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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,

convincing vocals.

— Richard J. Skelly

Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers, The Tap Room, Nassau

Inn , 10 Palmer Square, 609-921-7500. Wednesday, February 17,

9:30 p.m.

Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers, Havana, 105 South

Main Street, New Hope, 215-862-5102. Sunday, February 28, 6 p.m.

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