Chicago bluesman Jimmy Johnson passed away January 3 in Harvey, Illinois. He was 93.
Born November 25, 1928, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Johnson (VG, September ’20) grew up picking cotton, tending farm animals, and going to church. He also sang in gospel groups, became a welder, and purchased his first guitar in 1956, at age 28. He played his first gig at 30 and released his first album at 50.
Best known for traditional 12-bar blues, Johnson’s repertoire included jazz, country, and R&B. In the ’60s and early ’70s, Johnson was a fixture on the Chicago blues circuit. His contemporaries were Otis Rush and Magic Sam, and was influential in helping shape what became the Chicago sound. His style was unique, fusing Chicago’s rich jazz and R&B heritage with the blues to distinguish it from the grittier sounds of Buddy Guy and Albert King.
Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer described Johnson as, “A searing and intense guitar player and a distinctive singer whose music had the deep emotional impact of the best blues.”
Never receiving the worldwide acclaim of his peers, Johnson was Chicago’s best-kept secret and packed local blues clubs. He experienced more attention in Europe, where many of his recordings were produced in Germany and France in the ’80s and ’90s. He rode the wave of many blues revivals and was name-dropped by many white blues adjacent white artists like Mick Jagger, Mick Fleetwood, and Eric Clapton.
Johnson won several blues awards and was inducted to the Blues Hall of Fame in 2016. His final album was 2020’s Every Day of Your Life.
This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.