A talk with
IB - How and when did you first get involved in music?
Carlos - First of all I was too young to remember. All I have to go by is my Mom and dad telling me I had a plastic guitar and they were drinking some coffee and then they heard me playing a rhythm and some notes and they both were amazed that I was playing this little plastic guitar. I don't know how old I was. I guess that's how it all started.
I started playing professional at 12 years old. My first big paying gig was a block party on the south side of Chicago. That's how it got started.
IB - Who are/were you musical influences?
Carlos - There are too many to name. Actually it started off with me being small, my Mom was into Country and Western and Blues, my Dad was into Jazz and classical. All I know is there was always music in the house.
I didn't till later differentiate what was Jazz, what was Blues, what was Classical. It was just all musical to me. Maybe that is why I am so diverse.
My musical influences were anywhere from Conway Twitty to Led Belly. You can pick and choose out of that one.
IB - What made you decide to become a professional Blues musician?
Carlos - Food , I was playing Jazz and there were not enough gigs and Blues at least put a few pennies in your pocket and plus the Blues moved me in a spiritual or emotional way. I don't know which one but there was something about it that got my attention and headed me in that direction
IB - Who were some of the Chicago greats that you have played with. Any stories to tell about the experience?
Carlos - I have played with just about everyone in Chicago, Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Big time Sarah, Valerie Wellington, Bonnie Lee. The list goes on and on. Actually there are not too many artists/bands I haven't played with in Chicago
Some of the experiences , some I can say and some I cannot without risking a lawsuit. (Ha, ha just a joke).
Stories: We were playing in France with Koko Taylor and she had a wardrobe malfunction (without Justin Timberlake). Only Koko didn't realize that she had a malfunction until I brought it to her attention. She never missed a beat or a bounce! The crowd went wild with applause.
IB - You play left handed. Do you just flip it over or do you string your guitar left also?
Carlos - I play guitar left handed. I play a right handed Gibson 1970 335 and flip it over with the strings strung upside down.
I also play a left handed guitar with the strings strung left handed. I guess you could say I'm bistrigual.
IB - I found one of your earlier albums called The Healer with Chicago Bluesman Lefty Dizz. He played left handed too. Many people are not aware of Lefty's great guitar work. Can you tell us about your work and time with Lefty?
Carlos - Lefty Dizz was a great guitar player. A lot of people didn't know this because his theatrics on stage were quite frightening. Like if he had a 335 in his hand and was tossing it up in the air and spinning it around that was a little intense but he never dropped it.
We were very close. We used to call each other Father and Son and argue about who was the Father and who was the Son. But I was younger so I always won that argument.
There's a lot of stories. Him and his Red Eye, his whiskey. We used to hang out Myself, Lefty, Sammy Longhorn (my first hands on Blues teacher) and Queen Silvia Embry, who was his bass player. There were many great times with Lefty and he is missed terribly.
UB - Who are some other great "lesser known" (outside of Chicago) CHICAGO Bluesmen you have had a chance to work with?
Carlos - Anthony Palmer ,Guitarist from the Luther Allison Band, Chico Banks , Guitarist/Vocalist, Matthew Skoller, Harmonica Player/Vocalist, Rob Blaine, Guitarist/Vocalist. Just to name a few
IB - Please tell us about your equipment that lets you get that great tone. Gibson ES335? What year? Amps, pedals and anything else?
Carlos - My equipment is a 1970 Gibson ES335 and Rivera Amp. I do not use any pedals or effects, just my guitar and amplifier. I only use Gibson strings.
IB - Any advice for younger Blues players?
Carlos - My advice for the younger Blues Players is to use your ears first before you get into any theory or technical aspects of playing the Blues. You'll find out that you have a lot more feeling for the Blues instead of just playing notes.
IB - Do you see the Blues as an evolving music or a dying art?
Carlos - This is one particular question that has bothered me for a long time because I believe in creativity. As I see it the Blues as an entity it's almost like a xerox copy. You copy that copy and pretty soon the copy fades out so I don't know if it's an evolution or extinction but it's a very good question.
We as Elders of Blues have to, such as myself I am a middle Elder not up there in the 80s or 90s like Homesick and the rest of them ,we need to kind of stick to the basics so when we do try to xerox something it will have some of the original imprint so it won't fade out, it won't die. It kind of puts you in a quagmire to try to understand between evolution and extinction.
We all want to evolve, we all want our own signature. Led Belly listened to someone and put his twist on it. B.B. listened to David T. Walker and he put his twist on David T. Walker and he came out to become B.B. King which is an entity in itself. So it's difficult. We have to walk a very thin line to appreciate and realize what the heritage of Blues really is.
So I think to answer your question is, I think it's not dying as long as we have people such as myself ,Billy Branch and a lot of the middle aged Blues artists really try to keep a significant tag on where we came from.
So as long as we keep educating our younger musicians , our "to be" Blues Artists, and instill that into them, I think that it will never die.
IB - What is the future for Carlos? Is there something left that you have not done or someone you want to work with that you have not gotten a chance to yet?
There's a ton of things I want do. There is always something to do till the day you leave this planet. You never ever get through learning. You learn something new every day. There are a lot of areas I would like to explore. Maybe some Big Band Blues or something on that level , some acoustic stuff maybe, just a guitar and harmonica, just different facets of the Blues. Continue to progress as much as I can.
There's a lot of people that I would love to play with that I haven't played with before like Clapton, and all the rest of the top echelon of Blues. I have had the opportunity to play with Homesick James ,Lefty Dizz and a bunch of other cats.
As long as God lets me keep waking up another day I am going to keep working at it.
Visit the Carlos Johnson Website to find out where you can see this Great Bluesman LIVE!