Johnny Jones With Billy Boy Arnold
Rare, never-before-released tapes by the late, legendary master of Chicago blues piano. Accompanied only by Billy Boy Arnold on harp. "One of the 10 best albums of the year"--NEW YORK TIMES
JOHNNY JONES, Keyboards, vocals
BILLY BOY ARNOLD, Harmonica, vocals*
Produced by Norman Dayron
Recorded live at the Fickle Pickle, Chicago, June 25, 1963
Album production by Bruce Iglauer
Master tape prepared by Freddie Breitberg at Curtom Studios, Chicago, by Eddie B. Flick
Album design by Ross & Harvey/Chicago
Photos courtesy Letha Jones
Special thanks to Roy Filson, Dick Shurman, Jim O'Neal, Bob Eagle and Mike Rowe
This album was produced with the help and cooperation of Letha Jones and Billy Boy Arnold, both of whom have received payment for the use of these recordings, and will receive royalties from album sales.
Otis Spann is dead now and gone too, but he lived long enough to earn recognition as perhaps the greatest of modern blues piano men. If Johnny Jones had survived into the 1970's, his reputation would undoubtedly rank alongside Spann's. But Johnny died in 1964. His name never reached the rock fans who discovered blues in the late 60's, and among hard-core blues fans, he is best remembered for the sweeping power of his piano accompaniments on Elmore James' greatest records. In fact, his solid, sensitive keyboards adorn dozens of great Chicago blues records by Muddy Waters, Tampa Red, Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Eddie Taylor and J. B Hutto, as well as Elmore James. But during his lifetime, Johnny had only three singles he released under his own name, and all three are now rare collectors' items.
His fellow bluesmen remember him well, though, mostly as the pianist at Sylvio's, the huge tavern at Lake & Oakley that was the blues capital of Chicago's West side during the 50's. Johnny played there with Elmore, with the Wolf, with second Sonny Boy Williamson, with Billy Boy Arnold, and with Magic Sam. Most nights Sylvio's had three bands, and Johnny would play with all of them! Dressed immaculately and with his hair and mustache perfectly groomed, he would open the shows singing his favorite risque classics, The Dirty Dozens and Love Her With A Feeling. Billy Boy remembers, "He didn't sit there like a lot of piano players and just play -- he rocked with the rhythm, he bounced. He used to sing Dirty Mother For Ya and that would just crack the house up! Johnny and Elmore had Sylvio's sewed up five nights a week!"
Johnny's famous association with Elmore James began in the early 50's, but he was already well established in Chicago as a "musician's musician" long before that. He came to the city in 1946, at the age of 22, already an accomplished pianist. Friends recall his talking about his mother Mary who played piano in church in Jackson, Missisippi and his father, George, an amateur guitarist and harp player. But Johnny's greatest influence was obviously the immensely popular Big Maceo Merriwether, whose muscular, rolling piano style and rich voice sold thousands of records, including his huge hit, Worried Life Blues .
When Johnny first came to Chicago, he sought out Big Maceo and the other bluesmen who had cut hit records for the RCA Bluebird label during the 30's and 40's -- Tampa Red, Jazz Gillum and the original Sonny Boy (John Lee) Williamson. Big Maceo took young Johnny under his wing, honing Johnny's piano technique and calling him his ''son." In fact, it was Maceo who introduced Johnny to his future wife, Letha Bethley. And it was Tampa Red who encouraged Johnny to get a union card, and then hired him on his first gig, at the C&T Lounge at 22nd & Prairie, in 1947. After Big Maceo suffered a stroke, Johnny took over the piano stool on Tampa's records, too. Between 1949 and 1953 they cut a number of sides together, including the popular Early In The Morning and Sweet Little Angel .
Tampa Red was undoubtedly the most popular bluesman of his generation in Chicago and backing Tampa brought Johnny to the attention of most of the city's musicians. In 1950, a rising young star named Muddy Waters called Johnny into the studio to back him on a session, and they cut five songs together, three by Muddy and two by Johnny. Muddy's sides included his classic Screaming and Crying and Johnny's two originals, Shelby County and Big Town Playboy were a minor hit on Aristocrat (later Chess) Records. Today, they're considered among the finest of post-war Chicago blues records.
In 1951, Johnny and Tampa Red parted company, and Johnny fell in with a hot slide guitar player from Canton, Mississippi named Elmore James. Elmore had come to Chicago on the strength of his hit single, Dust My Broom. Together, they formed a band with J .T. Brown on tenor sax and Odie Payne, Jr. on drums that took Chicago by storm. Five nights a week they packed Sylvio's, alternating sets with Muddy or the Wolf. The wonderful chemistry of this band was captured on over forty sides, issued on the Meteor, Flair, Chief, Chess, Vee Jay and Fire labels. With Elmore's screaming slide guitar and hoarse vocals, Johnny's rock-solid left hand carrying the bass while his right answered Elmore's guitar, and J.T.'s simple, honking horn parts, these rank as some of the finest blues records ever made. Side after side of blues classics: I Held My Baby Last Night, The Sky Is Crying , Crossroads, It Hurts Me Too, I Can't Hold Out, all with Johnny's amazingly sensitive and always powerful piano making almost as much of a contribution as Elmore himself.
Homesick James remembers the special chemistry of that band, too.''Elmore and Johnny used to just have a fight every night. That was the whole point. If they didn't get in no argument, there wouldn't be no band. After they got to yakkin' each other, then the band would get lively!"
Johnny and Elmore worked Sylvio's for five years, occasionally taking off for tours of the South. But Johnny sometimes took other gigs as well, with Howlin' Wolf, Eddie Taylor, and a road tour with Little Walter. And he was often in the recording studio, backing different bluesmen for a variety of labels. He cut two more singles on his own, in 1953 and 1954 for Flair and Atlantic, but had little success with them. The session that he and Elmore cut behind Big Joe Turner in 1955 produced much bigger hits: Flip Flop and Fly and T.V. Mama . These sides are as much rock and roll as blues, and by that standard they show that Johnny ranked among the greats of rock piano, too.
During the latter half of the 50's, Johnny and Letha Jones' West Side apartment became a haven for younger musicians. Just as Tampa Red and John Lee Williamson had taken in Johnny, Johnny took young Magic Sam, Syl Johnson, Mac Thompson, S. P. Leary and Odell Campbell under his wing. Whenever Johnny didn't have a gig, they would be jamming together at house parties and barbeques. When Sam cut his first hit record, All Your Love , in 1957, it seemed obvious that Johnny and Sam should put together a band. With Johnny on piano, Syl on rhythm guitar, Mac or Odell on bass, and S.P. on drums, Magic Sam virtually took over the West Side. They worked solidly for a year and a half at the Tay May Club, packing it the same way that Elmore and Johnny had packed Sylvio's a few years before. The club owner so loved Johnny's music that he bought a new piano/organ combination to replace the Wurlitzer electric piano that Johnny was forced to use in clubs that didn't have their own instrument.
Unfortunately, the youthful energy that made Magic Sam such a hit on the West Side appealed to the Army, too, and Sam was drafted. Johnny put Syl Johnson into the vocalist's role, but without Sam the band lost its drawing power (ironically, a few years later Syl became a national R&B star). Johnny drifted back into a sideman position, gigging with Howlin' Wolf and Eddie Taylor. He kept up a steady stream of studio jobs, though, recording with the Wolf on standards like Red Rooster and Shake For Me and backing Lee Jackson and Jimmy Reed among others.
Around 1960, Johnny began having some serious health problems. He was in and out of the hospital with lung infections, and began losing weight. But poor health didn't cut into his good spirits or raucous lifestyle. Billy Boy remembers, "He was always in a jolly mood, drinking and having fun." Eddie Taylor recalls, "He'd keep you laughing all the time, telling jokes, full of fun. He liked to party and drink, but you'd never catch him drunk." Letha says, "He loved to put on wigs, funny hats, anything." And with laughing admiration, Johnny Shines describes a real wildman. "He was terrible!"
During the summer of 1963, Johnny was playing weekends with Eddie Taylor and Boyd Atkins at Scotty on Ogden Ave. Meanwhile, blues was gaining a following among the city's folk music fans, and Pete Welding, George Mitchell and Mike Bloomfield began booking blues nights at the Fickle Pickle, a North Side coffeehouse. Johnny was hired for a night, and Welding called up Billy Boy Arnold to sit in. Billy Boy recalls the evening well. "It was a little place in the basement. I guess there were about fifty people, no more. It was an old upright piano. No, we didn't rehearse. We just called tunes when we got on stage. A guy like that, you don't have to rehearse."
Norman Dayron, who owned a portable mono tape deck, came down to record for the evening. Conditions were far from ideal, with only two mikes, the necessity of mixing through headphones, and an old piano (since that time, the oxide on the tapes has flaked off in a few spots, leaving a milli-second of silence here and there).
Still, something special happened that night. Two old friends played songs together, maybe as much for each other as for the small crowd, songs they both knew and loved. Billy Boy sang mostly songs by his old idol, John Lee Williamson, who had first introduced Johnny and Billy Boy sixteen years before. Johnny must have been thinking of old friends, too, because he chose songs by Big Maceo, Tampa Red, and the second Sonny Boy Williamson, as well as obscure tunes by Lowell Fulson and Rickie Allen. Together Johnny and Billy Boy played like they might have been playing in Johnny's living room for Letha and their friends, Johnny rolling those lush chords and laying that solid bass, and Billy Boy blowing in his simple but immediately recognizeable style. The music was unrehearsed, and both men occasionally faltered, but their mutual pleasure and communication was obvious. Later that year, Johnny rejoined Wolf's band, and recorded with Wolf, Eddie Taylor and W. W. Williams. He was scheduled to go with Wolf to Europe in late 1964, but his lungs were again giving him trouble and he went into the hospital. Cancer was diagnosed, and on November 19, 1964, Johnny died.
These recordings are probably the last legacy of Johnny Jones, except of course for the love and admiration of his wife and of his fellow musicians. The performances and recordings may be rough, but they're filled with the energy, humor, and astounding piano that Johnny is remembered for so well. Hopefully, they'll put his name where it belongs, in the pantheon of great bluesmen.
Billy Boy Arnold has been a major figure on the Chicago blues scene since the early 1950's. A youthful student of the original Sonny Boy Williamson, he came to prominence through a series of singles on the Vee Jay label, while he was still in his early 20's. Tunes like I Was Fooled and I Wish You Would are classics of Chicago blues, and made Billy Boy a big draw in the city through the 50's and early 60's. His harp sound is known to rock fans through his appearances on Bo Diddley's early hits. In more recent years, he has toured and recorded in Europe, but performs irregularly in Chicago.His clear, sensitive voice and tasteful, simple harmonica lines mark him as a highly original stylist. Like Johnny Jones, he is a bluesman deserving of wider recognition.
- Bruce Iglauer