Jimmy Johnson. Foto: Erik Lindahl
Interview, by Mike Stephenson, took place at the home of the artist on the far south side of Chicago in June 2018. Many thanks go to Jim Feeney.
I was born in a little town in Mississippi called Holly Springs on November 25th 1928, the same year that Mickey Mouse was created and the same year they invented television and the year they invented penicillin, so it was a good year. I looked on the internet and found out all those things. My real name is James Thompson. I come from a very musical family, my father, Sam, he played harmonica and guitar but he wasn’t professional, he played at parties. He never recorded or nothing like that but his harmonica playing, I had never heard nobody play like that. I wish I had some of that on tape, I think my brother may have.
When I was growing up, we had guitars all around and all the guys would sit around and play guitars and I used to bang around on one when I was young. Matt Murphy, he owned a guitar I didn’t own one and he learned how to play before I did. Matt Murphy moved from Memphis to Holly Springs so we were neighbours. There were quite a few guys around our home that played guitar, but not professionally. When I went to high school they had like a gym and they had a piano behind a curtain, and I used to spend all my time during breaks, behind that curtain playing that piano and I did that for about a year and a half, and that’s how I learnt how to play a little bit of piano. I would go behind that curtain and learn the piano and in my head I could find the notes on the piano.
Jimmy Johnson. Foto Erik LIndahl
The first thing I learnt how to play was ‘My Mama Done Told Me’. I tried to play boogiewoogie but I never did get that down, but I never liked boogiewoogie as well as I did like jazz and blues. When I was at school I was in the church and that was my first time in singing on the stage. I don’t remember the song that I sang but I was eight years old. I wasn’t in the choir, I sang solo and I guess I was born with this old piece of voice. My voice hasn’t disappeared on me over the years. My family was a farming family and when I was a boy there was some things my mother didn’t explain to me, because my father would be gone and I don’t know why and then he would come back around. In my early days he was not a farmer, I have no clue what he was doing. I know he was a carpenter, he built houses and stuff.
My grandfather was the one that taught me how to plough with the mule. When my grandfather put me out in the field by myself, I was about eight or nine. I was scared, as I was a little boy and all the woods around. My old mule was a very smart mule and I wrote a song about her and her name was May. She was one of the smartest mules you ever saw in your life. I think that mule would have protected me. In the country you didn’t have no clock out there with you. They used to have a bell and when you heard that bell ring at twelve o’clock you went home to eat and the mule went home to eat and get water. If the bell rang she wouldn’t go any further in that field, absolutely not, so she was very smart. She would walk around the plough so I could get on her back so as to go get food and water. I changed her name to Willie and, as I said, I wrote a song about her but I didn’t record it. It’s like a country song.
After high school I was still in Mississippi. I left Mississippi when I was sixteen and I went to Memphis. I did quite a few different jobs when I was there, but my last job was for two or three months at the Peabody Hotel. I was a bell hop. I wasn’t doing any music when I was in Memphis. One of my cousins, he helped me out when I first left home for Memphis; me and him were staying together but then I got me a room and I was paying $4.50 a month for it.
I was in Memphis for three years but wasn’t doing music at all, I was basically trying to survive with different jobs. Some of the jobs were hard to handle, as I was a very small kid. When I was sixteen I weighed 120 Pounds and I was only 5’5’’. Back then, in the late forties, the music you heard was mostly country and western. So country and western has had an influence on my music. When I was in Memphis my uncle, W.T. Smith, my mama’s brother who was a minister, lived here in Chicago. He wrote me a card and told me he was coming down to Memphis and he asked me if I wanted to go back to Chicago with him. So wow, did I! I think this was the end of 1949 and I hooked up with him in Holly Springs and came to Chicago in his car, and I was nineteen at that time.
Jimmy Johnson. Foto Hans Ekestang/Rockshot
When I got to Chicago, like a lot of the guys tell stories about how hard a time they had when they got here, but I had it made. I stayed with my uncle and the third day I was here I had a job where he was working. He was working at this place called Harrison Sheet Metal and he was the crane operator, so my job at first was as a shear cutter, like cutting steel in all shapes. I did that for a short length of time, then I was a welder’s helper, and I used to watch him and when he would leave to take a break I would take the torch up and weld and, within a year, he told the boss how good I was at welding and after that I became a welder I didn’t have to go to school. I was a class A combination welder and I earned big dough and that is what kept me away from music for so long, as I was making a lot of money compared to what I had been earning, which was $14 a week plus tips at the Peabody Hotel. When I first got to Chicago I was living on the west side, on Ashland and Roosevelt. I played some piano in church for the junior choir when I got to Chicago.
When I first started thinking about music Magic Sam moved next door to me and he was about fourteen at that time. He had an old acoustic guitar that had one string on it and he didn’t have no money, but I had money because I was a welder, so I told him I would buy him a set of strings and about a week later I thought, this cat could play and I got a little bit interested in it. I used to get me a brand new car mostly every year, so I didn’t worry about any music back then, and then Magic Sam got himself a hit record ‘All Your Love’ and I would go with him to hear him play, and people used to go crazy when he was on stage and I said to myself, I can do this.
Then in 1958 I bought me a guitar in January, and all I did was practise on that guitar, but my uncle didn’t like it because we lived upstairs over the church. I used to go down there and play the piano and when he wasn’t around I used to play blues on the piano, I wasn’t that good though. He told me it was devil’s music and he put me out, but after three days he told me I couldn’t be out there in this big old city, so he asked me to come back and he said if I wanted to lose my soul then go ahead.
Billy Boy Arnold sold me that guitar, it was a semi acoustic guitar ,and on July 4th I got a gig but I couldn’t play that well and they fired me after the first night. I had money so I went and bought me a Stratocaster and somewhere in the fall I got another gig, and the guy Slim Willis, who used to call himself Harmonica Slim, he was always a good singer and he told me that I didn’t play that well but I had good potential and he said he would keep me with him, and I learnt how to play. This was blues stuff and we played at a place on the west side on Madison.
There is a story here: the club got burned up and this guy was off a little bit as someone had made him mad and they put him out, and he went and got a can of gas and came back and people was sitting there looking at him and he poured the gas all over the floor and he took a match and threw it up in the air and the place went up in flames and thirteen people died. We weren’t playing there at the time.
At another club we played, we took an intermission and when we came back my guitar was gone. I got on the stage looking around and I thought the band were kidding me and then it dawned on me that my guitar was gone. Guess who was in the house that day? It was Freddy King and he lived right around the corner from the club. He let me play one of his guitars which was a Les Paul and I played it for a week or so, and then I went and bought a Gibson 335 and that’s what I have played most of my life.
I was with Slim Willis for maybe a year and a half and we did all blues. I was going to school for music downtown at Boston Music College for six months and the guy there taught me the fundamentals on the guitar and taught me how to play waltz and polkas and stuff. Then I got with Reginald Boyd and he taught a whole lot of us like Matt Murphy, Fenton Robinson, Luther Tucker, Lacy Gibson and my brother. He taught jazz, some blues too and I learnt jazz chords from him.
After I left Slim Willis, I got a band together and we played top forty stuff, we called ourselves Jimmy Johnson And The Lucky Hearts. This was maybe 1961. We played clubs and back in the day there was clubs on every corner almost. I played seven nights a week and I was trying to work in the daytime and I decided that something had to go. They told me how stupid I was to quit my job to play music but I had to do something, as I was burning the candle at both ends. I was a good worker that, when I quit to play music the boss told me that I could come back anytime, so I thought if the music hits a brick wall, I can go back.
Jimmy Johnson. Foto Hans Ekestang/Rockshot
When I quit welding I thought that I didn’t want to go back to welding again, I would go and do something else. I had that band until the late sixties and then it faded. I also played and backed up a lot of artists as a sideman and some were a drag to play with and some of them didn’t pay you nothing, so that was rough, and the gigs were disappearing as well. DJs came in the clubs and took over with heir big speakers. We played in white clubs as well and they paid well and things were very segregated back then and we couldn’t socialise in those clubs back then. One time I was with a band playing the Holiday Inn circuit but that was very boring. This was a five piece band with horns. We did mostly instrumentals because the audience, all they wanted to hear was the melodies of standard tunes.
I made up my mind to quit music and I got a job driving a taxi, and that was a terrible job driving the yellow cab. That was starvation and you only got forty per cent of the money you took and you had to pay for your own gas. My check for the week was $5.50 and I had a wife and three little children. They gave me a taxi that had bad brakes and bad steering, and I just walked out of that job. So I got me what they now call a Uber cab, it wasn’t legal though but it saw me through. You had to work from a stand, you couldn’t pick people up from the streets, that was the law, and I did that for a while and I had only quit music for a few months though. This was now in the early seventies. I picked up some ladies on the west side in my taxi and they were going to a club and they insisted that I went in the club with them. The people playing in the club I knew and they asked me to sit in with them, so after that I thought I had to get back into music.
I was in my cab one day and they called me and told me that there was a guy named Jimmy Dawkins who wanted me to call him. I had heard of him but I didn’t know him. So I called him up and he asked me if I would like to gig with him and go on the road with him, and I told him I would get back to him in a couple of weeks. I talked to my wife and she said go ahead and try it and I thought about it and Jimmy was playing blues on the white circuit and I took the gig with him. This was at the end of 1974. I played with Jimmy for two and a half years. I didn’t like the music but I was trying to get used to it and let people see me, because I could play and sing and I thought that someone would recognise this. Jimmy would let me sing a song once in a while. I was always a good singer. Jimmy had on his brochure that he was ‘Fast Fingers’ and when I heard him play I couldn’t see he was ‘Fast Fingers’. So we would go on the gig and I could play fast when he gave me a solo, and some folks thought I was Jimmy Dawkins and that kind of bugged him so he made them take that ‘Fast Fingers’ off that advert.
I also did a short stint with Otis Rush and toured Japan with him and Jimmy and I are on Otis’ live album recorded in Japan, ‘So Many Roads’. So I got a little start with Jimmy and Otis and this lady, Marcelle Morgantini, that heard me play in France, she got me to record. It was for the MCM label and that gave me some fame in Europe. That record was recorded at Ma Bea’s here in Chicago. I also played on Jimmy Dawkins’ album for MCM as well. So now Alligator and Delmark started showing an interest, as I was doing blues and they both wanted to do a record on me and I decided on Delmark, but Bruce Iglauer wanted me to do a record, so I told Delmark and they said go ahead, but don’t do your originals. So I did four cuts for Alligator on the ‘Living Chicago Blues’ album and that got me even more exposure.
Now before those MCM recordings there was a forty five by a Jimmy Johnson called ‘Don’t Answer The Door’ on the Magnum label but that wasn’t me, but I lived off that record. It was another Jimmy Johnson, not me, but I made money off of that. I did record two 45s, one was ‘Funky Four Corners’ and the other an instrumental ‘Sock It To Me’. ‘Sock It To Me’ was my brother Syl’s hit song and I learned how to play it instrumentally and it made a little bit of noise. There was another song called ‘The Country Preacher’ by Jimmy Johnson but that was by another Jimmy Johnson, not me.
Also after those MCM recordings, I gained some popularity in Europe and I went over there two or three times year and made some real money and then I did those recordings for Alligator and my first album for Delmark, which was ‘Johnson’s Whacks’. It had a lot of my own material on there, like ‘Ashes In My Ashtray’, ‘Need Some Easy Money’, ‘The Twelve Bar Blues’ and others. It was my regular band on those recordings.
Folks always ask me about my song writing and where it comes from and it comes from different forms. I can be sitting down playing something on my guitar and I like to be original and I like my songs to be recognised, when you hear them you know it’s Jimmy Johnson. I can hear someone say something and I think that could be a song. If you heard about the song I did about “I’m A Jockey”, well we were playing cards and this radio guy who did gospel and we played as partners and he said “If You don’t believe I’m a jockey, just back your mule up in my stall”, having fun, and I thought well that’s a song. So you come up with a story and sit down, and the way the words go can figure out a pattern because a lot of my songs are not blues patterns. I try to be original and I see it as my blues and I do it the way I feel it. If I do B.B. King or Muddy Waters, I think I haven’t accomplished too much. Some people don’t call my music blues though. I do it my way like Frank Sinatra said. I like some jazz as well. I play piano at a club and I play ‘Take Five’ and other jazz stuff.
In the family we have my brother Syl and then there was Mac, who was a bass player, and my other brother he died at an early age and he played guitar, and he decided to do other things but he was like the black sheep of the family. I did what I could to help him but you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. I even bought him a guitar and an amp. He didn’t make good decisions. His name was Grundy and he could have been a good musician. He was named after my grandfather who was part Indian and his name was Grundy.
I brought my mother to Chicago in 1951 and my grandfather lived maybe two or three years after that, in his mid seventies, and he was a drinker and that’s probably one of the reasons why I couldn’t drink. I hated alcohol because of watching him get drunk and beat up my grandmother, and that was a real downer to me and I couldn’t do nothing about it. I was five or six years old and I’m looking at him and I can’t do nothing about it, so that made me not like drinking. Alcohol killed my little brother when he was twenty eight and Mac died when he was fifty seven, and he was what you call an ‘in control alcoholic’, he drank all of his life.
So after my first Delmark record I did another record for them called ‘North/ South’ and it was Steve Thomashefsky, the producer’s, idea to call it that. I also did that album ‘Bar Room Preacher’ that I recorded in Europe and that was picked up by Alligator. I didn’t have a lot of original material with me when we did that but that is a nice recording and one of the records I really like. The record I don’t like is that ‘Two Johnsons Are Better Than One’. My brother Syl is a little hard to deal with, but he is still my brother and he is the only brother I have left. All together there was six of us, but two of my brothers died when they were babies.
I’ve been bouncing around in my head doing some new recordings. I have some more songs and Delmark have shown an interest. I’m still active considering my age, and my voice is still there, and my voice is natural and I see it as a gift if you have a voice, but you have to have something else, like I think I have. If I sing a B.B. King, I’m not going to try and sing it like B.B. King, I’ll sing the song but the way I feel. I don’t want to be a mimic. I believe in doing music my way, I can’t say it’s good or better. There are some songs I like but I can’t find a way to do it so I won’t bring it to the stage.
My father, he was mean and strict but he taught me a lot and he was an honest man, so I give him credit for that, he didn’t accept no nonsense. I’ve seen too many people having been taken downhill by drinking so I ask why would you do that to yourself? You have to be aware of what it is you are putting into your body, because once you put stuff in, you can’t take it out. I’m always aware of what I put into my body and I’ve studied how to eat properly. As you get older you are going downhill, so why rush it? I am occasionally involved with the church but not often. Within me I am very religious though.
I don’t get out of town that often these days and that’s my choice, but in Chicago I play Legends often and House Of Blues and B.L.U.E.S. I have been lucky to have made a living out of making music over the years. As far as money and economics, when I started making real money was in 2004, as I decided to quit leading bands and I decided to go where I want to go. It’s a little bit hectic sometimes playing with other musicians, but I’m very adaptable