What's Soul Got to Do With It?

Ike & Tina's sizzling Carnegie Hall date, plus previews of Big Jack Johnson and James Harman

Ike hopped labels like freight trains through the '60s, looking for another hit. While it didn't happen, he kept pushing, whipping the Revue into shape and keeping it on the road 51 weeks a year for several years. The Revue's live show was paced like the best porn or horror flick. Ike was the ringmaster, cracking tough guitar lines; Tina, the scared and scary kitten, matching him note for note with growls when words failed. When they hit Carnegie Hall in '71, teasing and satisfying a crowd was second nature. Looking back, it was their high-water mark.

Tina has been understandably praised for resurrecting her life from the hell she says Ike made it. Her comeback in the '80s, beginning with Private Dancer, was an unlikely feat. But it's clear now that when she walked out on Ike, she left the legacy of soul behind. Now, people seem to love her story as much as her music. Yet think how much finer it would have been if she'd escaped an abusive relationship and bloomed artistically. Instead, she just got watered down.

The Oil Man
After years of running snap-bean pickers and driving an oil delivery truck, it looks like Big Jack Johnson's finally getting some credit. The first time I called the guitarist at his home in Clarksdale, Mississippi, to get the skinny in advance of his show in Phoenix this Thursday, he couldn't talk because he had company: a photographer from Living Blues magazine was there doing a cover shoot, he said. Later that night, I picked up a copy of Request magazine at the mall, flipped it open, and found a feature story on Johnson.

When I called him back the next day, Johnson was packing to leave on the first leg of a yearlong tour behind his recent release We Got to Stop This Killin' and his forthcoming Jelly Roll Kings reunion album.

"Looks like everything's gettin' better and better," he said. Despite his other jobs, Johnson, 56, figures he's been a professional musician since 1960, two years before he walked into the legendary Sun studio in Memphis. Johnson and drummer Sam Carr accompanied harpist Frank Frost, laying down fat, rollicking country blues that still sound fresh today. The trio subsequently became known as the Jelly Roll Kings. They made some more records for the Jewel label in the mid-'60s and then went missing for a while, reuniting from time to time at Smitty's Red Top Lounge in Clarksdale.

Then came the brilliant 1992 compilation Deep Blues, with three live Johnson cuts, including the soaring "Daddy, When Is Momma Coming Home." Smack in the heart of the Delta, there was a blues singer, guitarist and songwriter who seemed to be standing on the shoulders of giants, looking forward. I asked Johnson about the song's story.

"Oh, well, see, it wasn't nothin' that happened," he said. "I just wrote that for my granddaughter Po' Cow." Thinking for some reason his granddaughter's name was "Topaz," I asked him to repeat it. Twice. Finally, I asked him to spell it.

"See, she was a slim, tall girl and she had long braids that stuck out on each side of her head so's they looked like cow horns. I got another one called Po' Sheep. She got curly hair like sheep wool. They love their names."

I asked Johnson about the title cut on We Got to Stop This Killin'. Are things in Clarksdale that bad? "This is one of the capitals of the killing right here. It just quieted down in the last three or four months. But every time you turn on the TV you find some killin'. You go fishin' and cast the rod out and you hook somebody's shirt. Some guy be runnin' around cuttin' the nipples off womens. People are eating people. And they got to stop it, man. The Lord supposed to decide when we leave here, not no other man."

Johnson plays a mean medley of country tunes with a nod to Merle Travis. His father was a country-music fiddler, he said. He came up tuning in Grandpa Jones and Red Foley on the radio.

"Shit, I was raised on the Grand Ole Opry. When I'm in my truck goin' fishin', I don't play no blues. I play Hank Williams, Hank Snow and--what's that fella did that song . . . [he sings Kenny Rogers' "Lucille"] See, you don't need that blues then. It just gets you worried and you can't fish. Now, in a nightclub, that's a different story."

The blues didn't get his attention until he was almost grown, he said, when he saw B.B. King perform. "That shit like to kill me. I told everybody I wanted to be like B.B. King and Elmore James . . . They laughed."

Not anymore.

Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers are scheduled to perform on Thursday, February 13, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Big As He Wants to Be. Maybe.
James "Icepick" Harman is a method man. Every winter, he retreats to the warmth of California to record a blues album, and then spends the rest of the year driving his van cross-country to play and promote it.

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