muddy Waters, and have continued on together in the Muddy Waters Tribute Band, with a Grammy-nominated disc on Telarc in 1996. When Eric Clapton recorded a blues album, he asked Jerry to play harp on the disc and in his touring band. When it comes to blues harp. Jerry Portnoy knows the full breadth of the tradition. He is without compare as a player, and now also as a teacher, with an excellent instructional package on blues harp to his credit.
David Maxwell is another stellar Boston area player. An inventive keyboardist, David focuses on the groove on this session, adding texture and supporting Luther beautifully, without sacrificing drive. A veteran who has performed with James Cotton, Bonnie Raitt, Freddy King, and John Lee Hooker, David recently issued his own excellent disc as a leader on Tone Cool. When David Maxwell enters a room, expect the unexpected and count on being pleasantly surprised. "I've Got a Woman," one of the nicest surprises of this session, wasn't a song on anyone's list going in, but was triggered by David's between-song piano meanderings. David and Luther removed headphones. We recorded in an intimate setting, with Luther sitting next to David, rocking back and forth while he sang, almost channeling Ray's spirit. Something magical happened in the room at that moment, which thankfully comes through on the track.
Tom "Bones" Malone, on trombone and trumpet, and Crispin Cioe, on baritone, alto, and tenor sax, are among the elite as horn section arrangers and players of soul and blues. I've had the privilege of touring Europe and Japan with Tom together with the Blues Brothers Band, and this session gave us an excuse to get reacquainted. I was able to temporarily borrow "Bones" from the David Letterman Band to play on this disc. In addition to his role in films and recording as a Blues Brother, and on TV with the Saturday Night Live and Letterman bands, you'll find Tom's work on discs by Blood Sweat and Tears, Ray Charles, B.B. King, and many more. And like Luther, Tom hails from Mississippi. Michigan native Crispin Cioe leads the Uptown Horns, today's "go to" horn section. Crispin has played with the Rolling Stones, Albert Collins, and J. Geils Band, to name a few. Together, Tom and Crispin come up with timely and hip arrangements, quoting from Stax-Volt to Bill Doggett, while also stepping out with some inspired solos.
Singer Catherine Russell is a marvel. Her father, the late Luis Russell, was a jazz pianist and big band leader who worked extensively with Louis Armstrong. In constant demand, Catherine has performed with Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Cyndi Lauper, Joan Osborne, and Vonda Shephard in the pop world, and with Carrie Smith, Doc Cheatham, Earl May Quintet, and the Holmes Brothers in the world of jazz and blues. Hearing Catherine harmonize with Luther, back him up vocally, and duet with him on "Crazy Dver You" a la Otis Reading and Caria Thomas, further cements her position as one of today's top soul singers.
With musicians as talented as these, let's not overlook the star of this session. Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson is passionately involved and ferociously connected to his music. In addition to singing while he drives the band on guitar, he is constantly exhorting, cajoling, and egging on his musicians, the characters in his songs, and the audience. He creates an electric charge that ionizes the air. Once he establishes the groove, his internal rhythmic sense is so forceful, he's able to create musical sparks by phrasing his guitar and vocal lines slightly ahead of or just behind the beat, or by holding on to a note and letting it float over the groove. Listen to his performance on "You've Got Bad Intentions/Crying Won't Help You," and you'll hear what I'm describing: a talented and swinging improviser totally in the moment, at the peak of his game. In the case of this song, Luther borrows lyrics from two different songs, Bobby Bland's "You've Got Bad Intentions" and B.B. King's "Crying Won't Help You," and it all makes perfect sense.
Luther is also naturally able to come up with powerful songs and lyrics of his own. With a blues poet's take on a marriage gone south in "Suffer So Hard with the Blues," his woman "has my only kid calling some other man dad." In "No Worry, No More," he tells the woman who left: "You think you got something, ain't n'er another woman got but you. " He delivers these lines with a hint of cockiness and just the right amount of bravado and irony. We can feel his pain. "I'm Gone," the song which closes this disc, was composed by Luther on the spot as he performed it in the studio. "I never know what I'm gonna do next...that's what I like about myself," he confesses. Luther grew up in the country in Mississippi, and currently lives in rural southern New Hampshire, so it was fitting that we recorded in a rural setting, at Long View Farm Studios. For all of his chops as an electric blues player, and his ability to excel at a myriad of styles, from Chicago blues shuffles, to rock 'n' roll, to burning slow blues, to up-tempo funky soul, when Luther picks up an acoustic guitar as he does on "Ramblin Blues," watch out. Luther's impressive country blues picking, in addition to his mastery of other styles, makes him one of the most versatile and commanding bluesmen on the scene today.
With all of his accomplishments, Luther is on the go. In addition to regular US and European tours with his band The Magic Rockers and with the Muddy Waters Tribute Band, he's performed in Shanghai, to a TV audience of millions in China, and also toured in Central America for the US government's Arts America program. His striking features grace the cover of perhaps the finest book of blues photography, Marc Norberg's Black, White, and Blues. And like his idol, Muddy Waters, Luther is always impeccably dressed, using his collection of threads to project the pride of a blues dignitary. Luther tells it like this: "I have friends wherever I go, all over the world. Sometimes I have to ask people, 'Why are you so nervous around me?' They say, "It's because you're a star.' Well, I'm not a star. I'm a piece of the moon."