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Shirley Johnson - Blues Attack

Delmark Records

14 tracks; 62 mins 53 seconds

Style: Chicago Style Blues, R&B, Funk-Soul and Gospel Roots

Rating: Library Quality

Some say there’s a female blues singer revival going on and perhaps that’s true, especially at a time when we’re mourning the loss of the great Koko Taylor. That’s why I hope you’ll take a minute to check out native Virginian Shirley Johnson and her long history of singing the blues via that well-known gospel-pop-soul train that eventually dropped her off in her now Windy City home over 25 years ago—the same home that produced the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters.

I’d like to think this ‘revival’ isn’t so much a revival after all. What are we reviving? There’s always been leading edge pioneering African American female blues singers. Our veterans aren’t going through a revival; they’ve never stopped! And those like Shirley Johnson have made and continue to make a historical impact that illuminates the female’s vital role and contribution to blues--back then and now.

So get this straight: Shirley isn’t good or in demand because she’s been singing for 50+ years; she’s been singing and in demand for 50+ years because she’s GOOD! And at age 60, she’s still bringing it. How many Shirley’s do you know who can boast of being a product of the blues movement from the 60s to the present? Whether you take in her show at the downtown Blue Chicago club where she’s had a regular gig for over 17 years or buy her CDs, you should add Blues Attack to your collection.

Blues Attack is Shirley’s first release since her Delmark best seller debut Killer Diller in 2002. It was recorded in June 2008 at Riverside Studio in Chicago with a reunion of the Killer Diller bandmates and songwriters Maurice John Vaughn and Roosevelt Purifoy on keys, the legendary Chicago Horns, and back up vocalists Roberta Thomas and Danielle Smith. With the addition of Herb Walker of the Tyrone Davis camp and the BBKing stylings of guitarist Luke Pytel, you’ll be in sweet home Chicago before you know it.

From the moment Blues Attack hits your player, Track 1’s “You’re Reckless” gets straight to the point of dishing out that comforting Chicago smooth blues auto-pilot groove. Guitarist Luke Pytel lets us know early on that he’s a BB-style man and pianist Roosevelt Purifoy tickles an ivory solo for Shirley to do her thing. They showcase their talents again in Track 2 Blues Attack. It’s obvious Shirley takes the stage and the studio with only the best players who feel the music the same way she does. In Blues Attack they add just enough light jazzy classic soul and funk to support her veteran convicting blues delivery.

In the next 3 tracks, “My Baby Played Me For A Fool”, “634-5789”, and “Just Like That”, Shirley and the band move effortlessly back and forth between classic soul old school complete with background vocal harmony and horns to the more classic blues upbeat tempos with female attitude. Here in South Carolina, we’d be a shagging to some of these tunes…ahem, that’s a Carolina dance style, not London’s definition….

In Track 6 “You Shouldn’t Have Been There”, Shirley sings like she knows from experience what it feels like to find out your lover’s been slipping out. She emits raw emotion, and with the band’s laid back melancholy rhythmic rolls, you might just find tears in your eyes. She takes you there with her. And coming at you with head-on sentiment is exactly what a blues musician is suppose to do—move you.

But you won’t stay down for long! Shirley’s picking up the groove in Tracks 7 and 8, “I’m Going To Find Me A Lover” and “Felt So Good”. With belting vocal conviction and the sassy background horns and horn solo, look out….you’ll be right back up.

There’s no effected pretense with Shirley. Unlike some artists, she doesn’t have to scream, screech or stretch at the top end of a note to hit a note, she simply nails it from the heart and has that natural voice range to do it--the note, the pitch, the soul and the story line. She’s a story teller who paints a mesmerizing visual ethereal environment using the powerful passion that’s behind her singing.

And finally! Someone who can take a cover song and make it their own, “Unchain My Heart”. A little drum roll shimmer, some sliding caresses of the piano and organ keys, Shirley’s gospel ‘well well, I know you don’t love me no more baby, I know you gotta another woman somewhere’ puts you right there in the front row of church where Shirley’s about to get unchained from the pulpit. You’ll also love the background old school vocal harmony and doo wops of Roberta Thomas and Danielle Smith. There’s a classic revival 60’s feel to this one; you’re going to love her version.

Track 10’s “Selfish Kind of Gal” takes us back to Chicago; Shirley hands off the middle to Roosevelt who tears it up on the organ solo. Horns rock out the start of Track 11 “Take Your Foot Off My Back”. Shirley and her funky groove players then settle into a hypnotic R&B beat with attitude. “Lost And Alone”, “Let It Rain” and “You Just Using Me” finish out this superb aggregation of from-the-heart players and singers who do it with feeling, the way music’s suppose to be done.

This is what blues, R&B and Soul are really all about—if you can’t sing it, play it, feel it or listen to it from the heart, then you probably should just go mechanize and digitize in another genre. There’s no hiding emotion when it comes to Shirley. She’s going to pull you in, just like the preacher, whether you ever thought you could open up that heart-door or not. We all need some gritty spirituality seasoning in our blues diet. Get it here with Shirley Johnson’s Blues Attack!

Belinda Foster is a Columnist and Contributing Writer for Greenville SC Magazine “Industry Mag” and was former manager of Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’Blues. She currently books blues-rock-jam musicians and is a devoted promoter and supporter of live blues root music and history, making frequent trips to “The Crossroads” and Clarksdale Mississippi, birthplace of the blues. Her column “The Upstate Blues Report” can be found on line at

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