Friday, March 18, 2011

Big Jack, The Oil Man

Well, damn. I certainly didn't want to add another memorial post to this blog. But I've learned that Big Jack Johnson died of kidney failure a few days ago, on Monday, March 14. Big Jack, the Oil Man, the Last of the Jelly Roll Kings, the Fishin' Musician, is gone. He was 70.

For years, I've been telling people that Big Jack was alive only due to my quick reflexes. I heard him play at the Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale in the mid 1990's - an afternoon show. Late that night I passed Red's Lounge, the famous Clarksdale juke joint, as I was driving back to my hotel. Johnson was hanging out in front, talking with a friend. As I approached, Big Jack was apparently overcome with mirth at his buddy's story, and staggered out into the middle of Sunflower Avenue, bent over with laughter. I hit my brakes and swerved, and Johnson was with us for 15 more years.

Big Jack, who was simultaneously, and paradoxically, the most traditional and the most original of bluesmen, was born in Lambert, Mississippi, about ten miles from Clarksdale. His father played guitar, banjo, and fiddle, and passed on the basics to Jack. In the early 1960's, Johnson became a member of one of the greatest juke joint blues trios of all time. Frank Frost, Johnson, and Sam Carr played throughout Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee as Frank Frost and The Nighthawks. The band hung together for 25 years or so, although they changed their name to The Jelly Roll Kings when they released their Earwig album Rockin' the Juke Joint Down in 1979, since there was already a long-established blues/rock band called The Nighthawks. The Kings rocked hard, and consistently sounded like a larger group. In the early days Frank Frost took all the vocals, as well as playing guitar and harmonica. There was no bass, but Big Jack's guitar provided the bottom. In later years, Frost played keyboards (usually a cheap organ) rather than guitar, and the vocal duties were split between Johnson and Frost.

Making a living at music was has always been difficult, and it's almost impossible in the Mississippi Delta. For years, Big Jack put food on the table by driving a heating oil truck, making deliveries all over the Delta. His day job led to his nickname, The Oil Man, and he called his band The Oilers. As he became a popular figure on the blues festival circuit, he left the Delta for periods in Chicago and Pennsylvania, but he finally moved back to Clarksdale, playing at Red's Lounge when he wasn't on the road. In recent years, Johnson was plagued by health problems; in fact, erroneous reports of his death circulated before the end came this week.

One of the things I loved about Big Jack was that he had no taste. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but it speaks to the absolute honesty of Johnson's music; he played whatever he felt like playing, whether it was musically or politically correct or not. When I heard him in Clarksdale, he followed a tough blues shuffle with a bizarre rendition of "Tequila," during which he moved from the "A" section to the bridge more or less at random. The huge grin on his face throughout showed how much he enjoyed playing the tune, as strange as it seemed to the hard-core blues fans in the audience. He had a song called "Chinese Blues," in which he sang in "Chinese." And check out his melodramatic, overwrought original called "Daddy, When Is Momma Coming Home?," which he recorded several times. All of this is in bad taste, and also a lot of fun.

But that same directness and honesty resulted in some incredible blues performances. On the last Jelly Roll Kings album, Look On Yonder Wall, Big Jack sings a warning to Frank Frost, who was right there in the studio, behind the organ: "Frank Frost, you better lay that bottle down!" Johnson, in true Delta blues fashion, wasn't particularly concerned with counting measures to the next chord change - he moved to the next chord when it felt right, and the band had better be listening. The title song of his We Got to Stop This Killin' album has choruses that are 13, 15, and 19 bars long, in addition to those that fit the standard 12-bar blues form.

Big Jack's style was intense, with a sometimes extreme vibrato applied to both his guitar and voice. Perhaps his greatest recorded performances are those made for the film Deep Blues in 1990. Johnson plays what is maybe the hottest version of the traditional "Catfish Blues" ever, weeps his way through "Daddy, When Is Momma Coming Home?," and winds up with the wonderful and bizarre "Big Boy Now," inspired by hearing country music on the radio as a child. Jack tells the tale of wanting to yodel "like those white folks on that radio," and follows the vocal with a twisted, shredded slide guitar solo that works its way higher and higher, until he is practically playing on the pickups. It's one of those performances that must be heard to be believed.

Big Jack's gone now, but he left some excellent recordings behind. I would go so far as to say that anyone with the slightest interest in electric Delta blues needs to have The Jelly Roll Kings' Rockin' the Juke Juke Down in their collection. I'm partial to Johnson's albums Roots Stew and The Memphis Barbecue Sessions, the latter a collaboration with harpist Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds. And of course, there's the amazing Deep Blues soundtrack. Right now, sales of his albums at CD Baby will directly benefit his family. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to some Big Jack Johnson. So long to the Last of The Jelly Roll Kings.