J. Johnson, second half, part I
Thu Jul 17 11:03:01 EDT 1997
CN: In 1959 you started playing with Magic Sam and Freddie King?
JJ: Not started playing with them. Those were some of the first people
would let me sit in on the stage and play. I was just learning how to play!
They was two of the people that was willin' to let me sit in and play 'cause
I couldn't play very well. But they would always give me a chance. The
first gig I went on, me and Magic Slim was playin' together -- last of '59.
CN: Somebody said that you studied guitar with Reggie Boyd?
JJ: That was my guitar teacher, yeah. He was a music teacher, plus he played
gigs. He was like a jazz guitar teacher.
CN: I see,...that kind of tells me a lot about your music. You started with
gospel and you learned from a jazz player -- 'cause you got a style that
combines a lot of different things.
JJ: Well, I don't know how to category my playin' and I just play my guitar
and usually if I like a song I'll play it. I don't care what it is. If I
like it, I'll sit down and learn how to play it. Even if I don't play it on
my gig, I'll learn how to play it just because I like the song. I'll play it
to amuse myself.
CN: How long were you with Magic Slim?
JJ: Probably 'bout a year. I thought I was good then, so me and some fellas
went and organized us a lil' ol' band. We called ourselves the "Lucky Hearts."
CN: And how long did they stick together?
JJ: I can't remember exactly, but a few years, I'd say.
CN: Then you started working for other folks -- like a sideman guitar
player... working for people like Otis Clay, Denise LaSalle, Tyrone Davis
and your brother too?
CN: Well, did you think it was easier being a sideman than trying to take
care of the whole band?
JJ: Uh...not really. I just -- the only thing that I regret -- probably I
made a mistake by just started playin' guitar instead of keep bein' a singer
and play for myself instead of playing for other people. I just got kinda
bored with singin' and I just decided to play guitar. That was kinda like a
mistake. But it wasn't because of goin' on the road. 'Cause going on the
road with a lot of those people, wasn't a lot of fun. The road -- naturally
you never been there you wanna go. When you once go there then you see it's
not a lot of fun playing with those kinda cats.
CN: So you did that for almost 20 years? A good long time?
JJ: A long time! I started back with my band,...I think it was in '76. Well
now down through the years there was times I led a band for a minute and
then played with somebody else, led a band.... 'Cause like a lot of those
people I played with...like Denise LaSalle and Otis Clay, Walter Jackson --
those people I was like a house band. I was the leader of the band. I did
a lot of that.
CN: I see...so you were doing band leader stuff too. Where were you a house
band leader...do you remember some clubs you were the house band for?
JJ: Yes, a club called the "Bonanza," the "Checkmate," on the West
side...the "Brass Rail," lots of 'em....
CN: What would you say about the changes in the Chicago blues scene? Was it
pretty competitive back in the old days?
JJ: The music world changes; it don't remain the same. See like when I used
to play -- we'd go play a gig. But then all of a sudden it got into this
show thing. They would have a band and they'd have about three artists and
it's a big show! So we went through that for a few years. No when I first
started to playin' back in the early '60s they was more gigs than it was
bands. But now it's more bands than it is gigs. It's almost ridic'lous if
you're not above the crowd. See, the club owner -- well, I guess anybody is
like that. They want to get it as cheap as they can. When you go buy a
dress, you ain't gonna go (laughs) pay a million dollars for a dress; you
gonna go shoppin' get you a dress at a cheaper price!! So that's the way it
is club owners are. They wanna get a band as cheap as they can -- quality
and cheap. So when the competition get great, that make the money just go
down, down, down, down, down!
CN: It was a pretty good blues scene though?
JJ: Well it was kinda like -- when I first started to playin', it was
basically blues and after two, three years, it went into like top 40 --
whatever was a hit on the radio, that's what everybody would play. But it
still was a lot of gigs for bands back then. Well see, there's two circuits,
we both know that! But basically now there is only one -- and that's the
white circuit. But back then they was two circuits -- a black circuit and a
white circuit. 'Cause it used to be, here in Chicago, when you was black,
you was black! And when you was white, you was white! You stayed on your
side of town; we stayed on our side of town! But anyway, it was say like --
the white people always liked black music. But we didn't play blues, we
played....'cause I did some gigs where we played our standard tunes. Then I
went to some gigs where we played like top -40 -- WHITE top 40...if you
could play the white circuit music! But I knew the white circuit music as
well as the black because believe me, it's totally different!
CN: I believe you.
JJ: Back then! So but now, I don't know if you know...when we played white
clubs.... Now I went through this...I never played where you had to play
behind a curtain, but they say they used to have to play behind a curtain,
but I kinda missed that. But they would have a dressing room, or they would
have a table special for you. You could not socialize. Did you know that part?
CN: Yes, I'm afraid so. But you never had to stand behind a curtain?
JJ: No, I missed that one. But I used to hear guys talk about it. But like
money is money. Now say, "why would you take all this man?" Like when we
played in white clubs where I would (ordinarily) make $15 a night, I would
make FORTY dollars a night -- now who wouldn't?!?!!?? I don't care! I'd
stay OUTSIDE if they'd....just pay me and .... It wasn't the idea that...it
wasn't so much fun playin'. You still enjoyed your gig, but it was kind of a
drag that you couldn't socialize. So somewhere -- oh let me see -- I'm
tryin' to figure 'bout what time they was.... Well, you know....
CN: In the sixties?
JJ: Well you know who Malcolm X is?
CN: Oh yes
JJ: He was one of the first people.... Now I'm not a Malcolm X fan! I
wouldn't have been if he was livin' today because there was a lot of stuff
that he would say that I didn't believe in. Same way with Farakan. There's
a lot of stuff I hear him say to me is totally ridic'lous. But now, what
Malcolm did; he taught black people how to be proud of theyselves where we
wasn't proud of ourselves you know?
CN: Yes I do.
(End part I - Jimmy Johnson)
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