James “Super Chikan” Johnson is a still going strong veteran of Mississippi Blues. This autodidactic musician has always defended his unique style and integrity. A genuin singer & songwriter, with original lyrics, often with humorous contents. He is a several award winner with the W.C. Handy Blues Foundation, Blues Music Award and B.B. King Award.
Big Jack Johnson’s nephew came up the long way. From “chicken boy” as a child, to cotton picker, trucker, cab driver in Clarksdale, MS, before he started his music career. He kept his early nickname and combined it with his all female band members The Fighting Cocks. He is not only responsible for his unique song lyrics, but also for his artistically fabricated guitars and diddley bows. Yours Truly played and met this worldwide international Blues Festival performer at The Reykjavik BF, Iceland and Notodden BF, Norway.
When were you first memories of hearing music?
I always knew that there was music, but I didn’t know where it was going, or what it was doing. I thought that people just played it at home. Because that’s where we always caught it. At home, at the front porch parties, and all, you know. But music has been around all the time, as far as I’m concerned. Because we always had guitars around the house, diddley bows, and whatever. But I didn’t know why. I thought it was just a traditional thing. I never intended to be a musician, or not even tried to be one. Because there was so many other things to choose from. By music being so common, it was nothing exciting about it. Until now!
Did you have any music in your family?
Yes, my grandpa Ellis Johnson. Who told me that he was the first cousin to Robert Johnson.
And he was the father of Big Jack Johnson. Big Jack is my uncle. And the boxer Big George Brock is my uncle as well, by marriage. So, there was always music around and in the family. I couldn’t dodge it, couldn’t miss it, because it was always around. But I took on my own to do my own style. I’m a selfish kind of guy, ha ha ha!
All these famous other guys, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, John lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson. They had their own style, they did their own thing. And I admired them for that. So, I went on to do my own thing. I mean, I grew up around people, and everybody were doing everybody else’s stuff. So, I said well, who’re you gonna ever be, if you’re always doing somebody else’s? If you’re gonna be into it, make a name for yourself!
I kept on hearing these names and I was hearing their songs on the radio. I said, I know all these people, I’ve heard their names. I said well, these are my mentors. I started playing about them, some of their music, I played their songs. I favoured Mr. Jimmy Reed a lot, who used to come by our house. I played his stuff, because he was an outgoing guy, a friendly guy.
Did you hear their music on the radio, or something?
Well, when I first started listening, we had a transistor. A battery operated one channel radio. And all we could hear was Country & Western. We heard people like Roy Acuff, the yodeling star. Yoddeleeooo! Thats how I learned to yodel. With most people I make a joke of it, when they ask; “how did you learn to yodel”? I say; “I got hung on a barbed wire fence, ha, ha, ha. My mama told me one day, when she heard me yodelling; “Boy, I thought you hang on the barbed wire fence”!
It wasn’t until later we heard blues on the radio. We heard radio music around the house all the time. I don’t think they ever played blues on the radio. They didn’t, until later. It’s still hard to hear blues. You gotta know how to find it, and you gotta be in the right spot to find it. You can hear other music and old music all the time. But, there’s a lot of people recording new music nowadays, that people pay no attention to. I play a little bit every here and there. But if you’re on the radio 24/7, all you hear are these oldies, goodies. I guess we won’t be recognized until we’re dead. Because I mean, of all the music they’re playing, they pick people that are dead. But that’s a myth, I know that.
When did you start playing yourself. I imagine you didn’t run to the store and bought a guitar. You made it somehow else?
Oh yeah, I made my diddley bow. And my first real guitar, it was back in the 60s. I bought it in a Salvation Army store, there in Clarksdale. I think I paid about 12$ for it. But it only had two strings on it, and I thought it had all the strings on. People asked me; “When are you gonna put the rest of the strings on”? I said; I got them! They said; “No, it’s missing four strings”! So I went back to the store where I bought it from. And I told the manager that I wanted the rest of the strings for my guitar. He said; “Gimmie a dime”! I gave him a dime and he gave me a pack of Black Diamond guitar strings. So, I put those strings on, and my guitar was the most popular one around! Everybody used it, ha, ha, ha!
When were you ready to go out and watch live shows, and got involved with live music?
It was other ways, it was really accidental. But once I got into it, I started writing music I quit listening to other music, I quit going to their shows. Because I wanted to keep to my own style. If you hear a song today, and that sound get stuck in your head, you’ll be humming that song tomorrow. But if you’re a song writer, you don’t want to be humming somebody else’s tunes. Not when you try to think of your own stuff. So, I tried to keep my mind fresh for my own songs. And I learned that from my own music, that I could create new music. It’s like you hear something’s coming from a distance. Then, all of a sudden, you come up with an idea. Once you get that idea, you don’t get closer to it, you go away from that music. You keep that idea, and you go and write it down somewhere. Or you just pound it into your mind. Until you get it again. Look, this is a new groove!
When about were you ready to perform?
Well, I used to listen to other people yap on about who’s who, and who’s so good at it. And
I would always be bothered, or worried. I had the same problem as Robert Johnson did. I got laughed at and talked about. They said I sang like a chicken, plucked as a chicken on the guitar. People always tried to discourage me, and I got discouraged. But I got home and woodshed, as they call it. I created me an overdubbing set, and I played my music to myself. I recorded it on cassettes, and I used playback. So, I had several cassette players, one was my bass player, one was my rhythm player, and another one was my lead singing.
I dubbed it on and on, until I made my own record. I said; if I like it, it still gotta be somebody else who like it. It sounds good to me, so why are those people laughing at me? I learned more about it, going home and studying my own music. I couldn’t play what they played, didn’t know how to play whatever they played. Because, my old fingers had picked cotton and I chopped wood. My fingers had been busted up from hammers and weights, trying to bust blocks and stuff. I can’t use them to make chords like everybody else. So, I created my own chords, my own music. I created my own style, so that whatever I created would work for me.
I quit worrying about how other people sounded like, or how good they were. I thought to myself, can’t nobody beat me no better than me. So, I decided to be myself, and it works!
Did you play all the instruments yourself ?
Yeah ! Just enough to make a record, ha, ha, ha! Well, I was the bass player for Jelly Roll Kings for a minute, with my uncle Big Jack. I was doing the job, but there was always fuzzy arguments, or something like this. I got tired of playing the bass, because I was discouraged, that I couldn’t play it right. That’s when I went on and started messing with the guitar. And then I started to record this CD on cassette tapes. I took it to Rooster Records, to Jim O’Neal, and let them listen to it. He thought I should record it. But I said; “Oh man, I don’t know nothing about recording no music. I can play, but I really wrote these songs for other people”. He said; “That would just be words for other people. But they have a meaning, coming from you. The way you sing them, and how you sing them, has a meaning. But to other people, it would be just words. I said; “I have no idea, I have no band, and I know nothing about no studio”. He said; “If you will agree to sing these songs, I’ll furnish the band and the studio”…
That’s how I got started in 1994. In 1996 I recorded it and in 1998 it was released. And that first CD, I ever recorded, was nominated for the W.C. Handy Award (Blues Foundation). The name of it is; Blues Come Home to Roost, on Rooster Records Label.
You were already quite experienced by then. Did you start to play live around Clarksdale?
I had started in the early 70’S, with my uncle Big Jack, who later became “The Oil Man”. I played with him off and on, but I also formed my own band at last. After that, he played some with me and my band. We started travelling locally around home, from one town to another one. It’s like a growing experience, you gotta grow. And get it on home first. And then joining other towns and cities. Then the Scandinavians and Europeans started coming to Clarksdale. They got a chance to hear me, and they thought it was pretty neat. Or interesting enough to start me to leaving home and go abroad. And I’ve been travelling ever since.
Big Jack told me that there were no stages back in the days.
Everything was on the floor. We had to rearrange the place to set up the band. We had to make room for the dance floor, and the band with it. All the southern clubs were getting kinda small, and they couldn’t get everybody in there. But on a good weather day, they would set up the band outside the club. So everybody could be out in the yard. Now they make stages and all kinds of stuff. And crooked people too.
When did you really start on your own with the girls?
At first I was just playing with whoever I could play with. Who wouldn’t laugh at me, ha, ha! Then I formed my own band, and my own style. And I got my band to learn my style. I had always trouble with guys, wanting to be somebody else. They played in my band, but they also liked watching all the other bands, that was playing cover tunes. They were like; “Hey man, you play all this stuff that nobody ever heard of. So we need to play some of this. Ain’t nobody gonna listen to that stuff you’re playing”!
I had all kinds of problems with the guys. If it wasn’t about the money, it was about what we were playing. Or what somebody else was playing. If we would play at a club, or something, they would hand count how many people was there in the club. Trying to figure out how much money they had paid. They wanted to be paid like me, but they wanted to play like another band. I had to tell them; “The first thing you gotta recognize, is that this is my band, my name, my equipment, my transportation. You were told what you was getting paid, before you left home. You play on my show, and you gotta play my music. This is not a buddy-buddy thing, you are working for me. It’s my name on the roster, you play what I play”! The guys were always giving me a lot of troubles.
So, I got the girls and all went fine. They are happy to play what I play. Because they appreciate going places and doing things. Taking those trips, either on vacations or stuff. And they love it when we do a good show. So, I can nail Super Chikan in the wood, just like that! We ironically named them The Fighting Cocks, ha, ha, ha!
- Drums, Jamiesa Pinkey-Mesa Turner, Super Chikan's daughter.
- Bass, Heather Tackett Falduto, with a custom made bassguitar by Super Chikan
- Keyboard, LaLa Craig, a typical action profile
They are bass, drums and keyboard, right?
I was a three piece band for a long time. Recently, I have Heather Tackett Falduto on bass and mostly my daughter Jamiesa Pinkey-Mesa Turner on drums. Then I added the keyboard with LaLa Craig. She fills the rhythm section for me, when I want to do something else. Like most of the time, you got bass and drums playing. You gotta keep the rhythm section full, and play chords while you sing. Or, if you want to say something. If you want to leave out chording, and just stop playing the guitar. The keyboards keeps the chords going, keep that all filled up.
You have always been a singer & songwriter from jump, okay?
My songs are more like poetry, and I was pretty much a poet. Because being a comedian, I like having fun, cracking jokes, and pranks, or whatever. Poetry is just built in to me, and once I learned that it is what music is all about. That’s alright, a songwriter can sing about anything, once he learned poetry. And that’s what I do.
Were you ever involved in any Gospel?
No, but it was all around me. I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t believe in playing with God. Old people used to talk about it, and it used to scare me. God said we all should sing, and rejoice, and be happy. To laugh and sing with it. But he didn’t specify what kind of music. So, I took that into consideration. I’m just gonna stay on one accord. Believe and trust in God. But do not mix Blues and the church together. So, I just stayed away from the church house. Because the church people make you feel bad, make you feel guilty. And when you get into the church, it’s more gossip there, then anywhere else, ha, ha, ha!
But the Blues is the true Gospel. Because the Gospel arrived from the Blues. With the old field songs, the way you could sing out in the field. You could sing in any way you wanted. But they had more respect for it in the church. When they got into the church, they sang the same song, but cleaned up the words.
When it comes to instruments, you got your own solutions for making guitars.
Well, if you gotta set a trend of being your own self. Having your own way in your own style. Everything I do is kind of my own way. And I like being one of the kind. Such as, for instance, since Bo Diddley, there’s nobody else playing such instrument. There are people playing cigar box guitars, but there’s nobody really playing the diddley bow. I play it, and I make my own. I like making my own guitars. Because I like different things, different styles, different looks, you know. Despite everywhere you see me, you’ll see a different kind of guitar. I just like that people like that. And I like making people smile, I like amusing people, Yeah!
It’s an artwork too, somehow.
Right, and it shows me and my heart. Even the colours in my paintings. It describes my heart, as colourful, friendly, and big. But it has been getting me into trouble. Because there’s some words out there, that my work is poor. Well, in their eyes I’m week, but in God’s eyes I’m strong. Because he’ll never let me fall. They can bring me down, but I’ll never stay down. I’m a bounce back!
Competing is the biggest problem. They laugh at you and it makes you feel down. For me, a festival or something is work. Therefore I never compete, because competition is what gives you a problem. I decided that I’m not gonna compete with anybody. I’m just gonna be me, the best I can. Be Super Chikan, do my own thing, my own way. Instead of trying to be like somebody else. Be yourself, and use the gift and the power that God gave you. So that’s what I do. I use my gift and I’ll be me, doing it my way
But you knew all about traditional blues, a basic for you to write more songs, still bluesy.
Right, I like bouncy music, I like uptempo music. I like a live groove. I don’t want that slow, sad, crying, selfish kind of music. Because I’m not that kind of person, I’m a live person. I watch the audience, and I see that people like to dance. They like to bounce, they like to smile, they like to be happy. So I play bouncy music, to keep them dancing. People love a groovy show with bouncy music, and that’s what I like to play.
Like in the old days, people liked to party and have fun.
Yeah, if not, they can stay home and be sad. But when you come out to a club, or a festival, you come out for entertainment. You want to come out of your sad mood. But if you leave home in a sad mood, and go out to a club for to change it. If there’s a sad man playing sad songs, you ain’t done yourself no good. Most of the time, you spent money in the door to get in. You’re spending money for beer. And you got somebody up there making you more sad. Not in a Super Chikan show, no!
So, the slow, minor Blues is what you play in your house, for yourself?
If you’re feeling sorry for yourself. Then you can sit down and play sad music. Everybody, they got their own problems. And they don’t need yours. If you got a problem and want to express it, don’t do it in a sad way. Put some life into it. Not the “I’m a poor and broke boy, from down in Mississippi”. I bounced that thing, talking about my bad songs. When you’re talking about the bad times in a bouncy way, people don’t mind hearing your story. But if he’s already sad, you’ll only make him sadder, ha, ha, ha.
What’s your next project are you mixing any new songs?
Yeah, I’m recording a new CD. But it’s so expensive to do it in a studio. So, we do it at a guy’s house, a guy with studio experience. It’s a home studio, but I’m gonna take it to Memphis and get it master mixed. And then I gotta figure out how to release it, though I got my own label, Chicken House Production. It’s gonna cost a bit of money to release it on my label. But if I find one that is already established, already set up. And I think I got a good idea of one that I can use. That got distribution, and booking too. And that’s very important.
How many albums did you cut?
I think I got nine totally, and some of them were award winners. Chikadelic, won the most awards. Entertainer of the year, album of the year, B.B. King award, a whole bunch of stuff.
When you play at the international festivals, one of a lot of musicians. Are you guys from Mississippi, or Chicago, like family?
I am open to any musician. But most musicians are intimidated by other musicians. Most want to be the best, or want you to think they’re the best. And they have this outstanding kind of attitude. Like; “I’m the best, who are you”? I don’t think that way, or feel that way, but I see that in a lot of musicians. Some feel like you are a threat, you’re a challenge. Everybody don’t meet as friendly, because there’s always one that got something to say about the other one. Like; “They got his picture up the on that board. Our picture should be up there. Why ain’t we up there, why is his picture there. Why didn’t they put us over at that stage? Why is he there”? I don’t worry about nothing of that. It’s never a competition, I don’t compete. But that is a problem, I see it in other people. Everybody make their own decisions. So, be yourself, and be honest.
I had to learn it the hard way. And I’m still learning, to keep my mouth closed. Your mouth can be your friend, but it can also be your enemy. Your tongue is like a double edged sword. It hurts going in, and it hurts coming out. The truth is one of the things I want to mention. The truth is the light, and the truth will make you free. But Lord have mercy, look what the truth has done to me! Everybody want to hear it, but don’t nobody want you to tell it. So, what is the truth good for, if you can’t tell it. You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t. If you tell the truth, you’re in trouble. Or if you don’t tell the truth, you’re in trouble too. Everybody want to hear about the truth, but everybody don’t want you to really tell it. Like B.B, King said; “Everybody want to go to heaven, but nobody want to die”... Ha, ha, ha.
Text o. Photo: Krister Palais