Chicago Bluesman Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, Dead at 83

Bluesman Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson passed away at age 83 on Christmas Day. Johnson played the Nippertown area regularly in the 1990s. I got to introduce him at The Metro in Saratoga on Nov. 12, 1994, the day I married Shelly. Our wedding party was taking place upstairs the same day, with seven bands performing. 

Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, 1995

Johnson was best known for playing Chicago West Side Soul at the same time as Buddy Guy. “It was different (than Southside Soul),” he once told me, “’cuz on the West Side we always played up-tempo music to keep people dancing. The South Side was all right, but they wasn’t playing what we was playing on the West Side. The West Side blues was SOMETHING! The West Side sound was like rock and roll back then, and the South Side was just the blues.”  

What Johnson’s mentor Magic Sam was playing was on the West Side: “You could dance to it. Young people back then liked to dance fast. South Side would play jumps and things, but it was just the blues, like fast blues and slow blues. But we were cookin’ and doing everything. It was the West Side sound.”  

Johnson grew up on “Forty Miles Bend Plantation” in Mississippi with two older and two younger sisters. But he moved to Chicago as a teenager, where he’d sneak into bars wearing a fake mustache. At that time, the women called him “Coffee.” “I used to tell ’em it’s ‘cuz I grind so fine and percolate regular…..The bartender would look at me and say, ‘Is you old enough? Let me see your identification.’ I drank up and said, ‘I’ll see you next time.’” 

In the early 1960s, Johnson gained a following in Chicago’s West Side blues clubs and played for a few years with Magic Sam. Sam liked to hear him do “Somebody Have Mercy” by Sam Cooke. “When I’d do that song, it would rock the house. (Sam would say) ‘Well, you got your job back.’ See, Sam was crazy about my guitar playing, and I was fast on my feet. I used to do a lot of clowning, and people liked it.”  

One of Johnson’s nicknames as a child was Clown. It was a term white overseers gave him. “Yeah, laughing and dancing around, they liked me.” 

Luther Johnson, 2003

He opened the August 1994 Starlite Blues Festival in Latham as a member of the Muddy Waters Tribute Band. He had traveled and recorded with Muddy from 1973 to 1979. The band at the time included guitarist Bob Margolin, bass player Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums. 

“This was the last band behind Muddy that was doing something.” He remembered Muddy as a man who always wore earplugs to all his own gigs. “He didn’t even like his own music sometimes. When you work with somebody, you respect them. I did everything he wanted me to. He’d give me my break and say, ‘Junior, go get ’em.’ I went and got ’em. He didn’t like it because he couldn’t get to the audience, and I went and got ’em.” 

The Muddy Waters Band that Johnson was in left Muddy in 1979 in a dispute over pay and bookings. “We decided if one would quit, we all would quit. So, that’s what happened. But that was supposed to happen. We were supposed to do it ourselves, but after the band quit, everyone wanted to go do it ourselves. In a way that’s good ’cause I got out and did my thing.”  

 “Every note I play I love,” he told me eight years earlier. “If I can get you with the first note, I got you. I’ve had people come to see me who say they don’t like no blues.  People dance for me who haven’t danced for 35 years. They come up to me and say, ‘Mr. Johnson, you made me and my wife go back together.’ Some women come up to me and say, ‘You made my husband make love to me last night. It’s your music.’ Some of ’em come to me and say, ‘You broke us up with our music.’ You know, it’s a thang.” 

By 1980, he was on his own, recording three albums with the Nighthawks as well as four tracks on Alligator’s second series of Living Chicago Blues anthologies.  

Nighthawks band leader Mark Wenner: “The Nighthawks met Luther Johnson when we were frequently opening for Muddy Waters and his incredible band in the late 1970s. If the experience was like graduate school, then each member of the band was like our faculty and Luther soon became our favorite. He would sit in with us and raise the roof. Once he even incurred Muddy’s displeasure at raising the energy too high for ‘an old man’ to follow!”   

“When we did the Jacks and Kings recordings, he was easily the most exciting front man, He toured with us and recorded on several albums including one unfinished, unreleased one. He really taught us to be a Chicago Blues band, to follow his lead without rehearsal, to go from song to song without pause, and to kick ass on the rockers and get lowdown on the deep Blues. He even took us head cutting in Chicago where we really shook up several sleepy tourist Blues clubs. He was a great man and great friend.” 

In 1983 he won a Grammy for his work on the Atlantic Records compilation album Blues Explosion. 

He played Caffe Lena in 2002. “I like playing coffeehouses. It doesn’t matter to me if people don’t drink. People like my music. I like to play. My own people like my music. It’s no different to me.” At the time he was the only African American living in his town in New Hampshire. “Where I live, I can’t find the right food I want to fix, but I go down to Boston ’cuz I’m about an hour and 10 minutes from there. I get my food.” 

Luther Johnson, 2004

Early in his career, Johnson played with Big Mama Thornton – best known for “Hound Dog,” later covered by Elvis, and “Ball and Chain,” covered by Janis Joplin. Buddy Guy once told me that he and John Lee Hooker would lock themselves in their motel rooms while on tour with her because she would chase them around looking for sex. “No, she never chased me,” Johnson revealed. “I never gave her a reason. My old man always told me the best way to stay out of the river is to stay off the bank and that’s what I did.” 

Johnson toured right up until his death with a band he called The Magic Rockers, named after Magic Sam. He told me that his philosophy of life was: “It ain’t what you put in your bread to make it good. It’s the way you roll your dough.”

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