The Blues Are In His Blood


silhouette of a man playing saxophone during sunset
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Some say blues music was born on the plantations of Mississippi. If that’s the case, there’s no one closer to his musical roots than Mississippi native Big Jack Johnson, who’s playing the Burnaby Blues Festival this July.

The 63-year-old crooner from Clarksdale, Miss., has had music streaming through his blood since the day he was born.

Johnson says he spent his childhood jamming with his musician father, who played country, blues and blues breakdown, which combines elements of rap, soul and blues.

He became a skilled guitarist at a very young age, first playing in his dad’s band at the age of 13. But, he adds, it was listening to his heroes B.B. King and Muddy Waters – who hail from his home state – that truly inspired him.

“I got interested and I tried to do like those guys – tried to imitate (them),” he says from his Mississippi home. “I was playing, but I wasn’t putting my music into it.”

Johnson’s big chance came at 18 years old when he played with fellow blues gurus Frank Frost and Sam Carr at the Savoy Theatre in Clarksdale, remaining with them for 15 years after that. He also contributed bass, guitar and vocals to the band The Jelly Roll Kings starting in 1979.

Still, Johnson says, it took many years before he honed his talent and learned to put his own heart and soul into the songs.

“I have a better understanding of music. … You have to learn that over the years,” he says in his strong Southern drawl. “You don’t just start out like that. You play, but you ain’t (truly) playin’.”

Since he branched out solo in the late ’80s and ’90s, Johnson’s reputation as a class blues act has earned him many accolades.

He has won three Living Blues awards and has received nine W.C. Handy Award nominations since 1996, four of which were for his 2000 album, Roots Stew. Johnson’s also appeared on CNN’s World Beat, in National Geographic magazine and in several blues magazines.

Spectators who’ve seen Johnson play live say he’s a powerful force that captures his audience with not only his extraordinary musical talent but also the pure emotion and soul he filters into his songs – a true blues man.

Johnson says that when he performs, he goes inside himself and forgets everything else.

“I take over myself. I take all the other  stuff and I throws it away. … I know I got a job to do.”

But, he says, though blues is therapeutic for him, he’s not just on stage for his own benefit. He wants the crowd to feel his music as much as he does.

“I try to sing to the people, that’s what I like to sing about. It’s what the people like. When I’m out there, I try to catch you,” he says. “I play a lot of different styles of music, and I sing a lot of different songs.”

Johnson says his influences come from a variety of genres, including country. He’s also learned to play several instruments, but one of his favourites is about as simple as it gets: the “Mississippi diddle bow,” which is essentially a broomstick connected to a cigar box and attached to an amplifier.

But it’s not all about music and performing for him.

Johnson – who has been known as “Big Jack” since he was 19, when people had to distinguish between him and his scrawnier cousin of the same name – has a large family. He and his wife have 10 children, 24 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and he says the house is always brimming with a little one – or three.

The proud grandpa says he often packs his truck full of snacks and takes his family for adventures in Mississippi’s wilderness areas, which he says few people get to enjoy.

As for carrying on the Johnson tradition of music, well, Big Jack insists that’s not a problem. All 10 of his children have been bitten by the music bug, he says proudly. He admits that perhaps one day he will retire from music, but he will never forget it and hasn’t grown tired of it yet.

“This music could be called anything. It could be called the most holy music in the world,” he says. “Why does it make you feel so good if it doesn’t have that spirit in it? Why do they call it the blues if it makes you feel so good?”

Johnson will hit the stage with his band the Oilers in July. Tickets can be purchased by calling TicketMaster at 604-280-4444 or visiting the Web site at http://www.ticketmaster.ca.

PUBLICATION: BURNABY Now Newspaper

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