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Sunday, August 19, 2012

I'm Gonna Leave - Little Johnny Christian

Johnny Christian was born John C. Christian on August 18/1936, Cleveland, Mississippi. His parents were both devoted Christians and Little Johnny spent many of his younger days in the church, when he was twelve he began sing in the choir. The choir singing made a big impression on the little boy. As Johnny himself said:"As I would stand there singing, I watched the people´s faces glow as they got involved in the music." Johnny´s talent was too big for the small neighborhood church and he began sing in the other local choirs. The final step in the gospel music world came when he moved to Chicago in 1951 and, a few years later, joined the gospel quartet Highway Q.Cs. The Q.Cs had earlier included Johnnie Taylor and Sam Cooke. Johnny was a full-time member between 1956 - 1964 (Other sources say 1957 - 1961). During this time Johnny and the group recorded several songs on VeeJay records. Around 1963-64 Johnny became tired of the constant traveling and left the group. He now planned to live in Chicago and support himself with a daily job. Johnnie spent his days in a candy factory but in the evenings he learned the blues in the West side blues clubs. He left his day time job and began practicing playing the bass and remembering the lyrics of blues songs.

In 1968 Johnny started his first own band, Chicago Players, with himself on bass and singing, Willie Mason on guitar, Willie Patrick drums and Von Davis harmonica. Their regular places were Sylvio´s, the Squeeze Club and the 5th Avenue Lounge on Homan and Madison. This band lasted for five years, then the hardship of keeping a band together, get gigs and so on took it´s toll. But Christian didn´t have to wait long for his next band. The same year he dissolved Chicago Players(-73), he started in a new band, The Chicago Playboys. (Clovis "Little Don" Woodard on guitar, Chicago Pete on bass and Willie Warren drums.)The Playboys played mostly in the small West side bars and never made it big and in 1979 this band too split up for the same reasons as the Chicago Players.

The next step in Little Johnny Christians career came when he started his own group, The Playboys! (Probably Vernon Banks on guitar, Stan Banks on organ, Ooze Stanford on sax, Jerome Vaughn trumpet, Avery Brady bass and Willie Wardson on the drums.) Johnny now began writing new songs and stopped playing bass, concentrating on his singing instead. It paid off. The band got more gigs and began to make a name for themselves. They left the smallest West side clubs and played in bigger places like Eddie Shaw´s 1815 club, Erna´s Lounge and Bootsy´s. In Majestic Lounge (1422 S. Pulaski) they even for a period was the house band.

A record company owner, Chico Chism, heard the band in one of these clubs and realized they had something special. In June 1982 the Playboys recorded a single on the Cher-Kee label (Cher-Kee 537) produced by Roosevelt Burnett: Ain´t gonna worry about tomorrow / I gotta sad feeling. The single has been re-realesed on Jimmy Dawkins´ Leric label (Leric Records LM36). The highlight of the single is Ain´t gonna worry... After an organ filled intro Little Johnny starts to sing "I´m gonna leave in the morning, aint´gonna worry about tomorrow". Great Chicago blues! The single was played on the radio and Johnny and the band almost got famous! Johnny was elected as one of the best r&b artists in 1982 by the Sullivan Awards Committee.

As time went on some of the band members left the group and for awhile "celebrities" like Johnnie B. Moore and Pete "Onion" Williams played in the Playboys. Jimmy Dawkins, who during this time spent more time on his record label Leric than his own career, tied Johnny and the Playboy´s to Leric. In 1983 Leric single 12584, New life / Face two hit the market. New life is reminiscent of Ain´t gonna worry about tomorrow and the flipside is the same song without Johnny's singing. Johnny recorded one more single on Leric, Luv Somebody / ? (?). I´m a Dawkins fanatic and he recorded many unknown artists in the beginning of the 80´s, but they tend to sound a little boring and that includes Little Johnny´s singles. But Dawkins worked hard to book his artists in the North side clubs and that helped some of them to go on further in their careers.

Little Johnny kept on playing during the rest of the 80´s. In 1989 he again got a recording chance and this time it was an album, Somebody Call My Baby on Big Boy Records (BB-1935). I think it also was the debut album on the Big Boy label. It´s a fantastic LP! The material ranges from hard core Chicago soul (All because of your love and Turning Point), to gritty lowdown West side blues (All your Love and Somebody call my baby) and an absolute masterful interpretation of McKinley Mitchell´s End of the rainbow. (Listen to a few seconds of Little Johnny´s intense singing near the end in All your love.). When Little Johnny sings he makes the material his, no matter who's song it´s in the first place:
"I never wanted to be like anybody else. I like to sing their songs, but I want to do it my way."
I agree with him. When I saw and heard Little Johnny Christian on his Swedish tour in November 1990 he sang dozens of blues standards and made them sound like new. Little Johnny is one of the best singers I ever have heard live. He sang with total control and could wail and growl real hard without any noticeable effort.

Three years later Little Johnny Christian recorded a follow up album for Big Boy (BB 1939). I haven´t heard it, but the songs are: Ain´t gonna worry about tomorrow, Since I met you baby, See what you do to me, Knock on wood, Country girl, Somebody don´t change the lock in my door, You told me baby and There was a time. I guess it sounds like BB 1935 and then it definitively is worth buying! (And I guess the drawbacks are the same too, a "murky" sound and a little bit too long songs. But if you´re a Chicago West side Blues Man/Woman... Spend your money!)
And, sadly and bitter, the Little Johnny Christian story ends here. He died of cancer in January 27/1993, Chicago, IL. Again, a great performer died far too young.

Sources: Jefferson 66, liner notes on BB 1935, record reviews.
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