"I could hardly breathe," says Big Jack Johnson, who drove a tanker truck for the Shell Oil Co. in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the 1960s and '70s. "It was something in the gasoline fumes that did it to me. It got so bad I could hardly walk. I was really sick."
And it caused the Jelly Roll Kings, Johnson's blues band, to put their career on hold for a decade. The Jelly Roll Kings, which also featured well-known Mississippi musicians Frank Frost and Sam Carr, recorded an album for the Paula label in 1966. But without their guitarist, Johnson, nothing was heard from them for almost ten years.
"I'm a lot better now," Johnson declares. So's his career. Big Jack Johnson will be at the Savannah Bar & Grille on Sunday as part of the club's Sunday night concert series.
Johnson has been a solo artist since releasing Oil Man on the Earwig label in 1987. That was followed with Daddy, When Is Mama Coming Home? in 1989. Since signing with MC Records in 1995, Johnson has been a busy man. He released We Got to Stop This Killing in 1996 on MC and followed that this year with All the Way Back. He also released Live in Chicago and Off Yonder Wall with the Jelly Roll Kings last year for Earwig. He was nominated for W.C. Handy Awards last year for Album of the Year and Best Male Contemporary Artist. He landed another nod this year for Best Guitarist.
Although Johnson's respiratory problems are considerably improved since retiring from driving the oil truck, he still has to be careful. "If I don't do a lot of walking around, I'm fine," he says. "When I am too high in the mountains, I need extra oxygen with me."
But it doesn't stop Johnson, who is 58 years old, from touring constantly. He and his band, the Oilers, played 348 dates in 1996. Last year it was reduced to a scant 300 or so.
Johnson was born in Lambert, Mississippi. His father was a country fiddler and Johnson's first exposure to music was the country the local radio stations played, like Hank Williams, Red Foley, and Roy Acuff. (He paid homage to his country influences by covering the Merle Travis song "Steel Guitar Rag" on The Oil Man.) His contact with the blues was limited.
"I had two brothers who played guitars," he says. "They played most of what was big then, 'Baby Please Don't Go' and stuff like that. The first time I heard B.B. King on Dad's radio was when I decided that was the way I wanted to play."
Johnson started playing professionally in 1960 and formed the Jelly Roll Kings with Frost (keyboards) and Carr (drums) in 1962. It didn't take long for Johnson to gain a reputation, and he soon was invited to sit in with Robert Nighthawk (Carr's stepfather), Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Carl Perkins. All the while, he was still working day jobs.
The Jelly Roll Kings' first album was recorded in 1964 for legendary Sun Records in Memphis. In 1966 they cut Jelly Roll Blues, a swamp-boogie album in the Slim Harpo vein. Then Johnson's health deteriorated and nothing happened for the Jelly Roll Kings until 1975, when Chicagoan Michael Frank went looking for the band and found it in a juke joint. That was when the Kings signed with Earwig. Rocking the Juke Joint Down, released in 1979, showcased Johnson as one of the rising stars in blues.
Johnson's solo career got its greatest boost when he and the Oilers were included in the documentary film Deep Blues, loosely based on journalist Robert Palmer's essential book on the subject. The movie took the audience through the Mississippi Delta region, in search of blues artists who never migrated from the place that gave birth to the music that was later transplanted to the North (particularly to Chicago) and then to the world. Other artists in Deep Blues included R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Roosevelt (Booba) Barnes, Lonnie Pitchford, and Jack Owens. Of the group, Johnson sounds most like a Chicago blues guitarist. Unlike Burnside, who likes to find a killer groove and milk it dry, Johnson is more likely to deliver straight-ahead jabs with a guitar. Still, the off-timing that marks a true Mississippi guitarist is present on songs like "Lonely Man" and "Miss Magalee Hall" from All the Way Back. Johnson's extensive traveling no doubt let him be influenced by many musical styles, but the rawness of the Delta has never been far off.
And Johnson is still showing up onscreen, both large and small. The CNN show World Beat on November 7 made him the first blues act to ever be featured on the program. Fans who missed that show, or who cannot make it to the Savannah on Sunday, can still catch Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers in January, when they will be part of a PBS special, The River of Song, hosted by Ani DiFranco.
Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers. Sunday, December 6, Savannah, 30676 Detroit Rd., Westlake, $5