The Clarksdale area is famed for its many legendary blues artists who achieved their greatest success after moving away, such as Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, and John Lee Hooker. But there were world-renowned musicians who remained lifelong local residents, and foremost among these was Big Jack Johnson (1940-2011), one of the most creative guitarists and lyricists in the blues. When not on tour Johnson considered Red’s Blues Club at this site his home base.
Big Jack Johnson, who was once heralded by noted music critic Robert Palmer as “possibly the most original bluesman alive,” took Delta blues in new directions with his electric, innovative instrumental forays and topical songs about AIDS, war, domestic violence, abortion, Hurricane Katrina, and the 1994 ice storm that paralyzed Clarksdale. His CD “Memphis Barbecue Sessions” won a W. C. Handy Award in 2003, and he earned several Living Blues Awards. Though modest about his guitar prowess and other achievements, Johnson liked to boast of his abilities as a bass player and fisherman. July 30, 1940, was the birthdate he officially used, but the actual date was 1939, as the census from April 6, 1940, shows him as the eight-month-old son of Ellis and Pearl Johnson on Van Savage’s Plantation near Lambert. Ellis Johnson, a fiddler, was Jack’s earliest musical inspiration, along with music he heard on the radio–both country & western and blues. After moving to Lyon and then to Clarksdale, Johnson worked with Earnest Roy, Sr., C. V. Veal & the Shufflers, and Johnny Dugan & the Esquires, but was best known as a member of the iconic juke joint trio the Jelly Roll Kings with Frank Frost and Sam Carr. Johnson played and recorded with Frost and Carr off and on from 1962 through the 1990s, sometimes joined by his brother-in-law Little Jeno Tucker or his nephew James “Super Chikan” Johnson, who inherited the eclectic Johnson flair for creativity and energy in the blues. Nicknamed “the Oil Man,” Johnson drove a truck for Rutledge Oil Co. until he was able to leave the job and pursue music as a full-time career. He also did farm work and landscaping, and reports of his other exploits included boxing and bear wrestling.
For Johnson’s own band, B. J. & the Oilers, he recruited younger local musicians, including his protege Terry “Big T” Williams, but more often used Pennsylvania-based musicians and others when he toured the East Coast and across the country. His travels also took him to Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan. He appeared in the 1992 film “Deep Blues” and the locally produced 1991 video “Juke Joint Saturday Night” and recorded for the Earwig, M.C., Rooster Blues, and Fat Possum labels, concluding his career with some self-released CDs backed by the Cornlickers.
Johnson also went into the nightclub business with his wife Angenette at times, operating the Untouchables, Black Fox, and Possum Trot nightspots. In his final years he performed regularly here at Red’s for his longtime friend Cornelius “Red” Paden. After Johnson died on March 14, 2011, a huge throng of friends, relatives and admirers filled the Pinnacle at Coahoma Community College for his funeral. He was buried at McLaurin Memorial Garden cemetery on Highway 61.