It’s something of a mystery why Jimmy Johnson hasn’t achieved greater popular success. Johnson is blessed with one of the most distinctive voices in modern blues–a keening high tenor that some say evokes a bluesier Jackie Wilson but always reminds me of the late blues shouter Roy Brown. His guitar work is a pastiche based on the styles of the men he idolized when he was coming up–Magic Sam, Otish Rush, Freddie King, and Matt “Guitar” Murphy, as well as jazz guitarists Kenny Burrell and Grant Green. He keeps these ideas fresh with string bends, dramatic dips and fluctuations in volume, and other devices used in novel combinations and unexpected places. And his repertoire of original material is extensive and unique.

Johnson has been on the Chicago scene for more than 35 years. He was singing gospel when he arrived here from Memphis in 1950; by 1960 he’d quit his day job to play music full-time. After scuffling around the west-side blues-club circuit with the likes of Magic Sam and Freddie King, he went with the tastes of the times and veered off into another direction, establishing himself in the mainstream of Chicago soul and R & B. Johnson’s first recording as a leader, on the Chicago-based Stuff label about 1968, featured a soul instrumental in the style of Junior Walker and the All-Stars.

Since then he’s recorded another R & B instrumental on his brother Syl Johnson’s Shama label (released in 1968 under the name of Jimmy’s band, the Deacons); two LPs on the French MCM label (the first a shared billing with fellow blues guitarist Luther Johnson Jr., the second featuring Jimmy and his own band, both recorded live in west-side clubs); an appearance on the Alligator anthology Living Chicago Blues; and critically acclaimed LPs on Delmark and Alligator. He’s also done session work with Otis Rush, Jimmy Dawkins, Buster Benton, and others.

But despite this admirable track record, Johnson has had trouble finding a contemporary niche. His sound is sophisticated and light; there’s a breeziness to his up-tempo work that differs markedly from the gutbucket boogie or high-energy party music of many of his contemporaries, and his ballads tend more toward the plaintive than the gut-wrenching. Johnson’s music resides uneasily in a kind of middle territory–it’s neither the deep blues most people associate with Chicago, nor the jazzier, more swinging postwar Texas-California style, nor the hard funk or blues rock favored by many younger musicians. Johnson will take Percy Mayfield’s “Memory Pain” (retitled “Serves Me Right to Suffer”) and infuse it with a dose of raw-nerved Chicago intensity; then he’ll turn around and skip airily through Elmore James’s “The Sky Is Crying,” transforming what was a wracked testimonial to agony into a medium-tempo pop-blues ballad.

It’s probably that tendency toward breeziness that keeps many listeners from staying with Johnson long enough to savor the pleasures offered by his best work. He sometimes tries too hard to make standards palatable to contemporary tastes: shuffles will start to blend together, all sounding like watered-down versions of “Sweet Home Chicago,” or his minor-key ballads will be too light on the emotional commitment. On the other hand, he can be startlingly on target–when he inserts a reference to Cabrini Green into “Tobacco Road,” for instance, or when he grinds out a hard-edged version of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s topical “A Real Mother for Ya,” with its cynical references to modern-day social and economic woes.

Recently Johnson has also had a problem finding sidemen with the right combination of sophistication and punch to complement his stylistic shifts. He has yet to find a unit that can compare to the group that included bassist Larry Exum and keyboardist St. James Bryant, who were killed in late 1988 when the band’s van (Jimmy at the wheel) crashed en route back to Chicago from Indiana.

That accident sent a chill through the Chicago blues world and left Johnson emotionally shattered; some thought he’d retire. But after a few months he was back, looking a little older and more melancholy but with his enthusiasm apparently undiminished. He’s obviously got a resilient spirit, and the same combination of toughness and optimism runs through the best of his music.

That’s the side Johnson showed early on at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera a few weeks ago. His voice soared beautifully on Albert King’s standard “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and his guitar solo on that song was a sparkling demonstration of his strengths: he started off with a nod to King’s fierce precision and then cut into a series of Texas-style descending chords vaguely reminiscent of early Freddie King, linked together by light-fingered skitters and shimmering bends. There was an almost hiccupy gait to his solo as he avoided landing directly on the beat, choosing instead to fractionally anticipate or drop behind it in his attack. Such is Johnson’s craftsmanship that even his fills were complete little solos, crafted as carefully as his more sustained outings. They served as both punctuation and a link between phrases, setting the listener up for what came next.

Meanwhile the band–Jesse Lockridge on keyboards, bassist James Cloyd, drummer David Russell–worked manfully to keep up. A musician like Johnson, whose success depends on his ability to draw the audience in, needs backing powerful enough to sustain him in his attempts to poke and prod his music in new directions. That sureness wasn’t always present among the band at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, although Lockridge sometimes showed a refreshing jazz sensibility. He alternated between moody noodling that sounded almost like an acoustic piano and ballsy declarations in a broad-toned, electronically produced saxophone honk that was effective at first but soon became stale.

Johnson is famous for the depth of his repertoire. He can breathe new life into a standard, follow it with one of his own trademark minor-key blues numbers, and then romp through Brubeck’s “Take Five” without compromising either his dignity or his integrity. His originals reflect his musical sophistication; they’re lyrically distinctive, and their structure often shows remarkable innovation within the restrictions of the standard twelve-bar blues format.

At B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, however, he chose to largely ignore his own compositions. The oddly titled “Heap See” was the only Johnson original in the first set, and it was worth waiting for. The lightly syncopated pop riff that kicked it off sounded as if it was going to be the first verse, but it turned out to be the bridge; the song itself was more minor-key blues, performed with an intensity that elicited some of the most enthusiastic responses of the night.

But when that intensity lags, Johnson has a hard time keeping his listeners’ interest. Jimmy Reed’s “Baby You Don’t Have to Go” is about as far from Johnson’s polished adventurism as you can get, and the run-through at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera sounded perfunctory and even distracted. One might expect Junior Wells’s “Little by Little” to provide Johnson and the band with more to chew on, but Johnson’s clear high voice seemed unable to summon the necessary grit, and the band’s lope robbed the song of its lurking sense of anger without adding anything new.

Albert King’s “Don’t Burn Down the Bridge,” on the other hand, worked out well. Many Chicago listeners might be most familiar with Magic Slim’s version; Johnson wisely chose not to try to re-create either King’s steely macho or Slim’s declamatory roar. Instead, King’s harsh threat became a plea in Johnson’s hands. The band churned behind him with more aggression than usual, and his solo was dextrous and forceful, laid eloquently between the verses he sung in an aching wail.

A Jimmy Johnson performance is peppered with moments like that, when his understated passion combines with his musicianship to create a satisfying mix of polish and honesty. Those moments then stand in marked contrast to the times he seems content to skate lightly along the surface of the music’s emotion, either unwilling or unable to take the plunge. After a while, the question is inevitable: how can a musician of such talent allow himself these lapses?

The answer is that they’re probably not lapses at all, but rather a legacy of the musical atmosphere in which Johnson came of age. The late 50s and early 60s were an oddly schizophrenic era for black popular music in Chicago; at the same time that artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James were laying down some of the most powerful, uncompromising blues ever played, the city was developing a regional brand of soul music characterized largely by buoyant, danceable tunes (Jan Bradley’s “Mama Didn’t Lie,” “Raindrops” by the late Dee Clark).

Johnson, who immersed himself in both schools, apparently still feels comfortable exploring the implications of both. It’s an unusual combination for an artist who claims to derive a deeper emotional satisfaction from the blues than from any other kind of music; it’s also a virtually uncharted path for a modern Chicago bluesman. One wishes Johnson well on this unusual musical journey, but one can’t help wondering whether it will keep him from receiving the acclaim an artist of his musical ability deserves.

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