Friday, December 01, 2006

Donald Ray Johnson: Transplanted Blues Man--A Review by Norman Otis Richmond

Donald Ray Johnson: Transplanted Blues Man

By Norman (Otis) Richmond

There is more than oil in Calgary, Alberta. Alberta is producing blues as well. Down home blues is alive and kickin’ in the Great White North.

Donald Ray Johnson has dropped his fourth blues CD; Travelin’ Man, a self produced album featuring eight cover versions of fallen R & B legends such as Little Milton Campbell, Johnnie Taylor and Tyrone Davis, and four original compositions.

Johnson pointed out in a recent telephone interview that : “The Travelin’ Man album is very special to me for many reasons. We lost quite a few of the legends I’ve admired over the years: Ray Charles, Tyrone Davis, Johnnie Taylor and Little Milton. We covered tunes by three of these legends on this project. Tyrone Davis’ “Sugar Daddy”, Little Milton’s “If Walls Could Talk” and Johnnie Taylor’s “Last Two Dollars.” Saxophonist P.J. Perry, a Canadian icon, joins Johnson on “Last Two Dollars”.

“Me & Jack Daniels” and “Apple Tree” are from the pen of Johnson and the only gospel gem on this effort is from his daughter Panzie, who is a songwriter/performer who toured for 12 years with Stevie Wonder. The title track was written by Chicago guitarist, Maurice John Vaughn. Vaughn also took the CD's cover photo in France.

“Me & Jack Daniels” and two other tracks, “Yonder Wall” and the Lowell Fulsom- penned “Reconsider”, was recorded in France with French musicians. Elmore James’, “Yonder Wall”, is updated by Johnson with a funky backdrop and the mentioning of the Iraqi war.

There are those who may say Johnson is getting “too political” on this track. Recall that James’ talked about the war in Korea and Freddy King’s version mentioned the war in Vietnam. Johnson has merely brought “Yonder Wall” into the 21st century.

Many of today’s blues admirers want to freeze the blues into a certain historical period. African Canadian blues artists like Johnson, Harrison Kennedy and Diana Braithwaite do not necessarily follow this model.

Check Johnson’s rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind”, which is a great addition to this CD. Nelson has long been admired by Black artists. Ray Charles included Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” on his CD of his favorite songs of all time. It must be mentioned that Nelson’s latest CD, Countryman , is reggae-oriented. Nelson is a Euro-American “herbs man”.

Johnson was born in Bryan, Texas and moved to California, after completing high school. He took an early interest in music, as did his older sister, Janice Marie. They sang in church and at family functions. At age 7, Johnson became interested in playing the drums, beating on whatever he could get his hands on.

In 1961 he was introduced to high school band director, Waymond Webster, who taught him to play “Traps." (The drum set). At age 14, he began his professional career with blues piano legend, Nat Dove. Throughout his teens, Johnson played with the two local bluesmen based in Bryan. Organist Joe Daniels and Guitarist Lavernis Thurman.

“We played a live radio show every Saturday night." Johnson joined the U.S. Navy and served aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Bon Homme Richard. After two tours in Southeast Asia (Viet Nam), he was honorably discharged, after his discharge Johnson relocated to San Diego.

While working as the “house band " at the Downtown Hustlers Club, Johnson met quite a few of the L.A.- based blues & R&B artists including Lowell Fulsom, Bobby Womack, and Pee Wee Crayton.

In early 1970, he was called to play weekends in LA with Phillip Walker, by long time friend Nat Dove, who now lived in LA. Some 29 years later the relationship with the Phillip Walker Band still exists.

In 1971, Johnson moved to LA to work with the Joe Houston big band, backing some of the west coast’s top blues artists. While trying to find a weekend gig, he met songwriter/ producer, Perry Kibble, who was in the process of developing a group that featured the talents of two young African American women, (bassist, Janice Marie Johnson & guitarist Carlita Durhan). They later became known as " A Taste Of Honey ". In 1979, this band was the first African-American Band to win and be presented with the "Grammy Award" for "Best New Artist".

Once upon a time the voices of Lou Rawls, Barry White and, in recent memory, Michael Shawn McCary of the vocal group, Boyz II Men, boomed all over Black and Top 40 radio stations. Baritone and bass voices are as scarce as hen’s teeth in the 21st century on what is now called urban radio.

Why are radio- friendly baritone and bass voices no longer a welcome on urban radio? Are these sounds too “Black and strong” for today’s urban dwellers? Johnson is in the tradition of Rawls. His voice is deep, rich and sweet as Blackstrap molasses.

The Toronto Blues Society has heeded the call for a return to great
voices. Johnson has been nominated-along with Harrison Kennedy, John Mays, Jim Byrnes and David Clayton Thomas- for a 2006 Maple Blues Award. It is great to see a transplanted blues man receive his due in his adopted home land.

For more information about Johnson and his music you can visit him in cyberspace

Check out Norman Otis Richmond’s at CKLN, 88.1 FM in Toronto every Thursday evening from 8:00-10:00 p.m. on "Diasporic Music".
Abayomi Azikiwe, the editor of the Pan-African News Wire, broadcasts over this program beginning at 9:30 p.m. Norman's new music blogspot can be found at the following URL:

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