Celebrating Chicago Bluesman Jimmy Johnson’s Legacy

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Chicago blues guitarist and vocalist Jimmy Johnson, who died Monday, has been quoted as saying, “My music has taken me all over the world and I’ve had the great pleasure of playing with some of the greatest musicians of all-time: BB King, Albert King, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Magic Sam to name just a few. All have had a tremendous influence on me and my music. It’s difficult to put into words just how much they all continue to mean to me.”

He was born James Earl Thompson on November 25th, 1928 in Holly Springs, Mississippi to a family of musicians including his father and two younger brothers. The name Johnson was first adopted by his brother Sylvester “Syl” Johnson, who became a famous blues and soul singer in his own right. Jimmy and their brother Mac (bassist for Magic Sam) followed suit and changed their last name to Johnson as well.

As a teenager, he considered Matt “Guitar” Murphy his best friend, although Johnson himself didn’t seriously take up guitar until moving to Chicago at the age of 21. When the family moved to The Windy City in 1950, Magic Sam was their next door neighbor.

After focusing primarily on Gospel music, Johnson began playing blues professionally in 1959, although he veered into the genre of soul in the 1960s because the gigs paid better and he was able to tour with his brother, Syl, as well as other popular artists including Bobby Rush and Otis Clay.  When he began to focus on the blues again in the early 1970s, his style continued to reflect an R&B flavor.

Johnson’s only charting hit was “Don’t Answer the Door” in 1965 which reached #16 on the Billboard R&B Chart.  The following year, BB King covered the song and took it to #2. 

It wasn’t until the age of 50 that Johnson released his first solo material. His song, “I Need Some Easy Money” won the award for Blues Single at the very first Blues Music Awards in 1980.  Since then he has won Blues Music Awards  in 1983 (Blues Song of the Year “Country Preacher”), 1985 (Contemporary Blues Album/Foreign “I Didn’t Give a Damn if Whites Bought It!” with Eddy Clearwater) and 1996 (Comeback Blues Album “I’m a Jockey”).

In 2014, Johnson played bass guitar on two tracks of the Persian Traditional Music album Beyond Any Form, collaborating with Iranian artists Homayoun Shajarian and Tahmoures Pournazeri, Peruvian guitarist Ramón Stagnaro and percussionist John Wakefield.

Johnson recorded for labels Delmark, Alligator, and Verve. He was a regular performer at the annual Chicago Blues Festival, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot proclaimed June 12, 2019 as Jimmy Johnson Day.  

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