She intended to stay for just a few days.
However, those ‘few days’ have now turned into 28 years.
Twenty-eight wonderful years of singing the blues in one of the world’s
most vibrant cities.
Blessed with an incredibly-rich and vibrant voice from birth, blues
singer Shirley Johnson has without a doubt made the most of those 28
years since relocating from Norfolk, Virginia to Chicago back in 1985.
“As a child back in Virginia, I was singing pop, R&B and gospel, but I
would always put this kind of swerve in it and people would say, ‘You’re
not a pop singer, you’re a blues singer.’ And I had a friend that was
living here in Chicago and he said if you want to sing the blues, you’ve
got to go to Chicago. So that’s what I did. I went to Chicago,” said
The little fact that she had never been to Chicago before – and just
knew one person there – didn’t sway Johnson one little bit from boarding
a plane bound to the Windy City, some 900 miles from her home. As if
that wasn’t enough, Johnson only had $40 tucked into her pocket, too.
That more than qualifies her trip as one big leap of faith.
“Well, this guy (in Chicago) was going to record me, so I was planning
on going up there for a few days and then going back home,” she said.
“But when I got up here, he didn’t have any money (to record her). So it
(the trip) wasn’t what I thought it was going to be.”
Most folks would probably have cussed the would-be record promoter,
kicked the curb and then tried to get on board the next flight out of
But not Johnson; she had other pressing matters on her mind.
So, with the sole intention of singing the blues on her mind, she stuck
it out. And she’s still there today.
“It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure. But I hung in there until I got it
together,” she said. “But I really wanted to sing the blues – I really,
really did. And once I got to Chicago and started hearing the guys and
girls singing the blues up here, I said, ‘Yes! This is it.’ I really
hadn’t planned on staying, but once I heard the music that was being
made and played around this city, I thought, ‘I’m staying.’”
Taking into account all the facts up to that point in time, that was a
pretty bold and decisive plan of action on her part. Especially when you
consider that Johnson’s decision to stay and call the Mecca of the Blues
her new home had one major flaw.
“Well, when I got here, I didn’t know but one blues song – just one,”
she laughed. “And when I heard them singing the blues up here, I
discovered that I had a problem with my (vocal) timing. I had to get hip
to the turnarounds they use in the blues … that was hard for me. But I
worked at it and then I got it.”
Got it, she did.
“Well, when I first got up here, I thought I was ready; I really did,”
she said. “But I heard these guys up here singing and I knew I had to
get to school … in a hurry … and really learn how to sing the blues in
the manner they’re supposed to be.”
Once Johnson’s confidence level started climbing, it didn’t stop and
soon she was working with Artie ‘Blues Boy’ White, Eddie Lusk and Little
Johnny Christian in Chicago.
And though her original promise of a recording session never came to
fruition, Johnson was finally able to get into the studio and cut
Looking for Love (Appaloosa) in 1996. From there, she cut a pair of
strong albums for the iconic Delmark label – Killer Diller (featuring a
remarkable delivery of Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing”) in 2002 and Blues
Attack in 2009. Blues Attack garnered a nomination for Best Traditional
Blues Recording at the 2009 Blues Blast Music Awards, while Johnson was
also in the running for Best Female Artist that same year.
Fans have waited patiently for a follow-up to Blues Attack and it
appears thankfully that wait might soon be coming to an end.
“I’m working on a new album for Delmark. We probably won’t go into the
studio until around the first of the year, but we have started working
on it,” she said. “It may be a little – not a whole lot – different than
some of my albums in the past because I’m doing it with my band and
they’re not all the way bluesy. So the album will be between R&B and the
And that’s really where Johnson has left her mark on the Chicago blues
scene – between R&B and the blues.
The undisputed hallmark of Johnson’s vocal delivery is the ease in which
she blends the blues with a hint of R&B and a whole lot of gospel. Even
when she’s in her quietest moments, it’s next to impossible to not feel
the depth and the power of Johnson’s voice simmering below the surface,
just waiting to explode. And when she does open up and just belt it out,
it’s nothing short of bombastic. Johnson has very few peers when it
comes to moving the dial on the seismic meter.
“Etta James, she was always my favorite singer - her and then Denise
Lasalle – those were my two favorites,” she said. “And on the male side,
it was Bobby Blue Bland. I always loved him … he could really sing.”
Like so many great blues singers, Johnson’s first taste of singing came
through church when she was a young child. And like so many great blues
singers, Johnson’s family was not particularly happy when she made the
choice to start singing the blues.
“They (her parents) would always say, ‘You need to get out of them blues
clubs and come on back to church.’ But they really didn’t hold it
(singing the blues) against me,” she said. “They called me the Prodigal
child because all of my people – on my father’s and my mother’s side –
sang, but they all sang gospel. So I was always the Prodigal child.”
A large part of the charm in Johnson’s voice is the way that the
deep-rooted spirit of the gospel music that she grew up on still finds
its way to the surface, whether she always wants it to, or not. That’s
not the only ties to the church that permeates her music, either. On
1997’s Red Hot Mamas (Blue Chicago) compilation, Johnson’s roots run
close to the surface, as midway through a soul-drenched version of Joe
Tex’s “Hold What You’ve Got,” she takes the time to offer up a
mini-sermon on how a lady should treat her good man based on what’s
inside, instead of solely just on looks.
“No, I really can’t hold it (gospel influence) back … it just comes out.
I’m been singing gospel since I was 6 years old,” she said. “And I still
love gospel music. It’s been a big part of me for a long time and it
always will be a big part of me … I’ve sang gospel all my life.”
That devotion to gospel also played a major role in helping Johnson get
established on solid ground after her big move from the east coast to
“When I first got to Chicago in ’85, I formed a group called the Gospel
Supremes and we worked at a downtown restaurant every Sunday morning for
10 years, singing from 10:30 to 2:30,” Johnson said. “I really like the
feeling of gospel music and I like to sing with a feel. If I can’t feel
it, I don’t want to sing it.”
The ability to sing with such feeling, passion and conviction helped
Johnson secure a long-standing gig at Blue Chicago on north Clark Street
in the Windy City.
“I started working at Blue Chicago in 1991 and I’ve been there about 21
years … I always have a job there and for that, I’m blessed,” she said.
“I’ve always got a gig there and the owner there has allowed me to
travel overseas in those 21 years – which I’ve been to 21 countries –
and when I get back, I’ve always had a space at Blue Chicago.”
Johnson, who was born in Franklin, Virginia, learned early on that if
you plan on having any kind of a career singing the blues in Chicago,
you not only have to have the requisite talent inside yourself, but you
also have to surround yourself with the best musicians you can find, as
well. Then, you have to treat those musicians with the proper amount of
“My band is important to me and I try to be fair with them. If I don’t
make but a very little bit (playing a gig), I’ll still split it with
them,” she said. “That makes them loyal to me and I understand that I’m
only as good as those musicians make me. And if I’m not good to them,
they’re not going to be good to me. It’s as simple as that.”
Johnson’s band features Walter Scott on lead guitar; T-Man on drums;
Bluejay on rhythm guitar; Woods on bass; and John Walls on keyboards.
When she started finding her own voice by singing soul/R&B in the late
‘70s, it didn’t take those around her long to realize just what a
special talent Johnson had. That led to spots opening for artists like
Z.Z. Hill and Aretha Franklin when they came through the Norfolk area.
Then, in the early ‘80s, Johnson cut a couple of singles for a pair of
regional record labels around her hometown. Those singles were heard by
the man in Chicago who envisioned recording Johnson and starting his own
label. Even though things didn’t work out quite as planned, blues fans
should nevertheless count their lucky stars that Shirley Johnson refused
to budge from the path of singing the blues in such a deep, rich and
“I love to sing the blues. And like I say, if I can’t sing with some
feeling, I’m mad. When I’m standing up on stage and singing with
feeling, I know the crowd can feel that, too,” she said. “And I plan on
being in Chicago and singing the blues for a long, long time.”
For more info on Shirley Johnson visit her website at
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2013 Blues Blast Magazine.
Interviewer Terry Mullins is a journalist and former record store
owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention
Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black
Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with
Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc
collection. He's also been known to spend time hanging out on the street
corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued
delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.
For other reviews and interviews on our website