Even among the most successful blues artists, versatility has never been especially common. Some in the 50s, like harmonica player Little Walter and the still-active guitarist Louis Myers, honed a style that allowed them to play a classic Delta-influenced Chicago blues and swinging, jazzy styles with equal facility. In a similar fashion certain contemporary artists, such as Cicero Blake, Clarence Carter, and Otis Clay, have successfully fused a slick, uptown blues style with soulful funk.

But many of the music’s seminal figures–Robert Johnson, pianist Jimmy Yancey, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Magic Sam, among others–have depended upon a handful of carefully crafted musical ideas to get their points across. These artists don’t overwhelm the listener with a wide-ranging repertoire; instead their music holds one’s interest by its subtle shadings, the deceptively simple folk poetry of the lyrics, and the singers’ distinctive musical personalities.

We notice, then, when a young bluesman demonstrates a wide range of performing styles. Guitarist Johnny B. Moore spent his early days scuffling around the west side of Chicago and had a brief mid-70s tenure with Koko Taylor, and now, as an increasingly influential bandleader, he has put together a most remarkable repertoire. His knowledge of traditional blues and contemporary pop alike seems boundless; in both his conversation and his music, he consistently demonstrates his knowledge of the blues tradition, from folk artists like Sleepy John Estes to contemporary soul musicians like Otis Clay and Tyrone Davis. He brings an equal personal involvement and enthusiasm to everything he plays, and apparently he never stops learning. Longtime followers of Moore, who’ve seen him perform hundreds of times all over Chicago during the past several years, are astounded that nearly every performance includes a song they’ve never heard him do before.

This unique facility enables Moore to structure each show with a specific audience in mind. Playing in small taverns on his west-side home turf, he grinds out harsh, bone-crunching versions of blues standards, with a healthy smattering of funk and soul dance numbers for the younger members of the crowd. At a backyard barbecue on East 75th Street a few weeks ago, he concentrated almost exclusively on smooth, funky renditions of hits by the likes of Tyrone Davis and Little Johnnie Taylor, downplaying his blues roots in lieu of a pop-oriented approach appropriate for the Sunday afternoon picnic crowd.

In the predominantly white clubs of the north side, Moore concentrates on the kind of up-tempo, boogie blues most accessible to the audience, but he also digs deep into his roots. Country blues, old novelty numbers, soul and R & B standards of the 60s, and even the occasional country-western song combine with the usual B.B. King and Muddy Waters tunes to make his performances some of the most unpredictable and musically diverse to be found anywhere on the scene.

Moore has recently added vocalist Bonnie Lee to his act, and it was the Moore-Lee combination that performed at Blue Chicago recently in a virtuoso demonstration of the young guitarist’s versatility. The one factor common to all his work is an allegiance to the classic post-50s west-side guitar style; he intersperses his leads with busy chording and rhythmic patterns, serving as his own second guitarist much of the time. Given his facility with this technique, another guitar player in the band is somewhat redundant; his band now features three horns–alto sax, tenor sax, and trombone–laid over the usual rhythm section of bass and drums. Over it all soars the guitar mastery of Moore, whose lines shimmer with a steellike hardness despite a playful melodic imagination and a sly sense of fun.

Moore’s leads are lithe and sensuous, alternately sophisticated–in a manner reminiscent of T-Bone Walker–and gutbucket raunchy, in the grand Chicago tradition. Behind him, percussionist Cordell Teague lays down an elemental blues backbeat that gives a whiff of back-alley grit to even the smoothest soul ballad. Moore’s sparkling lead work provides a graceful counterpart to the sexy soulfulness of pop tunes like Otis Clay’s “Turn Back the Hands of Time” and “Cheating in the Next Room.” At the same time, it gives a hard edge to these numbers that transcends the smooth, elegant originals. His playing has all the intensity of classic Chicago blues even as it hints at an underlying tenderness rarely acknowledged in the hard-edged, masculine world of bluesmen.

Bonnie Lee has added another dimension to Moore’s multifaceted musical personality. If Moore has a weakness, it’s his voice. It’s adequate for traditional blues and has been improving as he gains confidence, but it still lacks the range and suppleness necessary for the pop and soul numbers in his repertoire. Lee is a solid Chicago blues veteran who has performed and recorded with the likes of Sunnyland Slim and the late drummer Jump Jackson. She not only provides some essential vocal versatility but brings a touch of sophistication to the youthful exuberance of Moore’s band.

Moore and the horn section drift into a lighter, more jazzy groove for Lee, and she complements the mood with an earthy, assertive delivery on such standards as Ruth Brown’s “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and the song that’s become known around Chicago as Gloria Hardiman’s theme, “Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On.” “Black Drawers” really shows off Bonnie Lee’s strengths as an interpreter. Gloria Hardiman usually approaches this tune with an underlying coy sexiness; Lee belts it out aggressively. What is a flirtatious invitation in Hardiman’s hands is a demand, or even a flat-out dare, in Bonnie Lee’s.

Lee is exemplary on more standard blues as well. She gives a war-horse like “Wonder Why” fresh exuberance, as the horn section riffs soulfully behind her and Moore overlays everything with a delicate, crystalline slide pattern, laying down a rhythm behind his own solo, gradually building up the energy from a moody whisper to a piercing wail. His playing on a song like this evokes the Delta tradition even as it burns and screams its testimony to the postrock necessities of 80s blues.

The full force of Moore’s musical abilities, however, is most apparent on instrumental numbers. At Blue Chicago the most dramatic example was a long, complex rendition of “The World Is a Ghetto,” which featured Moore’s solo work at its most adventuresome. Moore has an instinctive harmonic sense far beyond that of most selftaught musicians, hinting at an underlying jazz sensibility that he continues to develop as his music evolves.

The other musicians also used “The World Is a Ghetto” to strut their stuff. It’s always been a great horn-section tune, and alto saxophonist Zeke Stanford exploded into his solo with a series of free-form, Birdlike runs, interspersed with some surprisingly well crafted melodic improvisations. Tenor man Fred Laster and trombonist William Petties contributed solos that were cooler, more exploratory–no less soulful but more worldly, knowing, and tentative.

Moore has honed his entire band, once a somewhat ragged backdrop for his talent, into an increasingly tight group. Bassist Robert Peterson, especially, has grown in power over the past year. While his interplays with drummer Teague still occasionally miss that in-the-pocket sureness that one hears from a fully developed band, his maturation over a relatively short time exemplifies the power–real and potential–of the entire group.

The most lasting impression one gets from Johnny B. Moore’s music is of his intuitive understanding of its possibilities. Unlike many younger musicians–who either remain slavishly in the pattern of their celebrity–or else throw together disparate influences and ideas–Moore uses his knowledge of and affection for the tradition to create surprising but well-integrated combinations of styles and ideas. He may soar above the jazzy funk of the horns and Bonnie Lee’s vocals with a Delta-tinged slide solo. Or he may shout out the angry, declamatory lyrics of Z.Z. Hill’s “He’s the One Who Did You Wrong” (a tough, urban blues song about welfare, child support, and betrayal) while his lead work shines and shimmers with soulful affirmation. But he refuses to put himself or his music in categories.

Even Moore’s stubborn insistence on using material that’s not really suited to his voice, such as Otis Clay’s “Messing With My Mind,” indicates a determination to expand into new areas and not to be typecast as “just” a bluesman or “just” a guitar player. Moore will never become an accompanist, as others with limited vocal ability, such as Matt Murphy, have. With a little more vocal development, a bit of fine-tuning in the rhythm section, and a few lucky breaks, there are no limits to what Johnny B. Moore can accomplish.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Booz.