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Big Jack’s Jukejoint Blues
This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 10, 1999. All rights reserved.
State-of-the-art Mississippi jukejoint Delta blues
comes to the heart of downtown Princeton on Wednesday night, February
17, when Big Jack Johnson leads his band, the Oilers, through a set
of downhome, houserockin’ blues. The guitarist and singer-songwriter,
who looks nowhere near his 58 years, is a rising star in the blues
world. Unlike other blues men and women who often shy away from anything
too political, Johnson is not afraid to speak his mind. And that’s
the beauty in what he does.
"Daddy, When Is Momma Comin’ Home?", his 1990 debut for Chicago-based
Earwig Records, broke new ground with songs that tackled such topical
subjects as AIDS, the plight of the nation’s family farmers, spousal
abuse, and Chinese blues musicians. One song on the album, "Northwest
Airlines Blues," is an endorsement of the relative safety of air
More recently Johnson has recorded two albums for the Long Island-based
M.C. Records, "We Got To Stop This Killin’" and "All The
Way Back." The title track from the former is a plea to end black-on-black
— or white-on-white — violence in the cities. Johnson’s 1998
album, "All The Way Back," reached No. 4 on the Living Blues
magazine radio charts, a clear indication that his style of raw, unadulterated,
downhome jukejoint blues is catching on. "Crack Headed Woman"
and "I Wanna Know" are two of the topical songs on his current
Johnson is featured in an interview and performance on a new PBS television
special, "The Mississippi: River of Song," airing on Sunday
evenings this month. Hosted by singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, the
four-part documentary — which delves into the people and culture
of the towns and cities along the Mississippi River — wraps up
with travels from Natchez, Mississippi, to New Orleans and still further
south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Johnson was born in Lambert, Mississippi, in 1940, and
grew up helping his father work the land, which no doubt helped him
gain his stocky build. Although music was everywhere in his rural
northern Mississippi town, and all of his relatives and neighbors
were blues musicians, Johnson’s first love was country music. He would
listen to Grand Ole Opry broadcasts by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash,
Gene Autry, Hank Snow, and others. Later he found himself inspired
by bluesmen like Elmore James, Albert King, Muddy Waters, B.B. King,
and early blues-rock pioneers like Chuck Berry.
As a teenager, Johnson got some musical pointers from his father,
a violinist who worked with a band around Lambert. His dad taught
him the basics of guitar, and young Johnson took it from there. He
studied records and the radio, listening and trying to capture the
bent notes and chord progressions of his guitar-playing mentors.
In the early 1960s, Johnson began working with two other area musicians,
harmonica and keyboard player Frank Frost and drummer Sam Carr. Frost
and Carr needed a guitar player for a theater show in Clarksdale and
they hired Johnson. The trio’s partnership lasted more than 30 years.
Their first recordings were made in the spring of 1962 for Sam Phillips
at Sun Studios in Memphis, under the name Frank Frost and the Nighthawks.
After more recording at Sun Studios in the mid-1960s, the group didn’t
record again until the end of the 1970s, honing their skills the natural
way, playing clubs and jukejoints all around the South. Through much
of the 1970s, Johnson held a job driving a Shell oil truck — thus
the name for his group — delivering household heating oil around
northern Mississippi. By 1979, Chicago blues impressario Michael Frank,
who runs Earwig Records, took notice of the group. Frank dubbed the
trio "The Jelly Roll Kings" and began booking the group around
the U.S. and in Europe. Johnson would play as many of the European
tours as he could, using unused vacation time from his day job to
make the treks with Frost and Carr. He didn’t give up his job with
Shell until 1988, supplanting his previously steady income with upwards
of 300 gigs a year.
These days, Johnson and the most recent version of the Oilers —
bassist Maury "Hooter" Saslaff, rhythm guitarist Rodger Montgomery,
and drummer Chet Woodward — still play about 300 shows a year.
Bassist Saslaff, who worked as a blues booking agent prior to his
roadwork with Johnson, has the gift of gab. Certainly he’s been a
big part of the group’s success. Johnson still makes his home in Clarksdale,
but the other band members are based in the Poconos of Pennsylvania.
Since the mid-1990s when he began working with Saslaff and began his
affiliation with M.C. Records, Johnson has been nominated, in 1997,
for two W.C. Handy awards (song of the year for "We Got To Stop
This Killin’") three Living Blues awards and, in 1998, for another
W.C. Handy award for Best Blues Guitarist.
In performance, the band is sometimes loud, always powerful, raw and
gutsy, thanks to the big strapping guy standing in front of the microphone.
He doesn’t say much but smiles a lot, all the while playing simple
but passionate guitar leads — and backing it up with powerful,
— Richard J. Skelly
Inn , 10 Palmer Square, 609-921-7500. Wednesday, February 17,
Main Street, New Hope, 215-862-5102. Sunday, February 28, 6 p.m.
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