Mississippi bluesman Big Jack Johnson dies

Monday, 14 March 2011 10:51 AM Written by 

Big_Jack_Johnson_Aug_2010_copy_copyI regret to report that Mississippi bluesman Big Jack Johnson, 70, has died. His condition was serious enough over the weekend that there had been an erroneous report of his death on Saturday, which I repeated here yesterday, then corrected.

Sadly, Johnson did not recover, and died early this morning in Memphis, according to several sources close to the Johnson family. There's not a lot of information available yet about his death, but he had apparently had some health issues for a while.

Johnson was one of the last of the deep-blues musicians out of the Clarksdale area of Mississippi. He's probably most widely know for being a part of the Jelly Roll Kings, a Mississippi trio made of of Johnson, Sam Carr and Frank Frost. But he also had a local reputation as a tough, hard-working singer and guitarist in the best of the deep blues tradition, and didn't really tour much beyond the Clarksdale, Miss., area until the mid-'90s or so.

He also played bass and blues mandolin, and was  nicknamed the "Oil Man" because his day job for years was driving an oil truck.

Johnson was the sole survivor of the major blues artists featured in the 1992 movie, "Deep Blues," based on the fine blues book by Robert Palmer

Johnson had worked and recorded most recently with the Cornlickers, a band with roots in both Harrisburg and Clarksdale. In a phone call this morning, Cornlickers drummer Dale Wise  asked that I pass on the information that the proceeds from Big Jack's last two CDs and a third yet to be released will all go to the Johnson family. Johnson, like many old bluesmen, had no real health insurance, or funds for burial, so these kinds of sales are important. The last two CDs, "Katrina" and "Juke Joint Saturday Night," can be found on CD Baby.

When I started working on this information about Big Jack yesterday, he was a distant blues figure, but now he seems a lot closer. I wish I'd had the chance to meet him. 

Here's a nice tribute from the Bob Corritore Blues Newsletter:

RIP Big Jack Johnson - July 30, 1940 to March 14, 2011. Sad news came in from Dave Riley and Amy Brat that legendary Mississippi guitarist/mandolinist/vocalist Big Jack Johnson has passed away this morning at 6am in his hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi after a long battle with heath issues. He was 70 years old. Note that there were some disturbing premature false announcements of Big Jack's passing 3 days before his actual passing. Big Jack's inventive, energetic, Delta-rooted guitar, rich confident vocals, down home songwriting, and larger than life stage presence made him one of the most celebrated bluesmen of Mississippi. His long music career included much national and international touring, many amazing record releases, and a huge amount of praise and respect. Big Jack was born in Lambert, Mississippi in the summer of 1940, and learned guitar from his father at age 13. He rose to prominence in the early 1960s working as a key member of the legendary Jelly Roll Kings, a champion blues band which also included Frank Frost and Sam Carr. Big Jack first appeared on record in the 1960s as the guitarist on two famous Frank Frost albums; Hey Boss Man on the Phillips International label (an offshoot of Sun Records) from 1962, and My Back Scratcher on Jewel from 1966. In the late 1970s, Michael Frank debuted his Earwig Music label with The Jelly Roll Kings / Rockin' The Juke Joint Down which also was a recording debut for Big Jack's great vocals. Soon afterward, Big Jack Johnson would start a solo career for himself, independent of the Jelly Roll Kings. His solo debut album, Oil Man (Big Jack used to hold down a day gig delivering oil barrels in Mississippi) on the Earwig label was released in 1987. This led to additional CDs for Earwig, a nice run with M.C. Records, and additional recordings for Rooster Blues, P-Vine Records, Right Coast Recording, and Big Jack Music. There was also a nice Jelly Roll Kings reunion album called Off Yonder Wall that came out in 1997 on the Fat Possum Records. Additionally, Big Jack appeared in the influential 1992 documentary movie Deep Blues. He was a popular festival and club entertainer, a warm and hospitable person, and an amazing musician. Big Jack Johnson was the last original member of the Jelly Roll Kings. His passing leaves a gap in the blues that will never again be filled. To see his amazing performance of "Catfish Blues" from the movie Deep Blues, click here.  Thanks for all the great music Big Jack. You are loved!

Here's a video of Big Jack from the 1992 film, "Deep Blues"

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