In the spring of 1962, Memphis producer Sam Phillips, ever the iconoclast, did something he hadn't attempted in nearly a decade: He recorded a set of raw blues, the kind of stuff that boomed from the juke joints and roadhouses that dotted the flat, desolate landscape of north Mississippi. Phillips, founder of the Sun label and the man responsible for unleashing on the world the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, had pretty much abandoned the blues following the mid-'50s rise of Elvis, et al., even though it was the music of blues pioneers Howlin' Wolf, Junior Parker and Rosco Gordon that helped establish the label earlier that decade. But after hearing a trio based in Lula, Mississippi (harmonica whiz Frank Frost, drummer Sam Carr and guitarist Big Jack Johnson), Phillips threw commercial considerations aside, and over the course of three long sessions in April 1962, produced Sun Studio's last blues recordings.
Predictably, both the resulting single and the album fared poorly, but the trio's album Hey Boss Man!, with its twin assaults of "Crawl Back" and "Jelly Roll King," remains a pile-driving testament to the visceral power of stripped-down, unbridled blues -- music that is intense, ragged, and raging with passion, spirit and conviction. The Jelly Roll Kings, as they were dubbed, continued to perform for the next three decades at clubs and festivals across the globe, and were featured in Robert Mugge's seminal 1992 documentary Deep Blues. It was in that film that the towering presence and bare-knuckled blues of Jack Johnson, both with the Kings and leading his own quintet at a Clarksdale, Mississippi, blues joint, gained his most prominent exposure. His inclusion in that documentary, and the popularity it brought to Johnson and the denizens of the region's blues community, still confound the 59-year-old artist.
"It scared me to death," Johnson says of the experience, during a tour break in the Poconos. At that time he had been working days delivering oil throughout the Delta (hence his nickname, the Oil Man) and playing local clubs such as the Playboy Lounge, where Mugge's film crew caught Johnson and band running through tough versions of set staples such as "Catfish Blues" and "I'm a Big Boy Now," as well as a blazing Jelly Roll Kings take of "Midnight Prowler."
"I wasn't expecting something so big, with all the cameras and trucks and cranes and stuff," Johnson recalls. "And when they told me all this was for me, I thought, 'Oh, no!' Then, after the movie came out, I started seeing more and more people at my shows. I'm more popular now than ever; that's the truth. I wasn't expecting any of this. I was planning on just driving the truck and playing a little bit. I wasn't thinking about getting on the road, but then everything started happening, so I thought I'd better go along and try to keep it up."
Hence Johnson's rigorous tour schedule, which for the past four years has consisted of more than 300 nights per year on the road. Although he was mostly dormant in the '70s owing to a nasty bout with asthma, Johnson managed to record prolifically both before and after the release of Deep Blues for a host of national indie labels, including Earwig and Fat Possum. Along the way, he's slowly developed a style that deftly balances the primal with the polished, the gritty with the glossy. Whether bashing out a crushing version of the oft-recorded "Catfish Blues" or building a slinky, slow-burning groove on the hypnotic original "Daddy, When Is Momma Coming Home?", Johnson's own style shines through: his gravelly, exuberant vocals and his command of myriad blues idioms, from the big-city sound of B.B. King and Johnnie Taylor to the biting, distorted blasts that hark back to Sun luminaries such as Pat Hare and Willie Johnson.
Unlike many of his Mississippi cohorts associated with the Fat Possum label, however, Johnson is neither a wildcat noisemaker nor a backwoods madman. Rather, he manages to keep his ears tuned to both contemporary blues and black pop, incorporating new sounds and tackling such issues as drug addiction and inner-city turmoil via "Crack Headed Woman" and "We Gotta Stop This Killin'." Those two songs are highlights of Johnson's most recent releases on the Huntington, New York, label M.C. Records, which he has worked with since 1996, issuing a pair of fine albums that have dominated the blues charts and earned the artist a slew of awards and critical accolades.
His latest release for the label, 1998's All the Way Back, offers a sterling presentation of Johnson's artistry. Ably supported by the three-piece Oilers and guest keyboardist Little Anthony Geraci, Johnson offers moving essays on emotional displacement ("Lonely Man"), romantic devastation ("Miss Magalee Hall"), and the cathartic, rhythmic power of his own music ("Shake Your Bootie"). The centerpiece of the album, though, is "I Can't Get No Lovin'," an aching, impassioned duet between Johnson and guitarist Chris Dean that underpins the Oil Man's north Mississippi roots and the scope of his artistic range. In fact, it seems as if he can do practically anything and make it work.
"I try to reach everybody in the audience," says Johnson, whose next album for M.C. will be released this spring. "I've had so many guys walk up to me while I'm playing, and they'd ask me, 'Can you play this?' And if they hear that one song, they'll be satisfied. I like to be able to do something special, to make people's night by playing what they want to hear. That's the kind of guy I am."
Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers are scheduled to perform on Wednesday, February 16, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m.
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