Friday, March 18, 2011

Last of the Jelly Roll Kings

I was rambling around Pigeon Forge, TN this week when I received the news (courtesy of Bob Corritore's email newsletter) about Big Jack Johnson's death at age 70, after battling some health issues over the past couple of years.  When I discovered the blues in the mid 80's, I started out listening to many of the established artists that I had heard of (B. B. King, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, etc....), but eventually decided to try and find out more and more about the current blues artists in Mississippi.  One of the first Mississippians who was current on the scene that I could find out about was Big Jack Johnson.  I had seen his recording, The Oil Man, advertised in an issue of Living Blues (can you remember those ads where you cut out the order form and send your check or money order to a company and then waited 4 to 6 to 8 weeks for your order to arrive???).  However, I never got around to ordering it because I didn't want to cut a hole in my magazine and mess it up (yes, I'm a geek). 

Oil ManI sort of forgot about it until I made a trip to nearby Jackson, MS one day and stumbled upon a cassette copy of The Oil Man, which I quickly snatched up.  What a revelation it was to hear him for the first time.  His piercing, ringing guitar sounded like it was strung with barbed wire (at least that's what I thought), and his vocals ranged from dusky growl to almost quivering with emotion.  The backing was pretty basic from what I remember (Frank Frost played piano on a couple of tracks, with brothers Earnest and Walter Roy on drums and bass, respectively), but it all sounded great to me.  I was hooked from the opening notes of the title track that opened the album.

Big Jack was a true original.  His sound incorporated blues, rock, soul, R&B, and even country music.  He was comfortable playing them all.  His songwriting covered topics ranging from typical blues themes to modern issues, some with a twist, including AIDS, domestic violence, divorce, gang violence, even natural disasters.  There were very few stones left unturned from Johnson's pen.  Below is part 1 of a two-part single remembering the devastating ice storm that hit Clarksdale and the rest of the Mississippi Delta in the mid 90's.

Johnson was born in Lambert, MS, in 1940.  His father was a musician, playing fiddle, banjo, and guitar, and loved country music and blues.  His son was also a big country music fan and they began playing together when Big Jack was only 13.  Johnson also learned slide guitar from a local musician named Earnest Roy (that's his son, Earnest Jr., who played drums on The Oil Man).

Frank Frost (left) and Sam Carr
Johnson got his first break in the early 60's, when he sat in with a pair of Delta musicians, guitarist/piano/harmonica player Frank Frost and drummer Sam Carr.  They began playing together on a regular basis and even ended up recording a pair of must-have albums.  One was recorded by Sun Records owner Sam Phillips for his Phillips International label under the name Frank Frost and his Night Hawks.  One of the songs, "Jelly Roll King," eventually gave the band its name.  They later recorded several tracks for Shreveport-based Paula Records (later collected on Paula's Jelly Roll Blues, and continued to perform together into the 70's.

Rockin' The Juke Joint DownDuring this time, Johnson also supported himself driving an oil truck (hence the name for his album), plus he owned several clubs, including the Black Fox Club, where the group was discovered by Michael Frank.  Frank liked them enough to record them and in 1978, he started his Earwig Records label for the purpose of releasing the Jelly Roll Kings' Rockin' The Juke Joint Down, an absolutely essential recording of modern Delta blues.  Check out the band's theme song, "Jelly Roll Stroll," and Johnson's vocal and guitar (plus Frost's wonderfully cheesy Farfisa organ) on "Road of Love."

Live In ChicagoThe group didn't exactly capitalize on the recording though.  Frost moved from Clarksdale to Greenville shortly after the album was issued and worked with other musicians, while Carr and Johnson continued to play together and Johnson formed his own bands, one of which included his bass-playing cousin, who has since become world famous as the one and only Super Chikan.  In 1987, Johnson recorded The Oil Man for Earwig.  He later released a couple of follow-ups for Earwig, the more socially conscious Daddy, When is Mama Comin' Home, and a later live recording from Chicago.  He also appeared on Frank Frost's Earwig album, Midnight Prowler, released in the early 90's.  That's Johnson's amazing guitar backing Frost on the eerie track, "Gonna Put Her Down." 

During this time, Johnson appeared on the documentary, Deep Blues, in one of the more memorable segments.  Here's a clip of Johnson from that documentary, blowing the roof off the Pastimes Lounge in Clarksdale with a rousing version of "Catfish Blues."

Off Yonder Wall [Vinyl]The Jelly Roll Kings got together for one last album in 1997, for Fat Possum Records, called Off Yonder Wall.  Produced by Deep Blues author, Robert Palmer, it was a fitting swan song for one of the greatest Delta blues groups of all.  Frank Frost was in declining health by the time of this recording, a shell of his former self due to years of hard living finally catching up to him, and on the opening cut, Johnson took Frost to task about his bad habits, telling him to "lay that bottle down."  Unfortunately, it was too late for Frost, one of the foremost delta musicians of his time, and he passed away at 63 in late 1999.  The disc closed with Johnson's autobiographical tribute to country music, "I'm A Big Boy Now."

Memphis BarbecueIn the mid-90's, Johnson had left Earwig Records and signed with the New York-based M.C. Records, where he released four excellent releases, each one improving on the previous release.  While his M.C. recordings were successful and highly praised, they sometimes lacked the rawness and grit of his earlier work with the Jelly Roll Kings and Earwig.  We Got To Stop This Killin', Johnson's debut for M.C., continued his look at serious modern issues.  His second M.C. release, All The Way Back, was a pretty straight-forward release of good ol' electric Delta blues (one of the best releases of 1998), one of the highlights being the down-and-out track, "Lonely Man."  Roots Stew, from 2000, showcased the big man's versatility, as he played mandolin on a couple of tracks and even lap steel on an instrumental version of Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby."  A couple of years later, Johnson released the acclaimed Memphis Barbecue Sessions, an all-acoustic set with appearances by piano man Pinetop Perkins and harmonica ace Kim Wilson.  The disc won a Handy Award in 2003 and one of the highlights was Johnson's take on the old Guitar Slim hit, "Things That I Used To Do."

Johnson didn't record again until 2008, when he self-released Juke Joint Saturday Night, a session with his band, the Cornlickers, that attempted to capture the feel of a regular weekend appearance at Red's.  The results were successful, as Johnson tackled a number of standards and played some incredible guitar, such as on the instrumental, "Jack's Guitar Groove," which starts somewhere around James Brown and winds up down in Howlin' Wolf territory.  Johnson's last release was Katrina, in 2009.  It was also a self-release, but Johnson was to the point that he knew what he wanted with his sound and figured he had the best idea of how to do it.  Katrina was a tribute to the spirit and people of his home state, but has not been widely heard.

I don't think nearly enough people realize what a huge talent Big Jack Johnson was.  He was an incredible guitarist, who always managed to inject at least one jaw-dropping solo at each appearance or on each album and was versatile enough to play slide, lap steel, and mandolin.  His songwriting was far-ranging and impressive, and he was a master showman who gave his audiences what they wanted.  I hate to say it, but it may be a long time before we see another one like him. 

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