Those who bemoan the modernization of the blues will find plenty to love in Johnny Rawls. He’s an old-school bluesman, born and bred in Mississippi.
Old School in New Clothes
Handsome in a rough-hewn way, it’s not hard to imagine Rawls spending his early life toiling in the fields and making spare change playing after hours juke joints for audiences who number in the single digits. In truth Rawls’ views are more modern that one might suspect. Not surprisingly, Rawls describes his music as having “one foot in the past and one foot in the future. It is Old School updated for today.”
Christmas Present Blues
It didn’t take long for Rawls’ talent to become apparent. He went on to play with such greats as Joe Tex, ZZ Hill, Johnny Taylor and the Sweet Inspirations before graduating high school. But the most important graduation of his young life was in going from side musician to band director for a singer named OV Wright. Born Overton Vertis Wright, Rawls’ mentor had a highly successful career as a gospel-tinged soul singer. His influence on Rawls’ style must have been enormous, undoubtedly lasting beyond his death in 1980. Although the band (now billed as the Ace of Spades Band) continued to play together for another thirteen years, Rawls also plied his talents as itinerant sideman for a dazzling array for impressive names in soul and blues music. Among the heavyweights he played with were Little Milton, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Little Johnny Taylor and Blues Boy Willie.
On The Road Again (and again, and again)
In the years that have followed, Rawls had made a switch to Catfood Records and furthered his legacy of brilliantly conceived blues albums. But in some ways, he’s a throwback to the past days of the well-travelled blues man who made his living – and his reputation – mainly on the road. For Rawls this means much more than just getting accustomed to bad hotel room service. It means having (and keeping) an understanding of what audiences crave.
This mindset, for example, informs his sartorial choices in performance. In other words, Johnny Rawls is a man you’ll never catch on stage clad in jeans and a t-shirt.
And of course, it also means keeping the material fresh. When it comes to cranking out new material, Rawls’ philosophy is “If God gives you the talent, it’s not hard. And you know, everybody seems to be recording cover tunes. Everything is cover, cover, cover, cover, cover. To me, the blues can’t grow and reach new people if artists keep covering “T-Bone Shuffle” 10-hundred, million times”.
There’s no mistaking where Rawls stands. He’s an old-school guy, who loves to keep the blues new.