Trying to distinguish between the various vocalists called Joe Johnson is pretty difficult – if not impossible. But I will make the effort because there are some really fine tracks performed by the guy who most likely was a native of Louisiana, possibly Gretna or Crowley, which really should get a bit of public attention. This Johnson first recorded for the redoubtable Jay Miller at his famous studio In Crowley, LA in 1966 laying down the usual four tracks. Two of these were released on Abet as part of Miller’s long term and very successful partnership with Nashville’s Ernie Young, with the Swamp Blues styled “Dirty Woman Blues” being coupled with the rather doo wop flavoured “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me”. The unissued sides were more Swamp Blues in the form of “Alimonia Blues” and “We Gonna Rub” which majored on Slim Harpo’s incomparable “Baby Scratch My Back”.
The following year he was back with Miller laying down one of the best tributes to Redding in the shape of the heartfelt ballad Otis Is Gone for which Miller started a new label appropriately called Cry. The very simple and “lean” arrangement only accentuated Johnson’s clear distress. Around the turn of the 60s he was in Gretna, recording for the really obscure Crown label, with his backing group the Admirations. The socially conscious lyric to “Better Days & Better Ways” was very well intentioned, but from a musical point of view I’m much more attracted to the unassuming ballad “No More Worries”.
In 1973 Johnson joined the large numbers of Louisiana singers who made the temporary journey north to Jackson, MS to record with the now sadly departed genius Wardell Quezergue at Malaco. And both the sides that he cut there are absolute beauties. The gently swaying Perfect Love Affair (or “poifect” as the New Orleans pronunciation has it) makes a super groove thanks to the interplay between the funky bass, easy drum pattern, tight horns and those great harmony singers. Even better was The Blind Man, one of my favourites of all the Malaco/Wardell tracks. The song has such a lovely melody and just “poifect” chord changes, the horn and string sections make a super background for Johnson to sing out his despair and hopelessness. One of those tracks I have to listen to for a second time every occasion I hear it. The sides made a brief and now rare appearance on the Malaco label before being leased out to GSF along with tracks by Dorothy Moore and Chuck Brooks.
In 1977 Johnson was back in Gretna cutting some sides for local producer Tommy Tee's eponymous label. The message song “Do Unto Others” has rather too much of the disco about the beat for my taste, but Nothing Like Being Free with a similar lyric subject to “Nine Pound Steel” is much more to my taste. I like the horn charts and the chord changes, plus it has the benefit of one of Joe’s very best vocals on it – check out those occasional falsetto phrases. Although the 45 mentions an LP “Do Unto Others” I have never seen it and it may not have actually materialised.
Sometime in that decade a Joe Johnson made a live LP at the Ghetto Club in Dallas, TX which may well have been the same artist. I don’t get too many New Orleans styled vocals from it, but the group blow up a storm in front of a noisy and partisan crowd. The tracks are a mixture of blues, R & B and soul covers such as Otis’ “These Arms Of Mine” and Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City”. I’m not 100% convinced this is the same Johnson and would welcome views on this issue.
But it is a certainty that the Louisiana artist recorded one more 45 for Syla in the late 70s or possibly into the 80s. Although his version of Tyrone Davis’ “Can I Change My Mind” doesn’t really add much to the original, I like his cut of Jerry Jeff Walker’s classic “Mr Bojangles”. The synths are kept under a pretty tight rein, and the horn section is “real”, as are the rhythm section. Probably the best soul version of the song I know.
UPDATE ~ I have now found the Joe Johnson 45 on Jo-El from Dallas and it is clearly not the same guy as the Louisiana singer. Therefore I must assume that the Texas Joe Johnson is the same guy who made the live LP which I mention above. And so I have removed both Texan records from the discography.
My great friend Michel found the 45 picture sleeve image of the real Joe Johnson shown at the top of the page. I'm really grateful to him.
Santa bring my baby back / Dirty woman blues ~ ABET 9417 (1966)
Otis is gone / Got my oil well pumpin’ ~ CRY 1100 (1967)
Better days & better ways / No more worries ~ CROWN 13 (late 60s?)
Perfect love affair / The blind man ~ MALACO 1019 / GSF 6909 (1973)
Do unto others / Nothing like being free ~ TEE (1977)
Mr Bojangles / Can I change my mind ~ SYLA 7930 (1979?)
1."Dirty Woman Blues" and the unissed "We Gonna Rub" recording from the same Session can be found on the Ace UK CD "Genuine Blues".
2. Thanks to my great friends John McGuigan for the suggestion and Michel who kindly saved me from embarrassment over this artist.
3. You can find "The Blind Man"on "Troubled Waters" (Grapevine GVCD 3010) and "Perfect Love Affair" is on "Strung Out" (Grapevine GVCD 3015). Thanks to Pete Nickols for this info.