Jimmy Johnson, renowned Chicago bluesman, guitarist, dead at 93
The Harvey resident ‘was one of those great musicians whom you could identify by hearing just one note of his voice or one note of his guitar,’ said Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records.
Chicago bluesman Jimmy Johnson, whose blistering performances were matched by his wide-ranging musical knowledge and meticulous attention to detail onstage and in the recording studio, has died.
Mr. Johnson, who had had a stroke and was a colon cancer survivor, died Monday at his home in Harvey, according to his wife Sherry. The Delmark recording artist was 93.
More than 80,000 people watched the label’s live broadcast honoring Mr. Johnson on his 92nd birthday, said Elbio Barilari, Delmark’s artistic director and the producer of his last record, “Every Day of Your Life.”
Mr. Johnson always kept up with technology. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, he did a Facebook livestream every Saturday from his home.
“He had an audience from all over the world, and people from 50 or 60 countries were watching,” said Julia Miller, Delmark’s president.
“Jimmy Johnson was one of those great musicians whom you could identify by hearing just one note of his voice or one note of his guitar,” said Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, a label for which he’d recorded years ago. “His passionate, high-tenor voice and elegant, minor-key guitar string bending were instantly recognizable. He was not only a searing guitar player and intense, distinctive singer, but his music had the deep emotional impact of the best blues.”
One of 10 children born to Verlie and Sam Thompson in Holly Springs, Mississippi, he took the name Jimmy Johnson to match the stage moniker of his brother, singer Syl Johnson.
“They made a mistake and printed ‘Johnson’ ” on the brother’s first record, “so Jim just took it on,” his wife said.
“I loved school but didn’t get to go much, too much work to be done at home,” Mr. Johnson said in a biography on his website. “Life was very hard in Mississippi. Most days, we worked from sunup until sundown. Already at 8 years old, I worked the fields picking, chopping and plowing cotton while also helping to tend to the farm animals.”
Growing up, “He got to hear B.B. King on the radio,” she said. Later, “He got to go to a place where B.B. King was playing and peeked through the window.”
An uncle in Chicago brought him north, where young Jimmy worked as a welder before devoting himself to music.
In Chicago, “I found myself living right next door to burgeoning blues legend Magic Sam,” he said in his biography. “How lucky could you get!?”
Musicians who mentored him included Reggie Boyd Sr., Jimmy Dawkins, Freddie King and Otis Rush. He also was a member of the Junior Wells band, according to Delmark.
His first gig —on July 4, 1959 — didn’t go well.
“I got fired,” he told his wife. “I had to go back home and start practicing.”
He became a versatile musician, Barilari said: “He can play soul, he can play blues, he can play jazz.”
In 2021, Mr. Johnson —who also played piano — was named “Blues Artist of the Year” in Living Blues Magazine’s critics poll.
He’d been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tenn., in 2016.
Barilari said Mr. Johnson appreciated how much music enriched his life, telling people, “Music gave me everything.”
In a 2020 interview, Mr. Johnson told the Chicago Sun-Times that, like many blues artists, “I’m bigger in Europe than I am in the United States.
“They’ll play Caucasian blues before mine. . . Why would you play Eric Clapton’s record and not mine?”
He’d tell other musicians, “Be kind.”
“The main thing that keeps me going and has kept me going was just being kind to everybody,” Mr. Johnson told the Sun-Times. “I was a really small kid going to school. I always had feelings for the next guy, so I roll with that.”
Delmark recording artist Dave Specter, who manages the Evanston club Space, was among the musicians he mentored. They met nearly 40 years ago,
“He invited me over to his house for lessons and wouldn’t take money,” Specter said. “He was a bright and soulful shining light on so many people.”
In addition to his wife and brother, Mr. Johnson is survived by his children LaSaundra, Geraldine, Lorenzo, Eric and Jimmy, sisters Vivian and Marva and grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandchild. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Near the end of his life, Mr. Johnson came home from the hospital, his wife said.
“I stroked his head and held his hand, and I told him ‘I’m going to the kitchen for a few minutes,’ ” she said. “And when I went back and touched his hand, he was gone.
“I’m just looking at the outpouring of people around the world who loved my husband. He was the kindest man you ever met in your life.”