Release date: November 7, 2019
Delmark Records By Marty Gunther
One of the most cherished artists ever to be a part of the Chicago blues scene, Jimmy Johnson delivers a love letter for the ages with this CD; he returns to the Delmark Records imprint, renewing a relationship that began along with his U.S. recording debut with the album Johnson’s Whacks just over 40 years ago.
And it just might be his best album yet – not surprising when you consider that, even at age 91, he simply sounds better with each passing year.
Possessing one of the most distinctive tenor voices and stinging, flat-pick guitar attacks in the business, Jimmy’s at the top of his game here, and the nine tunes he delivers – five new creations and four reinvented covers – sound effortless at first listen, but are all highly imaginative works that are imbued with over-the-top feeling.
The oldest son in a family of ten children, Jimmy was born Nov. 25, 1928 in Holly Springs, Miss., with the surname Thompson, and spent more time in the fields picking, chopping and plowing cotton than he did going to school. Always a hard worker at whatever he attempted, he moved to Memphis at age 16 and dug ditches and worked construction before relocating to Chicago, where he became a master welder and eventually made enough to give his mother and younger siblings a new home.
The elder brother of both Mack Thompson, who was Magic Sam’s first-call bass player, and soul-blues superstar Syl Johnson (who adopted the name at the insistence of Federal Records) Jimmy bought his first guitar at age 28, and didn’t have to go far for lessons because Sam – one of his major influences along with Otis Rush and Freddie King -- lived right next door.
Johnson was hired for his first gig at age 40 in 1958, eventually was a mainstay for soul-blues stars Otis Clay, Ruby Andrews and Denise LaSalle into the mid-’70s. Known lovingly as The Bar Room Preacher, he returned to his blues root as disco dominated the airwaves, working for a couple of years alongside Jimmy Dawkins before finally making a name for himself in the blues.
A 2016 Blues Hall of Fame inductee and multiple award winner, his recording career began in France with the release of Ma Bea’s Rock (on MCM in 1975) and Tobacco Road. But he didn’t start making major waves in the U.S. until Johnson’s Whacks four years later. This is his fourth Delmark disc after appearances on about a dozen other labels, and it reunites him with engineer Steve Wagner, who was at the control board for his Delmark first effort.
Jimmy handles guitar and vocal duties on this CD, backed by two bands, each of which appear on four cuts. The first unit includes a trio of Windy City veterans – former bandmate and second guitarist Rico McFarland, keyboard player Roosevelt Purifoy and drummer Pooky Stix – along with bassist J.R. Fuller and Typhanie Monique, who provides powerful backing vocals on one track.
The second, equally talented unit consists of Brother John Kattke (keys and guitar), Curt Bley (bass) and Ernie Adams (drums) along with Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari – the new Delmark owners -- who lend their voices to one number.
A tasty guitar run receives call-and-response treatment from the band as Jimmy opens “Every Day of Your Life.” Built atop a funky, modern rhythm pattern, his emotion-drenched lyrics deliver wisdom for the ages -- succinct instruction not to worry about tomorrow because every day could be your last. “Live every night/Have yourself a ball/Ain’t nowhere to run/When your name is called.” Jimmy’s extended mid-tune solo is as crisp as it is stellar, and Typhanie’s vocal responses and Roosevelt’s work on the keys take you to church without preaching.
Next up, Johnson reinterprets B.B. King’s “I Need You So Bad,” delivering it in a straightforward manner vocally, but changing the six-string attack from King’s familiar Memphis root to pure Chicago smooth, once again featuring Purifoy on the 88s. The surprising original, “My Ring,” follows with a slow, but funky reggae beat as the second band takes stage for the first time. It’s a bittersweet remembrance of walking down the aisle. You can almost feel tears amidst the lyrics as Jimmy describes finding that everything had changed immediately after the “I do’s” – so much, in fact, that it proved to be the last day the groom would ever see his bride smile.
The funk kicks in high gear for “Rattlesnake” as Johnson warns both his rival and his wife that they’d better watch themselves because, like a viper, he’ll only caution them once before he strikes. The dark message comes accompanied by one of the sweetest single-run solos on the disc before Jimmy changes pace to reinvent Fenton Robinson’s familiar “Somebody Loan Me a Dime,” delivering it with more pathos than ever before.
The mood brightens quickly for the sprightly “Down in the Valley,” which is driven forward by Bley’s bass and Kattke’s keys and describes a place where it rains almost every day, but will never matter as long as the singer’s lady remains at his side. Johnson’s fretwork is light and sweet throughout before a take on Percy Mayfield’s “Strange Things Happening,” The soul-blues classic gets a total Chicago blues re-do.
Fans will be caught off-guard with the instrumental “Better When It’s Wet,” which follows. It’s jazzy Jimmy at his best, darting across the strings and reinventing his runs, aided by a stellar Kattke B3 organ solo.
The album closes with Johnson alone at the keys for Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Lead Me On,” something he’s done intermittently on stage for decades. A song with strong gospel overtones, its message is simple: “You know how it feels/You understand/What it is to be a stranger/In this unfriendly land.” It’s the request to walk at a loved one’s side, holding hands with the lady’s love as the singer’s sole guide.
Considering his age, Jimmy might very well have conceived the tune as a swan song – but here’s hoping it isn’t. Every Day of Your Life is too good not to have a sequel!