Johnny Heartsman was a master of soaring, inventive guitar,churning keyboards and haunting blues flute.He was a complete musician with a compellingly original touch.Listeners will find in THE TOUCH a refreshingly different take on the blues.
All songs composed by Johnny Heartsman, copyright 1991 by Eyeyball Music, BMI, except Please Don't Be Scared Of My Love by Rich Forman, copyright 1991 by Eyeyball Music, BMI and Walkin' Blues by Amos Milburn, publisher unknown.
Johnny Heartsman, Vocals, Guitar (all solos), Keyboards, Flute, Bass Guitar on Attitude
Rich Forman, Rhythm Guitar and Background Vocals
Artis Joyce, Bass Guitar
Eric Tyrell, Bass Guitar on Endless and You're So Fine and Background Vocals
Big John Evans, Drums
Tony Dey, Drums on Endless and You're So Fine and Background Vocals
J'Neen, Vocal on Tongue (unexpurgated version)
Horns on Attitude and Please Don't Be Scared Of My Love:
Scott Lindefeldt, Trombone
Ray "Rainbow" Fields, Baritone Sax
Joe Espinosa, Tenor and Alto Sax
Produced by Dick Shurman
Recorded at Paradise Studios, Sacramento, CA
Engineered by Craig Long and Kirt Shearer
Mixed at Chicago Trax, Chicago, IL
Mixed by Julian Herzfeld
Mixes supervised by Dick Shurman and Bruce Iglauer
Bruce Iglauer, Executive Producer
Cover photos by Kent Lacin
Cover design by Matt Minde
Mastered by Tom Coyne at DMS, New York, NY
Thanks to: Sandy and Jarrett for hospitality; Dick Bass and Lee Hildebrand for serious coat pulling; Dave, Laurie and Kimberly for rejuvenation; Chris Rannenberg; Tommy Lofgren; Jimmy; Bruce for indulging the dream and giving it a shot; and the patron saint of perserverance, whoever he/she may be.
Dedicated to the memory of Bob Geddins
Johnny Heartsman is the personification of the Oakland blues tradition. Listeners, especially those previously unfamiliar with West Coast blues in general and Oakland blues in particular, will find in Heartsman's Alligator debut a refreshingly different take on the blues. Produced by longtime Heartsman booster Dick Shurman, it presents Johnny Heartsman--guitarist, bassist, pianist, organist, flutist, songwriter, arranger, and vocalist--a complete musician with a compellingly original touch.
During the '50s, having incorporated ideas from T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, Pete Lewis, Billy Butler, Charlie Christian, Oscar Moore and especially Oakland blues guitar pioneer Lafayette "Thing" Thomas, heartsman developed a distinctive guitar touch marked by stinging high-note trills, cascading arpeggios, propulsive rhythm patterns and warped moans achieved by simultaneously bending the strings with his left hand while picking his right and twisting the volume knob with the little finger. This complex approach had a profound impact on such other Oakland players as Eddie Foster, Johnny Talbot, Marvin Holmes, Carl Robinson, and the late Eugene Blacknelland continues to ring through the city's blues and soul music.
The Heartsman influence also reached beyond the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area. Passing through Oakland after having been discharged from the Air Force, a young guitarist then known as Jimmy James received a brief lesson in hammer-on technique from Heartsman during the mid-'60s. A few years later, calling himself Jimi Hendrix, the pupil applied it with stunning results on Red House and other blues-rock classics. A more recent convert is Ronnie Earl, who has used a number of trademark Heartsman licks on his albums.
The Heartsman touch extends beyond the guitar, however. He's also a vocalist of great warmth and expressiveness and a master multi-instrumentalist. Through overdubbing, a technique he'd used as far back as the '50s and employed extensively during the '60s (especially on a series of 45s with blues singer-songwriter Al King for the Sahara label), Heartsman sensitively interweaves guitar, piano and/or organ parts throughout the album, his first for a major blues label. And three cuts showcase his remarkable flute style, in which he applies aspects of the Rahsaan Roland Kirk technique of simultaneously blowing and humming to the blues.
"I close my eyes and try to see if I can pour the same blues feeling that I put in on the guitar or piano into the flute," he states. "Like some guys are classical flutists or jazz flutists, I think in terms of playing the blues on the flute. I'm a blues flute player."
Born on February 9, 1937 in San Fernando, California, and raised in Oakland and Berkeley, Heartsman got in trouble with the law at age 13 when he was arrested for breaking into a West Oakland shoe warehouse. "us little kids had raggedy pants and new shoes," he recalls. "I'd get my mom shoes and all the kids at school had shoes."
Placed in a foster home in Berkeley by the court, he taught himself to play the piano and studied cello at school. He credits his foster mother with having turned his life around. Back in West Oakland with his natural mother, he began playing piano seven nights a week when he was 14 at a 7th Street dive called Woody's. "They'd fight in there every night," he says. "They had a bouncer named Yam, and if there were no fights, he would pick a fight." The featured guitarist at Woody's was Lafayette Thomas and through him Heartsman was introduced to record producer Bob Geddins. At age 16, he became a regular Geddins studio musician, playing bass on Jimmy Wilson's 1953 hit, Tin Pan Alley, and piano and/or guitar on sessions by Johnny Fuller, King Solomon and others.
Thomas also introduced his teenaged disciple to Jimmy McCracklin, and, with Thomas playing guitar, Heartsman toured the country as bassist with the singer-pianist's now legendary Blues Blasters. Heartsman credits the experience with having taught him a valuable lesson in dynamics.
"We would be playing Chicken Shack Boogie and 'Crack' would get it down to a whisper, but the intensity was there," Heartsman explains. "That discipline thing for dynamics really impressed me. Now when you play with some guys and you go down kinda soft, they die on you."
From the mid-'50s through the late '60s, Heartsman was the most in-demand studio musician in Oakland, not only working for Geddins but also for Ray Dobard's Music City label, Gary Thompson's Hush label, and Ron Badger's Wax and Shirley labels. Among the most notable examples of Heartsman's extraordinary guitar work from that period are Tiny Powell's My Time After Awhile (which Buddy Guy, copying Heartsman's lines nearly note for note, covered for Chess), Al King's Reconsider Baby and Think Twice Before You Speak and Heartsman's own Johnny's House Party, a Bill Doggett-inspired instrumental that placed in the national R&B Top 20 in 1957.
His mastery of a number of instruments--guitar, bass, piano, organ, flute and trombone--and ability to fashion crisp horn arrangements at the drop of a hat kept Heartsman working, not only in the studio but in nightclubs, where he was often hired to back such stars as Lou Rawls and LaVern Baker. But Heartsman's reign as kingpin of the Oakland R&B scene ended in 1967 with a separation from his wife. As his reputation was being spread through the pages of blues magazines in the U.S. and England, he remained elusive for eight years. With his own groups and a Top 40 show band, he crisscrossed North and South America, finally passing through the Bay Area in 1975 as organist and bandleader for soul star Joe Simon. Homesick, Heartsman decided to stay behind but quickly discovered that the once-thriving black nightclub and recording scene had dried up. "The disco thing was in real full," he recalls. "It was all about the beat, rather than the creativity of the musicians."
He settled instead in Sacramento, his base of operations for the past 15 years. At first, he played cocktail lounge gigs, often as an organist with rhythm machine accompaniment, but eventually returned to his blues roots, put a band together and began performing at blues clubs and festivals throughout the U.S. and in Europe and Japan. This album features members of his current combo, with the addition on many cuts of former Heartsman bassist Artis Joyce, now touring with Charlie Musselwhite's group.
"You'll notice the refinement of the Oakland style," he states. "I've really gotten into a style. I'm being booked over in Europe as 'Johnny Heartsman--West Coast blues guitarist' and we're spreading the word about the West Coast blues and the difference between that and Chicago blues. It's a little more complicated, but I think it's just as intense emotionally. I think we just do a little bit more with the emotion. Like if somebody's been hurt and crying, we get hurt and cry and throw shit."
Lee Hildebrand writes about music, especially Bay Area blues, for the Express of Berkeley, California and many other publications.