Friday, July 29, 2011

Blessed Blues

You may not know who Johnny Jenkins, a.k.a. "Blessed," was, but he's linked to several musicians that you probably do know.  The Macon, GA native was a major factor in launching or influencing the careers of two legendary artists.  However, due to bad luck, bad timing, and some career choices that maybe could have been altered, Jenkins never made it out of the southeastern part of the U.S. while the artists he helped influence reached superstardom.  Record producer Phil Walden, who signed Jenkins to Capricorn Records in the late 60's once said, "I was convinced he could have been the greatest thing in rock and roll."

Jenkins was born in Macon in 1939 and fell in love with blues and R&B while listening to a battery-powered radio.  He built his first guitar out of a cigar box and rubber bands, playing for tips.  He played the guitar left-handed and upside down.  Jenkins became a local favorite and with his talent on guitar and his handsome features, he seemed destined for future stardom.  In the late 50's, Phil Walden, who would later found Capricorn Records, heard Jenkins on a radio show and soon began booking Jenkins' band, The Pinetoppers, at local events.  The Pinetoppers had a young lead singer named Otis Redding, who Jenkins first heard at a talent show.  Redding, still a raw talent at the time, mainly served as a gofer and valet for the group.

The Pinetoppers:  Johnny Jenkins is at center, Otis Redding to his left with the microphone
Jenkins scored a regional hit in the early 60's, with the song "Love Twist," and had an opportunity to record a follow up with Stax Records in Memphis.  Since Jenkins didn't have a driver's license, Redding drove him to the session and, after Jenkins' session fell apart, there was some 40 minutes of extra time in the studio.  Redding was persuaded to take a turn at the microphone and recorded "These Arms of Mine," with Jenkins on guitar.  The song became a hit and launched Redding's career.

Phil Walden originally envisioned Jenkins and Redding recording as a duo, with Redding providing the vocals and Jenkins providing the fireworks with his inventive guitar and flamboyant stage antics.  However, when Jenkins was approached to join Redding's band, he refused......ironically, because of a fear of flying.  So Otis Redding went on to stardom and legendary status, and Jenkins returned to touring the Southeastern part of the U.S., working regular day jobs as a logger and a mechanic, and playing frat houses and juke joints.  He was able to record another regional hit, an instrumental for Stax sister label, Volt, called "Spunky," in 1964.  Around this time, Jenkins' acrobatic style of playing guitar attracted the attention of a young Jimi Hendrix, who was visiting relatives in Macon when he happened to catch Jenkins' act and soon began emulating him.  Hendrix and Jenkins later played together at the New York club, The Scene, in 1970.

After Redding's death in 1967, Phil Walden began concentrating on Jenkins' career again, and teamed the guitarist up with several members of the Allman Brothers band, on one of the first Capricorn recordings, Ton-Ton Macoute!  The recording was originally intended to be a solo release for Duane Allman, but the Allman Brothers Band took off and it was shelved until Walden got Jenkins to record vocals over several of the tracks.  Jenkins absolutely made the most of his opportunity with stellar performances on tracks like Muddy Waters' "Rollin' Stone" (with Allman on dobro), Bob Dylan's "Down Along The Cove," and two tracks that just ooze with swampy atmosphere......"Blind Bats and Swamp Rats," and the incredible "I Walk On Gilded Splinters."  The latter track was penned by Dr. John and features Duane Allman on dobro.  It has been sampled by other artists, including Beck ("Loser") and Oasis.  Ironically, Jenkins didn't play much guitar on this release, with Allman and Pete Carr handling the majority of the tunes, but his vocals, reminiscent of Hendrix at time (especially on "Gilded Splinters") were a perfect fit for the material.  Ton-Ton Macoute! is considered by many to be a textbook example of Southern blues/rock.

Unfortunately, though the record was a critical success, sales didn't match up.  By the time Ton-Ton Macoute! was released, Walden and Capricorn had shifted their focus on their latest success, The Allman Brothers Band.  Jenkins recorded a second album in the mid 70's, which never saw the light of day.  Disappointed and bitter, he faded into the background., performing mostly at local venues and drifting into obscurity.

Over a quarter of a century later, in 1996, Walden was able to persuade Jenkins to record again, for his newly reformed Capricorn label.  Blessed Blues was a perfect blend of new songs and classic tunes.  Jenkins worked with keyboardist Chuck Leavell, guitarist Jack Pearson, and some of Muscle Shoals' finest session musicians, and he sounded like he'd never been away from the recording scene, even re-recording his first hit, "Love Twist," this time around as "Miss Thang."

Blessed Blues captures Jenkins at his rough and ragged best.  Here are a couple of songs from the disc, including an original co-written by Pearson ("It Ain't Nothin' But The Blues") and a Elmore James cover ("Mean Mistreatin' Woman") that capture Jenkins pretty well, including some lead guitar from him on the James song (slide guitar by Pearson).  Fortunately, he wouldn't have to wait another twenty-six years between releases.

In 1999, Jenkins released a new album on the Mean Old World record label, which was a Georgia-based indy label.  The disc, Handle With Care, included several of the songs that Jenkins did for the aborted mid 70's album, combined with some new recordings.  The best thing about this release was that Jenkins finally got to play all of the lead guitar, so listeners could at last get a taste of what all the fuss was about in the late 50's and early 60's.  While his vocals had begun to decline a bit, he made up for it with his spirit and sheer soulfulness.  Check out these tracks.....Jenkins opens up his soul on the autobiographical, mostly spoken-word variation of Ashford and Simpson's "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," "Cry Like A Man," the rousing soul track that opened the album, and a tasty instrumental, "Bashful Guitar." 

Jenkins followed up Handle With Care with All In Good Time, which consisted of mostly cover tunes, several instrumentals, and a few gospel tracks.  Though not as cohesive as its predecessor, it feels more like a group of friends getting together and playing the music that they love.  Jenkins sounds really good on guitar and he does a good job on the cover tunes, especially the hymns.  Check out these tracks....the instrumental "Big Bad Wolf," and a heartfelt cover of William Bell's tribute to Otis Redding. 

After Redding was killed, Jenkins moved between mourning his friend and sometimes expressing his bitterness with some contemptuous remarks about Redding, particular as quoted in Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music.  Over time, the bitterness faded, and Jenkins realized that, like most of us, sometimes we play a big role in creating the bumps we encounter on the road of life.  Thankfully, he didn't let the bitterness consume him to the point where he considered no longer making music.

Jenkins never recorded again, but continued to perform regularly in the Southeast until his death on June 26, 2006, after suffering a stroke.  Like a lot of bluesmen, his career was fraught with missteps, bad decisions, bitterness, and hurt, but unlike a lot of bluesmen, he was able to make the most of second, and third, and fourth chances, thanks to a little help from his friends.  Though he will always be known mostly for the careers that he influenced in some ways, as you can hear, he was a pretty impressive and unique artist himself.  All of his recordings are available and all are worth having.

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