Bluesletter: Thank you for doing this interview with us Jimmy.
Jimmy Johnson: My pleasure.
BL: So you started playing guitar at the age of 30 is that right?
JJ: Yup, it was right at the end of my 29th that I started playing.
BL: What were you doing at the time?
JJ: I was a welder, at a place called Harrison Sheet Metal out in Cicero. I was a Class A combination welder. I made top, top dollar.
BL: Right on, so what made you start playing music?
JJ: Magic Sam used to live next door to me.
BL: You’re kidding me!
JJ: Yeah man, when he moved to Chicago he moved next door to me. He had a guitar, an old acoustic guitar with no strings on it, and I had money, he didn’t have no money he was only about 14. He said to me, “I play guitar but I ain’t got no strings” so I bought him some strings. A couple of weeks later I saw him and man, that cat was slammin’ on that guitar.
BL: So he was still just a teenager?
JJ: Sam? Magic Sam did his first record when he was 15. A lot of people didn’t know that, they must not have read the bio.
BL: So that just got you thinking about it?
JJ: Oh, well later after he got to be such a big star, and I used to go with him on gigs and he’d get on stage and the people would be like, “Oh yeah!” and the girls would all be going crazy and I said to myself, “I can do that!” So I decided to get myself a guitar. I knew how to play a little bit because Matt Murphy we were from the same home town and Matt Murphy had a guitar, and I messed around with that a little bit.
BL: Wow, so you knew Matt Murphy too? I guess you know just about every body now.
JJ: (Laughing) Just about.
[pullquote]I blame the system for a whole lot of it. The system pushes…[/pullquote]
BL: Do you remember any of the tunes you first learned to play, anything that drew you right away?
JJ: My first song that I learned how to play on stage was Next Time You See Me.
BL: Where are you from, where did you grow up?
JJ: Holly Springs, Mississippi.
BL: What was that like?
JJ: Well, I didn’t know any different, but if I had to do it now I would say oh no, but if you don’t know any different what can you do?
BL: You came to Chicago in 1950?
JJ: Yep, 1950.
BL: Did you come specifically to be a welder?
JJ: I just came here to get a job that paid. My uncle worked at a sheet metal factory and he took me after 3 days and I ended up having a good job. At first I just started off as a welders helper. I never went to school for welding, but the guy I was helping he would take a break, and I would take the helmet to protect your eyes and take the torch and weld. One time he came back and said, “You did this?” “I’m gonna tell the boss because you weld as good as me.” And that’s how I got started welding, I learned all types of welding, arch, carbonate, brazing, and gas.
BL: Do you feel like Chicago has changed a lot since you moved here? Is there anything that stands out?
[pullquote]I started using the technology is because if I play the same song as Lightning Hopkins did, I don’t feel like I accomplished too much, I wanted to do something different. [/pullquote]
JJ: It’s like night and day. The mentality of the people, that is to say the mentality of both white and black people. The white people were very bad back then. You were more of a brother back then than you are now, you still a brotha anywhere you go but they accept you more so than they did back then. The black people, man they lost sight on all directions, they have none. I don’t know exactly how it got like that, but I have a good idea. I blame the system for a whole lot of it. The system pushes, it’s like a cat, it won’t harm you, push him up in a corner. Push him up in a corner and he will come out fighting. So it’s kind of the same way. The system kind of pushes you back into a corner. That ain’t no excuse for some of these guys though.
BL: You haven’t released any albums since 2004; do you have anything you’re cooking up?
JJ: Nah, it didn’t really make a lot of difference. I didn’t want to do an album until I did a real good one. Believe it or not there’s a bunch of people who want me to do an album but it’s me saying no. I’m thinking about doing one this year but I’d be putting on my own label, because I don’t ever make no money.
BL: What was it like recording Two Johnsons Are Better Than One with your brother Syl?
JJ: I didn’t like the record. Mainly I didn’t like how it came out. One of the main problems was I was on tour in Europe for five weeks before we did it, and I told them before I came back don’t book the studio, give me two weeks. Jet lag will kill you. Your body has to readjust. I got back they had the studio booked four days after I had come back and I could not sing well, I probably could have played well but you know how it is when you get an attitude every thing works bad, nothing works right and I did have an attitude. Why were they doing this? The bad part about it was they were rushing me, “Jimmy we got to do this record!” and it didn’t come out for another year and a half.
BL: Are there any guitarists that you specifically tried to pick stuff up off of or emulate because you liked their sound?
JJ: People I really liked that are guitar players? B.B. King is the number one guy, everybody know that. Then you have Albert King, Albert Collins, (Lulf Wulton?) T-Bone Walker.
BL: You have a pretty sophisticated set up you use for your acoustic sets here, your whole guitar and peddle set up, how long have you been using that system?
JJ: I think I’ve been using this system about four years, and before that I used to just retune the guitar.
BL: What got you into using that rig? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
[pullquote]…you can’t just pick up the guitar and just start playing stuff, you got to play what other people play…[/pullquote]
JJ: It’s a GB99 and it transposes the notes, I can tune it one way and then it tunes it another way. Cause I play in different tunage. The reason I started using the technology is because if I play the same song as Lightning Hopkins did, I don’t feel like I accomplished too much, I wanted to do something different.
BL: Who plays in your band?
JJ: I probably don’t have no band, I usually use freelance guys, sometimes I have Mike Wheeler, Larry, Mann, Ricco, sometimes I have Curry. Usually my drummer is always the same, Ray.
BL: How long have you been working with him?
JJ: Maybe, about 7 or 8 years.
BL: Do you have any thoughts about people picking up the blues now? Who are just learning to play?
JJ: If you’re going to play the blues, what ever you’re going to play you have to have an influence, because you can’t just pick up the guitar and just start playing stuff, you got to play what other people play, and after you do that for so long you got to try to develop your own style.
BL: Do you have any of your tunes that you’re especially proud of or that came out really good?
JJ: I have quite a few tunes that I’m proud of but they didn’t make a lot of noise, I thought they were good but I guess who am I? (Laughs)
Watch the video of this interview and see a live performance by Jimmy Johnson at Buddy Guys Legends YouTube channel, or directly at www.youtube.com/buddyguyslegends