BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Baton Rouge has thousands now who gather each year for the Blues Fest. There can be no doubt, Red Stick loves its Blues artist. That's why it's a surprise that there's one so sophisticated and experienced whose name we don't know.
Thursday night at 9:30 pm, 74-year-old James Johnson will debut his very own album for the first time in his life.
In preparation for the Phil Brady's gig, Donna Britt went to a small house in Mid-City Baton Rouge for one last rehearsal. James Johnson was waiting on the porch with his walking cane and greeted 9News with a great big smile.
When the music started, it was just the man and his instrument (ax). The way the notes and riffs just flowed out of his fingers..the joy on his face as he added heat and curled phrase endings. James Johnson said, it never gets old.
"I learn something every single day. This instrument never stops giving me somethin'."
"You don't seem to be suffering the arthritis in your fingers that people your age often have..." Donna asked.
"Oh yes, I have arthritis," said Johnson. "I've gotten old! And I ain't quite as fast as I used to be," he laughed.
Johnson was in Slim Harpo's band, in fact, Slim's hit 'Baby, Scratch My Back' had signature licks created by James.
Johnson said, "We was rehearsing one night, and I just started playing these chords, and Slim liked it and started singing it. We worked it up, and people in the clubs loved it. So we said, let's make a record." Johnson devised a chicken sound on his guitar for Baby, Scratch My Back that caught on. You'll hear it used by many artists.
Johnson said when time came for Slim Harpo to seek bigger audiences, he headed to Chicago and asked James to come. James said he never really liked leaving South Louisiana. He didn't enjoy it. Johnson was born in Erwinville, but says he's lived most of his life in Baton Rouge.
Miguel Hernandez had played in Baton Rouge bluesman Larry Garner, and conversation came around to Johnson one night. Hernandez said Garner told him, "He's the guy who put the chicken in the blues. I said, oh, ok."
Hernandez called Johnson out-of-the-blue, and said it's time for the backup musician to become a headliner.
Johnson said, "Miguel called me and said hey, Mr. Johnson ya wanta do a CD? I said, I'll think about that. And Miguel said, let's do it!"
Hernandez is producer of the CD and plays bass. The slender guy at the trap set in our down-home jam session was Joe Monk, who's worked extensively with Miguel. Joe jumped right in. People volunteered artwork for the cover. Miguel says Garden District Nursery owner Gordon Meese, Meese' friend Arnaud Staib helped to pay for the recording session and printing the CD.
Johnson says he feels this CD will be his legacy. He wrote all the songs, and even did a tribute to the songs he played with Slim Harpo. (You'll find a little Christmas song on there too.)