Jimmy Johnson Credit: Sun-Times Media

Despite getting an extremely late start in his quest for Chicago blues stardom—his first domestic full-length as a bandleader was released in 1979, when he was 50 years old—guitarist Jimmy Johnson has been a local fixture for so long that some fans take him for granted.

Bad move.

Johnson’s spiky solos twist and dart with startling unpredictability, and his searing, high-pitched vocals remind you that in the 60s he used to back up top soul acts onstage. When you watch him lay into his guitar or unleash his soaring pipes, you might find it hard to believe he’ll celebrate his 89th birthday in November.

A native of Holly Springs, Mississippi, Johnson has reinvented himself more than once. He sang gospel long before he tried his hand at R&B, and he went by Jimmy Thompson until he followed the lead of his younger brother Syl and adopted the Johnson handle. He first played his instrument of choice thanks to a childhood pal who would go on to become a blues sideman extraordinaire.

“I picked up a guitar because Matt Murphy had a guitar, back when I was in Mississippi,” Johnson says. “I knew how to play doo-doo-doo-doo-doo. Just a couple of licks on the guitar.” After a stint in Memphis, he arrived in Chicago in 1950. Two big reasons brought him here, he says: “Economics and to get away from that Jim Crow!”

Younger brothers Syl and Mack soon followed. While Johnson toiled as a welder and harmonized on spirituals with the Golden Jubilaires, they made their first marks on the local blues scene. Johnson bought a guitar from harpist Billy Boy Arnold in 1958, spent time in a local doo-wop group called the Masquerades, and backed blues harpist Slim Willis. At long last he formed his own combo, the Lucky Hearts—and that’s about when he changed surnames. The switch made a difference.

“They knew that I was Syl’s brother and they pinned ‘Johnson’ on me,” he says. “When I said ‘Jimmy Johnson,’ I’d do the gig, where I might not have got it if I said ‘Jimmy Thompson.'”

In the late 60s, Johnson cut a couple 45s with the Lucky Hearts for the tiny Stuff label and an instrumental cover of Syl’s smash “Come On Sock It to Me” (released on Syl’s Shama imprint under the name the Deacons). Aside from that, though, he didn’t record much till after he changed his focus from soul to blues in ’74. “That’s when that field I was in had died,” he says. “You ever hear the word ‘Stop whippin’ a dead horse?’ Ain’t no use to keep whippin’ a dead horse if there’s another horse that’s still living. And I knew Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and them, James Cotton. Man, they were making a lot of money.”

Johnson apprenticed in Jimmy Dawkins’s band and toured Japan in 1975 as Otis Rush’s second guitarist. “Otis Rush has been my favorite guy all down through the years,” he says—and he played a prominent role in last year’s Blues Festival tribute to the long-­sidelined southpaw. In 1978 Johnson reached a big new audience with four spectacular covers on the first volume of Alligator’s anthology series Living Chicago Blues. “That’s what got me up off of the ground,” says Johnson. He saved his original material for his Delmark album Johnson’s Whacks, which came out the following year.

He encored on Delmark in 1982 with North//South, and Alligator released Bar Room Preacher in ’83. By then, Johnson’s reputation as one of Chicago’s hottest blues guitarists had long been cemented. In 1994 he even had a dalliance with a major label when Verve picked up his album I’m a Jockey (released in France by Birdology) for U.S. distribution.

In 1988 Johnson was badly injured in a tour-van crash that killed two of his band members. Unable to play guitar while he recuperated, he switched temporarily to keyboards. But Johnson has never wanted to give up the blues—he still plays on a weekly basis in local clubs. “I really enjoy being onstage entertaining people,” he says. “I’ve had enough of the road. You see me at home, playing all the time—that’s because I don’t want to be on the road.”  v

Jimmy Johnson performs on Saturday, June 10, at 2:45 PM on the Front Porch Stage.