There's a fine line when it comes to electric Chicago blues made after the 1950s glory days of Chess Records. It separates those artists whose style carries a noticeable degree of soul-tinged, urban sophistication—while still retaining enough of that crucial Delta dirt—from those who've wholly sunk into the kind of slick, uptown cheese that makes authenticity seekers reach for their Howlin' Wolf box sets. And, unfortunately, since the passings of Wolf and his fellow giants, too many of the Windy City's blues exports have been in the vapid, latter vein. So thank God, then, for Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, who's a rare and gloriously refreshing exception to this sad trend, and will play at the Towne Crier in Pawling on February 5.
One of three Chicago blues guitarists sharing the same name—there's also Luther "Georgia Boy" Johnson (aka "Snake Boy" Johnson), who died in 1976, and Luther "Houserocker" Johnson, still with us—"Guitar Junior" is easily the best known. (To add to the confusion, though, Chi-Town's Lonnie Brooks also called himself "Guitar Junior" early on.) Given the combination of this Johnson's upbringing and professional background, his greatness in the genre was practically a birthright. Born in 1939 in Itta Bena, Mississippi, he was soaked in the blues as a boy; Robert Nighthawk and the "second" Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) were early idols. In 1955 he moved to Chicago, where he joined in the city's famously vibrant scene of other transplanted Mississippi musicians.
It was during this time, the story goes, that local guitar legends Otis Rush and Magic Sam, unable to afford to hire additional side men, had begun integrating their stinging, single-note lead licks with hard, distorted chords as way of filling out the sounds of their smaller bands—thus developing the West Side style that so influenced Eric Clapton and others. Johnson fell strongest under the spell of Magic Sam, who became his mentor, and by 1973 he had gained enough of a reputation to land a spot in Muddy Waters's band. Between world tours with Waters, Johnson cut his solo debut, Luther's Blues (1976, Black and Blue Records), with members of Waters's group.
Besides performing with Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Allman Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, and Jerry Garcia, Johnson appeared in the hit 1980 comedy The Blues Brothers. In the early '80s he relocated to the Boston area and put together his own tough combo, the Magic Rockers. Since then he's kept busy, releasing more albums—two of which won him a 1984 Grammy and a 1985 W. C. Handy Award—and regularly working the blues festivals and clubs around the planet.
With the inescapable preponderance of soulless bar-band hackery that currently passes for blues in most quarters, and the inevitable fading of the generation descended from the music's Mississippi crucible, the importance of catching a genuine bluesman of gifted technique like Johnson—while he's still here—just can't be recommended enough.
Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson and the Magic Rockers will perform at the Towne Crier in Pawling on February 5 at 8:30pm. Tickets are $25 and $30. (845) 855-1300; www. townecrier.com.