|DC Blues Society Black History Month program. David Jackson second from left, M. Lavert in white shirt in the back, Larry Johnson sitting down, David Harris on harmonica, not sure of bass or guitarist all the way to left and Miss Tina? on red dress. Not sure of the exact date but this is likely from February 1998. — with Ed Scott, David Jackson, Melvin LaVert and David Harris at Baird Auditorium, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.|
It wasn't until about half year after his passing in a Harlem, NY nursing home, that word got out that the great acoustic bluesman, Larry Johnson had passed away in the Summer of 2016. A few days ago word was that the date of passing was August 6 when he was 78. Johnson, was born May 15, 1938 in Wrightsville, Johnson County, Georgia.
The son of a traveling preacher, Johnson was inspired by the recordings of Blind Boy Fuller and learned to play a rudimentary guitar. After serving in the Navy between 1955 and 1959, he relocated to New York City. Upon arriving in New York he started performing in the blues scene recording for legendary Harlem record man Bobby Robinson, and then with Big Joe Williams and Alex Seward, primarily playing harmonica for Prestige-Bluesville. Through Seward he met Rev. Gary Davis who mentored Johnson and became the dominant influence on his guitar playing and music.
Davis recorded an album with Hank Atkins for Bluesville and also played with Davis as well as appeared on some recordings of Davis. After recording on harmonica with New York City electric bluesman Charles Walker, Johnson recorded in 1970 for the Yazoo subsidiary label, "Fast and Funky," which displayed his warmth as a vocalist and his superb fingerstyle guitar in the manner of Reverend Davis. His renditions of blues like "Pick Poor Robin Clean" and "Keep It Clean" and originals like "Charley Stone" and "The Beat From Rampart Street," made this one of the finest acoustic blues recordings of the past 50 years. The Baltimore Bljues Society issued this on CD in 1997 in a limited edition.
A couple years later, he recorded "Country Blues," with John Hammond adding harmonica and steel guitar, for Biograph that was reissued in 1995 as "Midnight Hour Blues." In the February 1996 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 208) I wrote "Still active in New York today, Larry Johnson’s musical star shined brightly in the sixties and early seventies. As these magnificent 1971 recordings display, it is criminal that such a talent should have languished in obscurity while far less talented artists are acclaimed as acoustic blues legends. A student of the Reverend Gary Davis, Johnson displays plenty of the facile Piedmont style on this release while John Hammond’s accompaniments on slide guitar or harmonica compliment the spirit of Johnson’s vocals, whether on the spirited opening Blood Red River, or Johnson’s morose rendition of Mercy Dee’s One Room Country Shack. And to listen to Johnson sing is as much a pleasure as the simply scrumptious instrumental work over a range of blues standards, including Midnight Hour Blues, Nobody’s Biz-Ness and When Things Go Wrong. Hammond joins Johnson on a vocal on the closing Tell Me Mama. While Hammond is basically known as an interpreter of Mississippi blues, his stunning accompaniments here are noteworthy, as is Johnson’s own sterling playing and wonderful vocals. Simply a terrific reissue that is welcome back on the scene."
|Larry Johnson at 1998 Baltimore Blues Society show|
For the next couple decades he recorded a bit, including for Spivey Records on his own and as an accompanist, a couple albums with harmonica player Nat Riddles as well as performances in Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival as well as the National Downhome Blues Festival in Atlanta. In 1990 he recorded an album "Railroad Man" for JSP Records and the previously mentioned "Midnight Hour Blues" was reissued in 1995.
It was during a blizzard in winter of 1996 (I believe) that Marcia Selko, President of the Baltimore Blues Society and her husband Brad came across Larry playing at Terra Blues. There excitement of seeing him perform led to them handling some booking for Larry including performances for the Baltimore and DC Blues Society, and appearances at Festivals including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Pocono Blues Festival as well as the reissue of "Fast and Funky." It also led to Larry appearing again in Europe where he recorded for Armadillo and Stella Records. He also appeared at various Blues Week workshops in England and the United States as well as performing in Europe and New York City, until health issues curtailed his music.
I only got to meet Larry a few times but found him a wonderful gentleman and marvelous blues artist. He was arguably the finest of Rev. Davis' students and the recorded legacy he leaves us is a significant one. Here is Larry doing Midnight Hour Blues. (photos on this page are mine).
For a full discography of Larry Johnson's recordings, visit https://www.wirz.de/music/johnsfrm.htm.