Jimmy Johnson doesn’t reveal his age, as he made abundantly clear June 8 during his afternoon duo set at the 35th annual Chicago Blues Festival. So, let’s just say that Johnson is an outstanding singer-guitarist who happens to be 89. He proved that several hours later at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion with a fiery rendition of Magic Sam’s “I’ve Been Down So Long” during a salute to the 65th anniversary of Chicago’s Delmark Records.
Introduced by emcee Dick Shurman as “the last man standing” among a generation of postwar Southern bluesmen who called Chicago’s westside home, Johnson stood out during the set among 18 artists who have plied their trade at the venerable Chicago blues and jazz label. Accompanied by the solid, jazz-influenced guitar licks of Dave Specter, who led the backing band with a steady hand, Johnson displayed amazing instrumental dexterity and an emotion-drenched tenor on the Magic Sam number.
Johnson’s star turn led directly into “Hoodoo Man Blues,” a finale that made good use of most of the musicians who appeared during the program, particularly harmonica player and vocalist Omar Coleman. The iconic song from the 1965 Junior Wells album that put Delmark on the blues map was a welcome choice, and certainly more fitting than the countless versions of “Sweet Home Chicago” that customarily draw the curtain on such ensemble programs.
Bob Koester, who founded the label as “Delmar,” named for a boulevard in St. Louis before moving to Chicago and adding the “K” for his last name, appeared at a morning panel discussion. “It started as a hobby for me,” the 85-year-old Koester said. “The blues have been more commercially successful [than jazz] for the label, which surprised the hell out of me.” And Hoodoo Man Blues, along with Magic Sam’s 1967 LP West Side Soul, remain two of Delmark’s enduring treasures.
The evening program expanded on a theme introduced by Delmark’s Tribute album, which honored many of the label’s blues stalwarts of the 1960s and ‘70s. It was released in conjunction with the anniversary and the company’s sale in April to a pair of Chicago musician/educators. New owners Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari proclaimed during the evening program their commitment to releasing new music, not merely servicing Delmark’s back catalog.
To carry on, the label will rely upon contributors such as Friday mainstage acts Mississippi Heat, with its retro groove led by harpist Pierre Lacocque, and the Corey Dennison Band, a high-flying blues-rock outfit.
Other Delmark acts strutted their stuff on the smaller stages, notably the new Rockwell Avenue Blues Band, a sort of sideman supergroup featuring guitarist Steve Freund, singer-harmonicist Tad Robinson and keyboardist Ken Saydak. Emotive vocalist Sharon Lewis used her energy and a brief assist from harmonica wizard Sugar Blue to overcome the gloom of a noontime shower, and Guy King, the Israeli-born guitarist for the late Delmark artist Willie Kent, showed that he refuses to observe the conventional restraints of the blues idiom.
After three days of dicey weather, a thick fog shrouded the downtown skyline, adding to the drama of the June 10 headlining performance by soul-gospel great and civil rights pioneer Mavis Staples, 78. The onetime lead vocalist for the Chicago-based Staple Singers has re-energized her career with a series of well-received albums, first on Alligator Records and more recently on Anti-.
Staples’ husky contralto found perfect onstage accompaniment in the ultra-versatile fretwork of Rick Holmstrom, onetime guitarist for Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers. Staples sprinkled favorites from her beloved family band, such as “Respect Yourself,” “Freedom Highway” and the closer, “I’ll Take You There,” with numbers from her latest album, If All I Was Was Black, including the defiant “Who Told You That” and the healing “Build a Bridge.” She was in particularly fine form for her Chicago homecoming show. DB