Blues Bytes


February 2022

Jimmy Johnson
Bar Room Preacher
Alligator Records

Jimmy JohnsonWhen I started listening to the blues in the mid '80s, one of the first blues artists I heard was Jimmy Johnson. He had a track on Alligator Records first volume of Genuine Houserockin' Music. The first volume of that collection had some really big players, but Johnson's performance really stood out to me. I loved his soulful vocals and his piercing guitar work enough to track down the album from which the track originated, Bar Room Preacher.

Johnson originally released this album on the French label Black & Blue (as Heap See), but Alligator picked up the U.S. rights to it a couple of years later. Johnson had previously released a couple of superb albums for Delmark in the early '80s, after launching Alligator's excellent anthology series Living Chicago Blues. Prior to the anthology, Johnson focused on the R&B side through the '60s, leading bands behind Otis Clay, Denise LaSalle, and others, eventually returning to the blues as rhythm guitarist behind Jimmy Dawkins and touring Japan behind Otis Rush (that's him in support on Rush's So Many Roads - Live In Concert album).

Bar Room Preacher is a bit different from Johnson's two Delmark releases. Johnson wrote nearly all of the tracks on Johnson's Whacks and North/South, with six of the nine tracks on this album being covers on which Johnson giving his own distinctive spin. His versions of Junior Wells' "Little By Little," John Lee Hooker's "When My First Wife Quit Me," Bobby Rush's "Chicken Heads," and, most especially, a pair from Jessie Mae Robinson, "Cold, Cold Feeling" and "You Don't Know What Love Is," the song I heard on that Alligator collection, benefit greatly from his wonderful vocals and his keening guitar work. Sometimes when I see the names of blues songs, I will hear it play in my head, and on several of these Johnson's version is the one that plays in my head. So I guess to my ears, his versions of several of these are the definitive versions.

All three originals are strong. Johnson always wrote very original, memorable songs that varied a lot from standard blues fare. "Happy Home" is probably the closest to a standard blues tune here, but it has its charms. "Heap See" is a real standout with insightful lyrics, and "Missing Link" is a tough instrumental with crisp fret work from Johnson.

Bar Room Preacher was a successful release that helped move Johnson to the upper ranks of Chicago blues men, but in late 1988 Johnson was driving his band's van when it ran off the road in Indiana, killing bassist Larry Exum (who played on Bar Room Preacher) and keyboardist St. James Bryant and injuring Johnson. Johnson took some time off after the crash, resurfacing in the mid '90s and recording I'm A Jockey for Verve and Every Road Ends Somewhere for Ruf in the late '90s. At the turn of the century he recorded Two Johnsons Are Better Than One with his brother, soul legend Syl Johnson.

Most recently, Johnson returned to Delmark and, at age 91, released Every Day Of Your Life, showing that the old tiger still had plenty in the tank. During the pandemic Johnson played live on Facebook nearly every Saturday until he suffered a stroke on Christmas Day shortly after giving his final Facebook performance. Sadly, he passed away on January 31st at the age of 93. His brother Syl passed away less than a week later.

It's hard to go wrong with any of Jimmy Johnson's albums, but Bar Room Preacher ranks with the best of the bunch.

--- Graham Clarke



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