Big Jack Johnson


musical style: 

photograph of Big Jack Johnson

Big Jack Johnson (born July 30, 1940, Lambert, Mississippi) is a modern electric blues musician. He has recorded both solo and as a member of the blues groups the Jelly Roll Kings and Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers. He performed and wrote "Jack's Blues" and performed "Catfish Medley" with Samuel L. Jackson on the Black Snake Moan film soundtrack.

Big Jack Johnson, born July 30, 1940 in Lambert MS is one of the most popular and influential of the contemporary Delta Blues musicians active today. He is affectionately known as the "Oil Man", a nickname he earned during his early years working for Shell Oil as a truck driver. He was first influenced by his father to take up the guitar and quickly mastered the finer points of the blues by sitting in with his father's band around the area in his early teens. As a young blues musician, he came under the sway of the eloquent electric single string work of BB and Albert King.

Influenced not only by the blues music all around him, but also by the sounds of the white Country artists emanating out of the Grand Ole Opry, Big Jack's music is that of the Mississippi juke joint. He peppers his blues with not only the traditional blues of his fellow Mississippi and Chicago forbearers but also brings elements of funk and soul that keeps the dance floors packed.

His music bears the mark of an artist that has lived his art form: his guitar style is uniquely his own, full of aggressive rhythmic twists and innovative lines that jump out at the listener: It is a tough style that is also both melodic and lyrical and is equal parts delta grit and West Side Chicago finesse crossed with pure Mississippi gumption. His penchant for reworking vocal songs into instrumental launching points for his single string flights similar to the great novelty guitar instrumentals a la Freddy King was what initially captured this fan. His vocals ring with a warm Mississippi tone and accent and he sings with the emotional directness that is the perfect counterpoint to his guitar work. His vocals look back to the roots of the blues and when he howls or growls in the vein of his hero Howlin' Wolf you know you are in the presence of the real deal, perhaps the last of the great delta bluesmen.

Jack's guitar playing has long been acknowledged as some of the most exciting and beautiful pure blues playing today. Most however, may be surprised to learn of Jack's command of the bass (a little known fact is that outside of the Jelly Roll Kings, Jack also played bass behind Country music star Conway Twitty during the 70's for a spell, a time that also included Sam Carr on drums on occasion), and that he also plays beautiful blues mandolin.

Blues mandolin is an art form that is sadly absent from today's scene, having never truly caught on much beyond the electric post war blues boom even in Chicago where the likes of Johnny Young recorded frequently on mandolin, but gained little attention. Perhaps because in the fashionable age of electric guitars the mandolin remained too rooted in the simple country traditions of the South and was out of fashion next to the slick productions of the urban bluesmen. Regardless, the mandolin played a largely overlooked but important role nonetheless in the development of the blues in Mississippi and beyond since the 1930's and Jack's playing is in that great tradition of Yank Rachell and Johnny Young. His love for the mandolin is certainly no surprise when you note Jack's affinity for Country music and further consider that string band music enjoyed regional popularity throughout the South and in Mississippi in particular during the acoustic pre-war blues era.

As a composer, Jack writes highly individual songs, often with an eye toward the social conscience. Jack's music meets life head on and he sings about the real qualities and events of the life he's lived and what he sees around him. His moral story-telling has a decidedly unique approach when composing songs with such modern topics as drug abuse, AIDS, etc., free from the trappings of the often mined and overly familiar traditional blues themes.

The Jelly Roll Kings .. back to Top

Circa 1962, Big Jack (guitar and bass), joined Frank Frost (harp and Farfisa organ) and Sam Carr (drums) initially as Frank Frost and the Nighthawks which would eventually be renamed The Jelly Roll Kings (Frost and Carr have roots that reached back even further into blues lore: Frost a student of both Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Foster's harp playing and Carr learned at the feet of his father, the legendary Robert Nighthawk, the name presumably that lent itself to their trio initially. Together, they would often back both Sonny Boy and Nighthawk in the 1950's and 1960's).

The combination of the young hot shot with the older veteran bluesmen was undeniable. In April 1962, Jack made his fist recordings backing Frost in Memphis TN for Sam Phillip's Phillips International label during three separate sessions that were released under Frank Frost and the Nighthawks. These included the song "Hey Boss Man" and can be heard on the excellent Charly Blues release, "Frank Frost-Jelly Roll King".

For the remainder of the 1960's and throughout much of the 1970's, the Jelly Roll Kings played their brand of rugged and ragged good-time Mississippi blues in the ramshackle juke joints across the Delta region and won a slow, but, hard earned reputation as THE quintessential Mississippi blues band.

The trio's first lp, recorded in 1979 for Earwig and titled "Rockin' The Juke Joint Down", was the revelation of raw and ruckus real deal blues that the blues world was starving for and a lifeline for blues aficionados during what was essentially a very low commercial point for blues music overall. "Rockin' The Juke Joint Down" received a nomination for a Handy Award for "Best Traditional Blues Album" in 1980 and also marked the first time Jack would sing on record as well. Festival appearances in Chicago and the Poconos as well as a couple of successful tours of the Netherlands brought greater acclaim for the Jelly Roll Kings.

After years of tours, personality disputes, quitting and reforming, the trio officially retired in 1987. A final reunion recording "Off Yonder's Wall" was recorded in 1997 and released on Fat Possum. It received similar universal praise and dual Handy nominations in 1998 for "Comeback Album of the Year" and "Traditional-Blues Album of the Year" and bookended Jack's legacy with the Jelly Roll Kings beautifuly.

Starring Big Jack Johnson .. back to Top

In 1987, following the Jelly Roll Kings breakup, Big Jack was approached by Earwig label owner, Michael Frank to record his first solo lp, titled "The Oil Man".

He has since recorded nine excellent solo cd's and guested on numerous sessions as well. His solo career has lead him to the greater success and the international prominence he rightly deserves and enjoys as one of the greatest living blues musicians performing on stages today.

"The Oil Man" received many positive reviews and introduced Jack as an exciting and important new artist. Highlights include the grooving version's Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" and "How Many More Years", the West Memphis groove of Junior Parker's "Mystery Train" became "I'm Gonna Give Up On Disco" while the Leon McAuliffe pedal steel anthem "Steel Guitar Rag" points solidly in the direction of Jack's country music influences.

For his second recording, "Daddy When Is Momma Coming Home", Jack moved in a decidedly slicker direction than "The Oil Man" replete with horns and serious subject matter. The spotlight moved away from the heavy reliance of cover material of his first album to that of his growing original compositional skills. Jack's social commentary songs come into full bloom on the title track and the deep blues of "Slapped My Wife In The Face", "MR. U.S.A.I.D.S." and the stop-time funk of "United States Got Us In A Bad Shape". "Daddy When Is Momma Coming Home" marked a period of strong musical growth for Jack.

"Live In Chicago", recorded during '94 and '95 was not released until after Jack's first MC Records release, "We Got To Stop This Killing". "Live In Chicago" is a stellar representation of a Big Jack Johnson show and highlights the close ties that exist between Mississippi and Chicago blues to this day. With solid support from Chicago stalwarts Aaron Burton and band with the addition of Lester "Mad Dog" Davenport on some cuts the results are consistently strong. "Pistol Packin' Mama", "Sweet Sixteen", and a beautiful reading of his original "Black Rooster" are all excellent. "Since I Met You Baby" is, as always, a Big Jack Johnson show stopper and Little Milton Campbell's "The Blues Is Alright", the Jimmy Forest composition "Night Train" and Hank Ballard's "The Twist" all rock with an intensity only Jack can bring!

During the mid-‘90's, Jack moved over to MC Records and recorded a series of fantastic modern blues albums declaring him THE reigning king of Mississippi blues.

For his first MC Records release, "We Got to Stop This Killing", Jack took his personal social commentaries about life, death and love even further on the title track. Highlights are many such as the delta-fied funky grit of "Cracklin' Bread" and the tore down-to-the-gutter blues of "Black Rooster" (a personal favorite) in addition to his ever present trademark Mississippi shuffles. "We Got to Stop This Killing" remained on the Living Blues radio charts for four consecutive months rounding out a flurry of award nominations for Jack.

With "All The Way Back", Jack recorded one of the best blues recordings of the 1990's! The funk and soul influences are all there ("Shake Your Booty") but at its core, "All The Way Back" is a no non-sense back to his roots record and Jack is in grand form throughout. Jack's vocals shine in addition to his single string work on the gutter blues of "I'm a Lonely Man", "I Can't Get No Lovin'" and "I'm Your Oil Man" while "Miss Magalee Hall" sounds as if it could be a long lost Howlin' Wolf recording, and "Black Dog" smokes with its West Side style guitar - "All The Way Back" is one helluva blues record!!!

The 2000 Handy nominated "Roots Stew" is hotter than a Mississippi summer at mid-day, exploring sides of Jack not previously recorded such as his lap steel slide work (on a sweetly melodic instrumental take of the Ivory Joe Hunter ballad "Since I Met You Baby") and his wonderful mandolin playing ("Cherry Tree" and "Beale Street"). A slew of Handy nominations highlighted "Roots Stew" recording as one of Jack's strongest and best received recordings to date. There are many highlights, including the driving "Jump For Joy", "Since I Met You Baby", the sad lament for his old friend of "So Long, Frank Frost". The moody and beautiful "Late Night With Jack" showed even more depth in Jack's musicianship and the traditional "I Wanna Go Home" seemed to foreshadow Jack's next release, the all acoustic "Memphis Bar-B-Que Sessions" displaying a joyful deep traditional side to this artist.

Joined by fellow Clarksdale native and legend, Pinetop Perkins on piano for two songs and the great Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds on harp, the 2002 "Memphis Bar-B-Que Sessions" gave the feel of a late night down-home porch session where music was being made amongst old friends for the pure pleasure of it. Many of the songs recorded greatly influenced Jack in his formative years and the fact that they rest so comfortably alongside his own original songs shows the strength of this artist. "Memphis Bar-B-Que Sessions" is one of Jack's most popular recordings to date, scoring him a Handy Award for "Acoustic Blues Album of the Year".

On "Juke Joint Saturday Night", Jack returned to simplicity and the basics and does what he does best! It is a rough and tumble recording played as if he were performing at Red's in Clarksdale to an appreciative crowd gathered to party and dance away the blues of another work week. Jack struts through performance after amazing performance of Mississippi juke joint gems such as "Steppin' Out" (with a driving Eddie Taylor groove), the classic "Rock Me", "Delta Juke" with its "Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu" swamp-funk beat is sure to please the masses of dancers with an undeniable groove and Jack's lyrical guitar. The super charged guitar instrumental, "Flat Foot", wouldn't sound out of place on any of Freddy King's later Shelter recordings with its stinging guitar lines and clusters of over bent notes-- it shows a cross between Jack's Mississippi roots and the Chicago West Side head cutting guitar style popularized by the likes of Freddy King, Buddy and Phil Guy, Otis Rush, Jimmy Dawkins and others. "You Told Me" is essentially the Jimmy Rogers classic "That's Alright" played in a 60's style soul ballad that would have been popular on the Chitlin' Circuit in the 60's and 70's and allows plenty of room for Jack's vocals to shine alongside some beautiful guitar solos. In some spots he shows off one of his earliest influences as he blows in an Albert King vein! On "Runnin' and Hidin'" there is a street tough reading of the Jimmy Reed classic, while "Jack's Guitar Groove" is somewhere between the classic "Night Train" meets Hubert Sumlin on the Wolf classic "Killing Floor"-pure guitar magic and super groove music (dig the poly-rhythmic scratch effect mid-way through-WOW!!). The nasty low down "Catfish" groove of "Mississippi Blues" is an instant modern classic! "Juke Joint Saturday Night" accurately captures the feel and atmosphere of a Big Jack Johnson juke joint party in action!

"Katrina" is Big Jack's most recent recording and is his self confessed musical "tribute to the land, people and spirit of Mississippi" to which Jack draws so much of his inspiration from. From the joyful redemption party atmosphere of "Ain't Gonna Do It No More" to the traditional mandolin beauty of "Po' Cow Boogie" and "It's All Gone" to the low down lament of "Katrina" (the "meanest storm the world ever seen"..) to Lowell Fulsom's "Too Many Drivers" theme reworked as the relentless shuffle of "Red Car", this is one of Jack's strongest recordings to date! "The Cryin' Blues" and "The Laughin' Blues" explore both sides of human emotion while displaying the simple brilliance and range of the blues to convey those emotions. These two songs also illustrate Jack's uncanny ability to tap into and convey his emotions. They are a lesson in finding the blues in the everyday emotions of us all. This new recording is his first that was recorded exactly as HE wanted-- not playing to the demands or directions of a record label but instead to his own vision. It is pure Big Jack Johnson and will have you jumping for joy!

As one of the most active touring international blues recording stars, Big Jack Johnson is a popular festival and club performer playing over 300 shows a year. He transforms every show and stage into at a Mississippi juke joint on Saturday night! Jack is in many ways a missing link in Mississippi blues bridging the gap that exists between the simpler music still actively played in the jukes of the Delta region and the stages around the world.

Larry Hoffman, the internationally published journalist and Handy Award nominated producer wrote of Jack in his notes to "We Got To Stop This Killing":

"Not since Earl Hooker has a guitarist with such virtuosity, emotion and eclectic makeup come before the public..."

I couldn't agree more. It is the raw emotion that is pored into his countless performances and every note picked and bent. It is the howl of his falsetto and the low down growl when you know he means every word he sings. It is the rock steady shuffles and funky Mississippi grooves, and original insights into everyday life presented only as Big Jack Johnson can do. All of these hallmarks and many more are those of an artist that makes his honest music connect in a very real way with his countless fans around the globe.

Whether he's crying the blues or jumping for joy, Big Jack Johnson IS the blues. And the blues is his story.

Awards/Nominations .. back to Top

Big Jack Johnson has been recognized with an impressive number of awards and nominations, below is a partial list:

1980: Nominated for WC Handy Award for Traditional Blues Album of the Year For "Rockin' the Juke Joint Down" (Jelly Roll Kings)

1994: Winner of Living Blues Award for Best Live Performer

1995: Winner of Living Blues Award for Most Outstanding Blues Musician (Guitar)-tie with Otis Rush

1997: Winner of Living Blues Award for Best Blues Song of 1996 for "We Got To Stop This Killin'" ("We Got To Stop This Killin'")
Nominated for WC Handy Award for Blues Song of the Year for "We Got To Stop This Killin'" ("We Got To Stop This Killin'")
Nominated for WC Handy Award for Contemporary Blues-Male Artist of the Year
Nomination for NAIRD for Blues Record of the Year for "We Got To Stop This Killin'"

1998: Winner of Crossroads Magazine Blues Record of the Year for "All the Way Back"
Nominated for AFIM Award for Electric Blues Record of the Year for "All the Way Back"
Nominated for WC Handy Award for Blues Instrumentalist-Guitar
Nominated for WC Handy Award for Comeback Album of the Year for "Off Yonder's Wall" (Jelly Roll Kings)
Nominated for WC Handy Award for Traditional Blues-Album of the Year for "Off Yonder's Wall" (Jelly Roll Kings)

2000: Nominated for WC Handy Award for Blues Instrumentalist-Guitar

2001: Winner of Living Blues Award for Best Musician/Guitar (tie with Alvin Youngblood Hart)
Nominated for WC Handy Award for Traditional Blues Album of the Year for "Roots Stew"
Nominated for WC Handy Award for Traditional Blues-Artist of the Year
Nominated for WC Handy Award for Blues Song of the Year for "So Long, Frank Frost" ("Roots Stew")

2003: Winner of WC Handy Award for Acoustic Blues-Album of the Year for "Memphis Bar-B-Que Sessions"
Nominated for WC Handy Award for Blues Album of the Year for "Memphis Bar-B-Que Sessions"
Nominated for WC Handy Award for Traditional Blues-Male Artist of the Year

Big Jack Johnson Discography: .. back to Top

1987: the Oil Man (Earwig)
1991: Daddy, When Is Mommy Comin’ Home (Earwig)
1996: We Got To Stop This Killin’ (MC Records)
1997: Live In Chicago (Earwig)
1998: All the Way Back (MC Records)
2000: Roots Stew (MC Records)
2002: Memphis Bar-B-Que Sessions
2007: Juke Joint Saturday Night (self release)
2008: Katrina (self release)

With the Jelly Roll Kings:

1979: Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down (Earwig)
1997: Off Yonder’s Wall (Fat Possum)

With Frank Frost:

1990: Jelly Roll King (Charly Blues)

With Others:

1992: Portrait-Lonnie Shields (Rooster Blues)
2000: Blues Advice-Ernie Hawkins (Orchard)
2005: I Watched The Devil Die-Chris Cotton (Yellow Dog)
2004: Lonesome Plowboy-Nate Myers (MercAce13)


1992: Blue Yule: Christmas Blues and R&B Classics (Rhino)
1994: Sun Records Collection (Rhino)
1995: Blues Fest: Modern Blues of the ‘80s (Rhino)
1995: Earwig 16th Anniversary Sampler (Earwig)
1997: Mucho Mojo: Best of Fat Possum (Fat Possum)
1998: Defiance Blues (A&M)
1998: River Song: A Musical Journey Down the Mississippi (Smithsonian Folkways)
1999: Earwig 20th Anniversary Collection (Earwig)
2000: Road Trip Blues (House of Blues)
2000: Rooster Blues Records: 1980-2000 Sampler
2001: The Handy Award Nominees, Volume 1 (Music Blitz)
2003: Best of MC Records1996-2002 (MC Records)


1991: Juke Joint Saturday Night: Live From Margaret’s Blues Diamond Lounge (performance)
1993: Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage to the Crossroads (Robert Mugge director) Read more about Big Jack Johnson on User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply.

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