Willie Johnson

Willie Johnson
Unsung Heroes of Blues Guitar

By Peter Parcek
November 2011

The lineage of great Blues guitarists is long and distinguished. In this new series I would like to shine a light on influential, key players who may not have received commensurate notice or acclaim. I call these masters the Unsung Heroes of Blues Guitar.

The first two blues records I bought were "The Best of Muddy Waters" and "Moanin' In The Moonlight" by Howlin' Wolf. The Wolf record featured several great guitarists - Hubert Sumlin, Jody Williams and Lee Cooper- along with the subject of today's exploration, Willie Johnson.

On one early 1950's Wolf track, the singer exhorts... "play that guitar Willie Johnson until it smoke(s)!" Willie Johnson was a gifted and burning guitarist with an explosive tone and a slashing, swinging style. You can hear his influence in the work of Eric Clapton, Robbie Robertson, Nick Curran and many other great contemporary players.

When I heard the first two tracks on the Wolf record I purchased – “Moanin' at Midnight and “How Many More Years” - they blew the top of my head off. Proper Records’ Memphis Days and Ace Records’ Howlin Wolf Sings The Blues are two (among many) fine reissues that feature generous dollops of Willie Johnson with Howlin' Wolf.

Thanks Mr. Johnson for your brilliant, soulful playing and innovative approach to the art of electric blues guitar.

Here is a YouTube link to Moanin' at Midnight

Please find enclosed data from Wikipedia on Willie Johnson.

Editor’s Note - As a 2010 Nominee for the “Best New Artist,” Peter Parcek is one of the best contemporary blues musicians out of Boston; though Boston is no longer a hotbed of blues, Peter is an international level talent. He is one of the Boston Blues communities “Unsung Heroes.”

Given Peter’s stature, who best to provide a master class for some of the hidden gems within the blues community?

If you have not had a chance to check out Peter’s material, look at www.peterparcek.com or check out the Peter Parcek 3 with Scissormen, The Ten Foot Polecats and friends as part of the Regent Roots N’ Blues Review.

Willie Johnson (guitarist)
Willie Johnson (March 4, 1923 – February 26, 1995) was an American blues guitarist. He is best known as the principal guitarist in Howlin' Wolf's band from 1948 to 1953. His raucous, distorted guitar playing features on Howlin' Wolf's Memphis recordings of 1951-3, including the 1951 hit "How Many More Years." His early use of distortion marks him out as one of the pioneers of the electric guitar.

Willie Lee Johnson was born in Senatobia, Mississippi.

As the guitarist in the first band led by Howlin' Wolf, Johnson appeared on most of Wolf's recordings between 1951 and 1953, providing the slightly jazzy yet raucous guitar sound that was the signature of all of Wolf's Memphis recordings. Johnson also performed and recorded with other blues artists in the Memphis area, including pianist Willie Love, Willie Nix, Junior Parker, Roscoe Gordon, Bobby "Blue" Bland and others.

When Wolf moved to Chicago in around 1953, he could not convince Johnson to join him. Johnson stayed on in Memphis for several years, playing on a number of sessions for Sun Records, including a1955 collaboration with vocalist Sammy Lewis, "I Feel So Worried," released under the name Sammy Lewis with Willie Johnson. By the time Johnson relocated to Chicago, Wolf had already hired guitarist Hubert Sumlin as a permanent replacement. James Cotton later recalled that Wolf replaced Johnson because of his heavy drinking.

Johnson occasionally performed and recorded with Howlin' Wolf after settling in Chicago, and also played briefly in the band of Muddy Waters, as well as a number of other local Chicago blues musicians, including J. T. Brown, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He made his living mainly outside of music for the rest of his life, only occasionally sitting in with the bands of his old friends around Chicago. His final recordings were made for Earwig Music in Chicago in the early 1990s. Willie Johnson died in Chicago on February 21, 1995.

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