My name is Screamin’ Joe Johnson and I sing the blues.
I’ve sang my songs and poured my heart out in every smoky old blues club from
Chicago to for the past 60 years. I’ve worked with all the greats in my day: Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed… But there was one person; one person more than all them others, who didn’t just play the blues - he was the blues… Memphis
They called him Lightnin’.
They said if you was ever lucky enough to hear him play…
First of all, lemme just stop here and say, Lightnin’ didn’t just ‘play’ that beat-up, old electric guitar of his; he fondled it, he caressed it, he made love to it; and just when you thought he was through, he coaxed his old gal (that’s what he called that guitar – his ‘old gal’) into screamin’ out some of the nastiest, down and dirty blues riffs ever heard this side of Hell...
But I digress.
They said if you was ever lucky enough to hear him play, you was one of the lucky ones; because when Lightnin’ and his old gal was jammin’, you couldn’t see his damned fingers move – he was goin’ so fast. It was like that guitar was a part of him; an extension of his arms, his hands, his fingers – yeah, especially his fingers.
I guess that’s why folks called him Lightnin’.
He wasn’t just a guitar player. He was a bluesman. He was a bluesman in every sense of the word. Some folks whispered that he traded his very soul to the old man in black for the right to be called a bluesman...
Lightnin’ came up out of the
delta, with no possessions other than the clothes on his back and an old guitar by his side. In a matter of a few years, he hadn’t just become a part of the ‘blues scene’ – he was the ‘blues scene’. People who had been playing for years came to see this young man play just so they could see what all the fuss was about and to try and copy his style. But as much as they tried to copy him, none of them managed to ever capture that spark that was inside of him. That spark is what made him better than all the imitators. Mississippi
Eventually though, it was the fame, mixed with his own demons that caused him to fall from the limelight.
During his prime, Lightnin’ whored and drank with the best of them. People came out of the woodwork just to be his ‘friend’. Towards the end, when his fame, his friends and his health had all abandoned him, he still drank bourbon like it was water and took pills like they was candy.
Through it all though, there was one thing that Lightnin’ cared about more than any woman, any high, any fame…
Lightnin’ loved the blues. When you walked into a club and heard that unmistakable gravely voice of his crying out in anguish because his woman had done him wrong – it touched you. When you heard his 'old gal' wailing and screaming at you through the haze of broken dreams and cigarette smoke – it moved you. No matter what you were doing, when you heard Lightnin' you stopped and listened – and damned if you didn't feel whatever it was that he wanted you to feel.
That’s how good he was.
Even towards the end of his career, when he was older and no longer drew the crowds like he did when he was young; and people started sayin’ things, like he was washed up, burnt out, an old has-been whose glory days had passed him on by; even then Lightnin’ showed them that he was still a bluesman and that he could still jam with the best of them.
Lightnin’ showed them that, even then, he could still make his old gal cry like a baby, moan and wail out in ecstasy, or rumble like thunder.
Lightnin’ and his old gal showed them that they could still cut some nasty blues riffs, and I swear to God that you still couldn’t see his damned fingers move…
copyright © 2011 Kevin Routh