An illustration of soul-blues singer Bobby Jonz embedded in the title card for the Secret History of Chicago Music
Bobby Jonz Credit: Steve Krakow

Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

We Americans don’t seem to want to deal with this pesky pandemic anymore—not to take precautions and certainly not to grieve our country’s losses, which topped one million lives almost a year ago. Even our president, who at first seemed to have our backs, has declared the crisis over. Meanwhile the body count keeps climbing, and this poorly understood virus leaves more and more people with ongoing health problems, some of which may never go away.

It seemed like everybody heard when John Prine and Fountains of Wayne cofounder Adam Schlesinger died from COVID. Without going further into the racial inequities of the pandemic, I’ll just say that the passing of Black artists such as Charley Pride and Manu Dibango got far less attention. And when COVID killed blues and soul man Bobby Jonz in July 2020, it barely made a ripple. Though he’d had a long, varied career, attracting an audience of blues and soul-blues fiends, Northern Soul fans, and lovers of gritty R&B, his passionate songs never caught the ear of the general public.

Bob Willie Jones (or possibly Bob Willy Jones) was born in Farmerville, Louisiana, in 1936. He was raised till age seven by the plantation owners who’d hired his mother, at which point his grandparents took over. “Basically all we had to listen to was people like Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams and Roy Acuff,” Jonz told Soul Express in 2004. “I was also involved in gospel, when I was younger and going to church.” Lore has it that a teenage Jonz once worked as a driver for country-music patriarch Hank Williams. 

In 1959, Jonz moved to Chicago. “My dad and my uncle were there,” he told Soul Express. “I started working at Republic Steel, a steel mill, and I was always singing at work. Everybody was consistently saying that ‘you sound so good, you need to go sing professionally.’” 

Jonz had a fateful encounter while looking for a shop to repair his shoes near 43rd and Drexel—he happened upon a blues club. “The name of the club was [Frader’s] Juke Box Lounge,” he said. “I heard the music coming out the door. [Baby Face Willette] was playing.” Jonz talked the skeptical owner into auditioning him as a singer. “I told them to play a Ray Charles tune. When I came down, he said ‘listen, let me tell you, you got a bright future ahead of you. We have talent shows down here every Monday night, and if you win the talent show then you get to work on weekends, and get paid.’”

Jonz became a regular at those talent shows—he claimed to have won every one for three months, kicking off his career in Chicago. “They would give whisky for the winner, but I didn’t drink,” he said. “So I would sell the whisky back to the owner.”

Jonz’s rich, supple baritone lent itself well to soul as well as blues, and soon he began singing at the famous Pepper’s Lounge a few blocks west at 43rd and Vincennes. He worked there for six or seven months—as he explained to Soul Express, he filled in for harmonica ace Junior Wells, who’d just scored a hit with his classic “Messin’ With the Kid” and was touring a lot.

Jonz sang at Pepper’s with the Aces, who’d been sharing the gig with Wells. Founded by guitarist brothers Dave and Louis Myers, they’d become one of the most influential backing bands in Chicago blues during the 1950s, and Wells had been an early member. (They’d previously gone by the Three Deuces, the Three Aces, and the Four Aces, among other names.) The Aces had also backed fellow harp legend Little Walter after he left Muddy Waters’s band in 1952, but given the lineup changes they’d undergone in the mid-50s, it’s hard to be sure who exactly Jonz was singing with in the early 60s.

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Bobby Jonz was nearly 30 when he released “Sugar Baby” as part of his first spate of recordings.

At this point Jonz was still performing and recording as Bobby Jones. Beginning in the mid-60s, he put out a flurry of singles, including “A Certain Feeling” b/w “Sugar Baby” on Vee-Jay in 1965. Both tunes were written or cowritten by Barry Goldberg (who backed Bob Dylan at his infamous first electric concert that same year), and the B side is a rollicking electric blues with weedy organ. In 1967 Jonz collaborated with girl group the Para-Monts for a smoothly soulful USA Records release.

The 1968 Expo single “Talkin’ ’Bout Jone’s” b/w “You Gotta Have Love (in Your Heart),” bafflingly credited to Bobby Jone’s, gave Jonz’s first proper LP its title. Released by Toya in 1972, the album Talkin’ ’Bout Jones is a sought-after item these days, often fetching three-figure sums among collectors. 

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The 1968 Expo single “Talkin’ ’Bout Jone’s”

“We had two big records on that album, ‘[I Am] So Lonely,’ written by Chuck Barksdale of the Dells, and a song called ‘I Got a Habit [(of Lovin’ You),’]” Jonz told Soul Express. “We also had a duet with Pauline Chivers—she’s passed away now—and that song was ‘Please Bless Our Home.’ Syl Johnson played on that album. Syl is a dear friend of mine. Mighty Joe Young was one of the guitar players on that album.”

The gritty-smooth “I Am So Lonely” and “I Got a Habit” had already appeared as a single in ’71 on New York label Lionel. And the bluesy, pleading “Welcome Back a Foolish Man” b/w “Lovin’ Hard, Livin’ Good,” a personal favorite of mine, had arrived on Kack Records in 1969.

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The 1969 Kack Records single “Welcome Back a Foolish Man”

Jonz moved to Florida in the early 70s, where he cut “My Confession,” now beloved by the Northern Soul scene in the UK (it came out on two different Miami labels, Top Hit and Adam). He also released the supremely funky “The Boogie Train” in 1974 via Chicago imprint Capri. “I worked all over Florida,” Jonz told Soul Express. “I opened for Debbie Reynolds at the [Fontainebleau]. I worked at the Diplomat, where I opened for Lou Rawls.” 

Jonz returned to Chicago in 1977 and was soon using the name Bobby Jonz (to avoid confusion with gospel artist Bobby Jones). His great 1980s singles include “Win Your Love” b/w “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got!” on the Dispo label in ’82 (cut at Solid Sound in Hoffman Estates) and contemporary soul anthem “Thought You Were Loving Me” on the Expansion label in ’84 (another favorite of the Northern Soul crowd, it’s also the title track of an album that came out two years earlier). Jonz even delved into disco for the 1986 Fantasy track “I Got the Touch if You Got the Time,” produced and written by General Crook—one of the very first Secret History subjects nearly 20 years ago.

Jonz packed up for Victorville, California, in ’86, and commuted to Hollywood to do soundtrack and acting work. By 1989 he’d settled in Las Vegas, where he’d come at the urging of old Chicago pal Tyrone Davis. (Jonz claimed that Davis’s 1969 hit “Can I Change My Mind” was originally written for him, but nobody seems to agree—though Jonz did later record songs by its cowriter Barry Despenza.) 

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“In the Mood for Love” is one of the best-loved songs from Bobby Jonz’s soul-blues period.

In 1997 Jonz hooked up with Johnny Vincent and his Mississippi-based Ace Records, releasing the albums that would define the next phase of his career. His first CD, In the Mood for Love, revealed him as a fully formed master of soul-blues (also called southern soul) and included two songs that would become signature numbers: the title track and “Innocent til Proven Guilty.” The album even dipped into Jonz’s country roots, which he explored further on This Is Bobby Jonz Country in 1998. That album came out on Avanti Records, which Vincent had founded upon selling Ace to a UK company in ’97. By the time Vincent died in 2000, Jonz had put out 1999’s megafunky Your Freak Is Here with New Orleans imprint Big Bidness.

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“Innocent til Proven Guilty” appeared on the same album as “In the Mood for Love.”

Jonz continued to record and release music throughout the aughts, and in his final years he worked with a California-based label called Loveforce International. He kept performing too, sometimes as a member of Los Angeles band the Mannish Boys, sometimes with guitarist Honey Davis, and sometimes just using his charisma to power an open mike.

On July 21, 2020, Jonz died of COVID-19 at the North Las Vegas VA Medical Center. The virus had taken his brother in March, and a week before Jonz’s death, his longtime girlfriend Easter Morris also passed from COVID. By then Jonz had fallen into a coma, so he never learned she was gone. 

I’m not sure what we can do about tragedies like this, which have all but destroyed so many families and left the survivors barely any time to recover before the next variant wave arrives. My friends are still getting the virus, and a dancer I know is using a wheelchair due to long COVID. Would education help? Improving ventilation surely would, and so would updated vaccines. Maybe one day we’ll heal enough as a society to reckon with all of our losses—but for right now, I’d like to ask you to spare a thought for Bobby Jonz.

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.