Jimmy Johnson obituary

Stalwart of the Chicago scene whose searing guitar playing and sensitive voice helped take the blues in a new direction

The singer and guitarist Jimmy Johnson, who has died aged 93, was one of the wonders – if sometimes half-hidden – of the blues world, both for his elegant, passionate singing and for his clean-cut, inventive guitar playing. In the 1960s and 70s he established himself in the clubs of Chicago, one of the generation of musicians such as Magic Sam, Otis Rush and Freddie King who would reshape the blues for a new world and new audiences.

He maintained a distinguished position in that milieu for more than 60 years, and was described by Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, which released some of his material, as “a searing guitar player and intense, distinctive singer whose music had the deep emotional impact of the best blues”.

For all that, Johnson never attained the celebrity of Sam or Rush, nor of other, sometimes lesser, talents, and to the frustration of his admirers he often seemed to be set in the role of Chicago’s best-kept secret. His reputation was probably higher in Europe than in the US, and many of his recordings, especially in the 80s and 90s, were done for companies in France or Germany.

Whether through luck or care, Johnson outlived most of his contemporaries and continued to sing and play into his 90s. He appeared regularly at the Chicago Blues festival, most recently in 2019, and during the coronavirus pandemic he gave livestreamed Facebook performances from his home every week. On his 92nd birthday his broadcast drew an audience of more than 80,000 – once again, much of it overseas.

Jimmy Johnson performing in Chicago in 2018

He was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the second of the 10 children of Verlie Smith and Sam Thompson. By his own account he had little schooling. “Most days we worked from sunup until sundown,” he said. “At the age of eight I was working in the fields, picking, chopping and ploughing cotton and helping to tend to the farm animals.”

He sang in church as a boy and later in gospel groups in Memphis and Chicago, to where he moved in his 20s at the suggestion of an uncle. Working as a welder, he saved to bring his mother and siblings to the city, and in 1956 bought his first guitar.

Three years later he played his first gig, under the surname of Johnson, which his younger brother Syl, an accomplished soul singer, had taken for his professional moniker. He returned home to tell his soon-to-be wife, Sherry (nee Ewing), that he had been fired: “I had to start practising.”

During the 60s Johnson found most of his playing opportunities in gospel and soul music, and in leading house bands at various Chicago venues, where he backed singers such as Otis Clay and Denise LaSalle. His first album-length studio recording was made for the independent producer Ralph Bass in 1977.

The blues writer Peter Guralnick, who happened to be at the session, wrote in his book Lost Highway: “Johnson plays with the same delicacy and feeling that you hear in the clubs, his somewhat thin, sensitive voice always retaining a brittle edge.”

But the tapes were shelved for years, until finally acquired by a British company, and Johnson’s first released LPs – on a French label – were live recordings made in 1975–77 at the Chicago clubs Ma Bea’s and the Golden Slipper.

In 1978 Johnson was showcased on the first volume of Alligator Records’ revelatory series Living Chicago Blues, performing songs such as Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home that were perfectly suited to his soulful style. The albums Johnson’s Whacks (1979) and North/South (1982), made for the other significant Chicago blues label, Delmark, gave him the chance to put aside covers and use his own material, such as The Twelve Bar Blues, with its punning lines such as “I drank a dozen Buds but I don’t feel any wiser”.

Although he handled received ideas with respect, in his compositions he set original scenes and described them in witty and vivid language.

His career was interrupted by a car accident in 1988 in which two members of his band died. He returned to music a few years later, and I’m a Jockey (1993) won a Blues Music Award as a comeback album, while in 2002 Two Johnsons Are Better Than One! was a fraternal get-together with Syl, as well as being an intriguing map of two roads travelled. Another brother, Mack – who kept the name Thompson – followed them into music, playing bass guitar with Sam.

Over the years Jimmy won several other Blues Music Awards, was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2016, and in 2021 was named Blues Artist of the Year by Living Blues magazine. His last album was Every Day of Your Life (2020).

Mack died in 1991, and Syl just a few days after Jimmy, on 6 February. Jimmy is survived by Sherry, their children, LaSaundra, Geraldine, Lorenzo, Eric and Jimmy, and sisters Vivian and Marva.

• Jimmy Johnson (James Earl Thompson), blues musician, born 25 November 1928; died 31 January 2022


Tony Russell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Henry Gray obituary
Blues pianist who played and recorded with Howlin’ Wolf

Jack Barlow

24, Mar, 2020 @4:35 PM

Article image
Bob Koester obituary
Owner of Chicago’s influential Jazz Record Mart and Delmark label, which recorded many of the city’s blues greats

Tony Russell

28, May, 2021 @11:53 AM

Article image
Art Rosenbaum obituary
Folklorist, painter and musician who documented traditional American music with warmth and tenderness

Tony Russell

21, Sep, 2022 @4:02 PM

Article image
Charlie Watts obituary
Dapper and elegant drummer who was the rock-steady heartbeat of the Rolling Stones

Adam Sweeting

24, Aug, 2021 @7:39 PM

Article image
Don Everly obituary
Half of the Everly Brothers, the famous US pop duo known for hits such as Bye Bye Love, Wake Up Little Susie and Cathy’s Clown

Michael Gray

22, Aug, 2021 @2:46 PM

Article image
Don Craine obituary
Other lives: Singer and guitarist with the English R&B and blues-based rock band the Downliners Sect, which he formed in the 1960s

Niall O'Donnell

31, May, 2022 @1:49 PM

Article image
James Harman obituary
Blues singer, songwriter and harmonica player renowned for his demanding approach as a bandleader

Tony Russell

25, Jun, 2021 @5:08 PM

Article image
Art Neville obituary
New Orleans singer and songwriter who was a founder member of the Meters and the Neville Brothers

Adam Sweeting

28, Jul, 2019 @4:35 PM

Article image
Abdul Wadud obituary
Cellist who gave his instrument a new, original and influential voice in the world of jazz music

Richard Williams

24, Aug, 2022 @12:33 PM

Article image
Ramsey Lewis obituary
American jazz pianist whose influence stretched from Britfunk groups in the 1970s to modern performers such as Mariah Carey

Garth Cartwright

28, Sep, 2022 @4:26 PM