Luther Johnson

Evidence ECD 26005


Lonnie Brooks

Evidence ECD 26001

Luther “Snake” Johnson was a Georgia-born guitarist who made a name for himself in the mid- to late-60s as Muddy Waters’s guitarist. After leaving Muddy, he settled in Boston and led his own band for a time in the 70s before falling ill; he died from cancer in March 1976. His role as one of Muddy’s most important latter-day fretmen has been somewhat overlooked, both because his sparse, primal style fell out of favor with mainstream fans and because he’s become confused with later Waters guitarist Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson. That’s a shame; he was among the last of Muddy’s guitar players who specialized in the dark, brooding sound of “deep blues”–a term Muddy used to describe blues of intense emotional fervor, strong rhythmic impetus, and a commitment to honesty of expression rather than rococo tricks or crowd-pleasing flamboyance.

That commitment is evident throughout this disc, recorded three months before Johnson’s death by the French Black and Blue label. It’s a delight to be reintroduced to the remarkable emotional and musical spectrum available to a skillful practitioner of straight-ahead blues, for whom every song represents a different shade of emotion and tells a different story. The disc itself is also something of a throwback: unlike too many current CDs it’s not padded with mediocre takes or overlong noodling.

Johnson personifies the old cliche about the bluesman who plays every note as if it were his last. The brooding, minor-key “Lonesome in My Bedroom” sets the tone. The guitar lines overlay the subdued backing; they’re mellow and sweet-toned yet he picks with an almost frightening intensity. Johnson attacks each note as if it has to tell the whole story; even on faster interludes his playing is rivetingly sparse and eloquent. His voice is laden with despairing moodiness tinged with rage.

That slow groove stays around for a while. Muddy Waters’s “Honey Bee” was one of his most beautiful and fully realized creations, originally sung as a blues of tender resignation. But Johnson interprets it as an aggressive challenge (“Sail on, sail on, my little honey bee, sail on . . . Gonna keep on sailin’, but please don’t sail too long”). His guitar solo stays mostly within the harmonic restrictions of a single chord, but within that limited range he explores depths of emotion and musical expression that more frenetic fretmen can’t approach. Chicago harpist Little Mac Simmons warbles behind as Johnson builds into an almost hornlike fullness.

“Long Distance Call,” the other Muddy standard, begins to relax the tension created by the emotionality of the first two numbers. Muddy’s original was as close as classic Chicago blues ever got to pure romanticism, but Johnson prefers to accentuate the sense of humor implicit in Muddy’s double-entendre lyrics (“I heard my phone ringing, sounds like a long-distance call / I picked up my receiver, and the party said another mule was kickin’ in my stall”). Simmons’s blowing is reminiscent of styles developed by Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2) and his followers in and around Helena, Arkansas.

One of Johnson’s most attractive qualities is his ability to bring equal emotional fire to celebratory houserockers and introspective soul baring. He takes “Rock Me Slow and Easy” at a relaxed medium-fast tempo, sounding almost as if he were trying to force himself into a rock-and-roll context. The stylistic juxtaposition is a bit strained, and the cut could have been a throwaway, but it’s redeemed by an endearing back-alley primitivism as Simmons wails away behind Johnson’s elemental single-note soloing and the rhythm section lays down a churning boogie.

More adventurous is Johnson’s cover of Jimmy Reed’s classic “Hush, Hush.” In Reed’s hands the song was a languid tale of romantic exasperation; Johnson reinterprets it as good-natured up-tempo signifying (“Hush, hush, Mama you talk too much / You talk so much, you run the preacher out of the church”). Simmons again evokes Rice Miller’s harsh warbles, although he can’t come close to Miller’s broad tone and subtle rhythmic playfulness. Pianist Willie Mabon, somewhat detached from the action elsewhere on this disc, lays powerful chiming chords beneath the soloists. There’s a brief guitar solo here that sounds like second guitarist Hubert Sumlin–string-popping timbre, eccentric dips into low-bass rumbles, odd chords inserted at will–another dollop of whimsy in this delightfully eccentric remake.

Johnson is at his best, though, when he digs into the fervid passion of a slow blues. His masterpiece here is the vaguely John Lee Hooker-ish “Please Don’t Take My Baby Nowhere.” This haunting meditation on loneliness and loss is performed solo by Johnson, accompanied only by his guitar. It opens with whispery, rapid-fire arpeggios skittering beneath Johnson’s lonesome moans, more melodic than Hooker’s modal drone and with a propulsive forward impetus. The guitar lines ascend into chords that scream like a train whistle then splinter into metallic sparks, finally cascading down into a full-bodied final chord as Johnson begs the train to leave his woman behind with him. It’s a thrilling example of the primal folk intensity of Delta blues transplanted to an urban musical setting.

The balance of the disc doesn’t quite match up to the rocking exuberance of “Rock Me Slow and Easy” and “Hush, Hush” or the throbbing emotiveness of the Muddy Waters tunes and “Lonesome in My Bedroom” and “Please Don’t Take My Baby Nowhere.” But it may be Johnson’s greatest attribute that even most of his less stellar performances manage to impress. Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” again finds Johnson straining to fit into a style that’s not his own–his down-home vocal phrasing can’t approximate Berry’s oily, urbane macho, and he can’t seem to find the right combination of aggression and fleetness to make this tune rock instead of pound–but the overall exuberance of the participants again redeems the tune.

Likewise “They Call Me the Popcorn Man” is another straight shuffle, but this time the lyrics are more imaginative than usual (“They call me the popcorn man / I can sell it ten cents a can . . . “). “Please Give Me That Love,” despite references to the Funky Chicken, is a standard up-tempo blues (Johnson never played a nonblues lick in his life) revved up into a blast of simmering juke-joint ribaldry.

In contrast to Johnson’s deep-blues intensity, Lonnie Brooks early on developed a slick, urbane style that only occasionally harked back to his Louisiana roots and his early recordings–some blues, some country and western–on the Goldband label in Lake Charles. By the time he hit Chicago in the late 50s, he’d honed a jaunty flamboyance that lent itself as easily to pop-dance numbers (“Let It All Hang Out”) as it did to blues.

Sweet Home Chicago is another Evidence reissue of a Black and Blue session, this one recorded in 1975. Taken alongside the Johnson disc it eloquently illustrates the musical tensions that were going on in the blues world at the time. Johnson emerges as the carrier of the deep blues flame; Brooks, although approximately the same age, plays with the hip breeziness of a younger more forward-looking musician. He’s continued in that vein to the present day, building one of the more successful blues careers.

His style here is melded somewhat uncomfortably with the Chicago traditionalism of a rhythm section that included master drummer Fred Below (who could make a stone pony swing and comports himself admirably here), bassist Dave Myers (sounding blocky and uncertain), and pianist Willie Mabon (likewise uncomfortable with the rhythmic and harmonic demands of Brooks’s modernism).

There’s a muted quality to most of the music on this disc that’s probably due as much to production as it is to the musicians. This results in a strange feel of dispassionate distance. For example, the anthemic title tune, exhilarating when Brooks plays it in live performance, sounds almost as if it’s being phoned in. Brooks’s leads weave through the changes with passion that’s more implied than exuded, and there’s an almost clinical precision to his playing.

Things loosen up, however, on subsequent cuts. At its best, Brooks’s guitar work provides an ear-catching display of fluid technique and versatility. He moves through complex harmonic and thematic variations in the course of a single, smooth solo, interspersing his leads with sweetly emotive chords. It stands in marked contrast to the stark emotionalism of Johnson: Brooks’s music, less primal and more meticulously worked out than Johnson’s, is the sound of a musician who’s studied as hard as he’s lived. Something of the sweet-toned precision of country pickers like Merle Travis is also present, reminding us of Brooks’s C and W background.

One of the most fascinating things about this disc is the opportunity it gives us to hear some of Brooks’s signature tunes at earlier stages in their development. “Crosscut Saw” again sounds surprisingly subdued, but Brooks’s playing is superb. Where most guitarists would ascend through the registers or maybe pile on increasingly rapid note clusters, he builds his solos by extending the length of his lines. His leads begin relatively sparsely and then become more continuous and serpentine. His voice, like his playing, is a winning combination of smoothness and rough-edged honesty.

“Two Guitars Shuffle,” a summit between Brooks and guest guitarist Hubert Sumlin, provides a perfect showcase for both men, although two more harshly juxtaposed styles couldn’t be imagined. Brooks ripples shimmering leads and chords over Sumlin’s jubilantly choppy backing, achieving more intensity despite the underamplification. Sumlin, characteristically, is all over the place: he chords sweetly one minute, fleetly descends along single-note lines the next, and then interweaves the two. It’s not quite the verge-of-chaos eccentricity he’s known for these days, but it’s definitely an appealing gumbo of thoughts and directions.

Despite its strengths, however, this disc can’t really be considered a first-rate taste of Brooks’s talent. Several experiments go flat: Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby” is burdened with an odd chord progression–an ascending pattern laid between the usual blues changes in each verse–that might have been attractive in the hands of another band (such as Brooks’s own younger, more versatile aggregation). Bassist Dave Myers, though, seems to struggle with it. He sounds somewhat plodding thoughout this disc, partly because his bass is mixed too high, and partly because his sparse Chicago-style walking bass lines are too simplistic to propel Brooks’s slick contemporary stylings.

Likewise “Big Leg Woman,” which one might think would lend itself naturally to Brooks’s exuberant sense of fun, limps along in a quirky stop-and-go rhythm. It’s hard to tell whether Brooks was trying to disguise the lasciviousness of the piece with a novelty setting, or whether it’s just an attempt to graft some creative elaborations onto the blues changes. Either way, it’s more intrusive than successful: there’s so much herky-jerky strangeness going on that no one has time to think straight long enough to put together a coherent solo.

Probably the biggest disappointment, though, is “The Train and the Horse,” a song that should have been a tour de force. The idea–to update the folk blues tradition of narrating a story while providing the appropriate sound effects on one’s instrument–sounds like a natural for the charismatic Brooks. It starts promisingly with Brooks’s gently half-whispered narrative, as his chording guitar imitates a train whistle. He also rubs his fingers against the strings to sound like a chugging engine, then taps the body of his instrument with his fingernails to imitate horse hooves.

When the band finally kicks in, however, the effect is lost. Simmons’s harp takes over the train chores and Brooks falls into a rather unremarkable country-boogie solo. Myers again sounds stiff and pianist Mabon pretty much goes off on his own, laying down wide-fingered chords in rhythms having little to do with the rest of the arrangement. Only toward the end does Brooks return to his fingers-against-the-strings train sounds as everything grinds to a predictable, hissing stop.

The only actual throwaway is a shaky “Woke Up This Morning.” The volume fades in and out as Below and Myers attempt to lay a straight-four rhythm beneath Brooks’s rumba patterns (the usual rhythm for this song). Nonetheless one can’t escape the feeling that this entertaining pastiche, a portrait of a major contemporary bluesman on the verge of musical maturity, lacks sufficient focus to qualify as a classic.