Created for artists who wish to retain ownership of their music while enjoying worldwide distribution, promotion, and the marketing services of a label, Blue Heart Records is a joint venture between Nola Blue and Blind Raccoon, introduced in 2020.
Voices like Johnny Tucker’s barely exist anymore in today’s guitar-dominated blues world.
His powerful pipes testify to a lifetime proudly spent singing and living the blues in ways that are no longer possible. If Johnny’s a rare commodity as an electrifying vocalist, his songwriting technique is even more unusual. He puts together lyrics inside the recording studio, listening to the band and coming up with words to fit their grooves.
That’s the way he did it throughout Johnny Tucker 75 and Alive. “It just flowed in my head,” says the Fresno, California-based singer. “I didn’t know what I was going to say until I said it. So it came out beautiful, man. Everything was right on time, like I’ve been doing the same songs for a long time, and that’s the first time I ever did it.
“I listen to the song one time, and then I be putting it together.”
Bob Auerbach, Johnny’s manager, owns the HighJohn label, previously the source for Tucker’s acclaimed CDs Why You Lookin’ At Me? in 2002 and 2018’s Seven Day Blues. Bob recruited Los Angeles guitar mainstay Kid Ramos as his producer this time, Ramos assembling his Allstars, featuring ace pianist Carl Sonny Leyland, to handle the swinging backing. “That’s my man!” says Johnny of Kid. “We go way back.” The combination meshed from the get-go.
“I just started calling out these different grooves, and we just went through them and let the tape roll, and Johnny was in his booth and he started making up words,” says Kid. “Everything was pretty much first or second take, and I just had all these grooves in my mind. And the band was a great band, so they were just able to follow my lead.”
So tightly constructed are Johnny’s ten numbers that you’d never suspect their improvisatory origins. The Allstars give each song its own special sound, Ramos’ crisp T-Bone Walker-influenced picking driving the jumping “All Night Long, All Night Wrong” and a sumptuous downbeat “There’s A Time For Love.” Johnny roars the swamp poppish “If You Ever Love Me” and a Magic Sam-styled “Treat Me Good” with Kid hooked up to a shimmery Magnatone amp. “It’s got that true vibrato,” notes Ramos.
Special guest Bob Corritore’s wailing harp spices the Windy City shuffle “Can’t You See” and a hurtling “What’s On My Mind,” the latter stoked by Leyland’s two-fisted boogie 88s. “Man, I laughed for two days doing that song, ‘What’s On My Mind,’” says Johnny. “But it worked!” “What’s The Matter” has Kid conjuring up Albert King’s fret fire as Tucker rides the rhumba-tinged rhythm; his crashing slide powers an Elmore James-patterned “Dance Like I Should.”
Tucker’s vocal exuberance is a delight on the slashing “Have A Good Time Tonight” and a funky “Gotta Do It One Time.” “I just kind of started playing that groove, and he came up with that,” says Ramos of the latter. “I put the horns on it, and it came out really good.” Kid’s two instrumentals pay fiery tribute to Albert Collins (“Snowplow”) and Earl Hooker (“Hookline”).
Fresno-born Johnny hailed from a huge sharecropping family. “We picked cotton and cut grapes,” he says. “We did everything we were supposed to do out in the field.” Johnny’s father encouraged his sons to pursue musical careers. “Daddy played a lot of guitar,” he says. “Everybody had to shut up because Daddy sang low. He always sang real low like he was talking. And he never was no loud person. But he talked them words out. And I sung ‘em out. So that’s how I got to singing alongside of him, because he was singing words to a song that I never heard before.”
The youngster was drawn to percussion. “I got a lot of sound out of them pots and pans!” he says. “I got with a band and I was playing my pots and pans, and they said, ‘Oh, man, we’re gonna get you some congas!’” Pretty soon he graduated to a real drum kit. “He and his brothers would go to the local roadhouse and they would let them play, and they were pretty good,” says Auerbach. “They had to bring money home to the family, and five of the boys, I think, chose music.” James Brown exerted a heavy influence: “I’d try to sing everything he put out!”
In 1964, Johnny relocated to L.A. “There was more people playing music in Los Angeles than there was in Fresno,” he reasons. Tucker’s big break came when veteran blues guitarist Phillip Walker brought him into his band as his drummer. “That’s my favorite, Phillip. He taught me a lot about the music game,” he says. “He hired me because I could sing. I could sing the background for him.” Johnny remained an integral member of Walker’s band for decades, touring the world with him and playing drums and singing harmony on Phillip’s acclaimed album, The Bottom of the Top.
Tucker made his recording debut as a front man in cahoots with fellow singer James “Broadway” Thomas with the 1997 disc Stranded for producer Bruce Bromberg. Then he met Auerbach, a restaurateur whose father ran San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop during the ‘50s and ‘60s, at the Long Beach Blues Festival. “It was 103 degrees, and Johnny was in a three-piece felt suit, fedora and all,” says Bob, “electric blue, on a blanket, listening to the music. And I tripped on him!” It was the start of a business partnership that’s still going strong.
This album was recorded on October 17, 2020, which just happened to be Johnny’s 75th birthday. “His wife was in the studio with him. Her name was Georgia May Tucker,” says Auerbach. “Georgia has since passed, so the record is in tribute to her.”
Johnny Tucker is bravely carrying on without his beloved spouse. He still has the pipes, plenty of fresh songs, and now the splendid 75 and Alive—all testifying to the inherent truth of his new album’s title.
- Bill Dahl, Music Journalist