march 2011

Jackie Johnson on Beale Street, Memphis: Every phrase resonates with the spirit of the church

Grooves To Burn, And Then Some

Infused with gospel spirit, Jackie Johnson crafts a contemporary soul gem

By David McGee

Jackie Johnson
Catfood Records

Readers are hereby ordered to add Jackie Johnson to the list of formidable female blues singers emerging with pleasing regularity these days. More so than many of her contemporaries, though, Ms. Johnson’s every phrase resonates with the spirit of the church (small wonder: Ms. Johnson sang her first solo in a church where her mother sang and her father was a minister; among the artists she’s backed vocally are the Staples Singers; and in the late ‘90s she began her recording career with the gospel album Here I Am prior to making her secular debut in 1998 with Let Love Abide). In the past couple of years European audiences have taken to her big time, and Stateside fans are getting to know her from her appearance on Huey Lewis’s Soulsville album and on stage with Lewis’s band on tour. Memphis, though, knows all about her, and has for some time. That Memphis Jewel, her debut album, is a knockout will come as no surprise to anyone at all presently residing in the Bluff City.

All kinds of treats can be found within these grooves. What? You say CDs have no grooves? Baby, Memphis Jewel (produced by the redoubtable Jim Gaines) has grooves, and grooves to burn—so many it’s hard to know where to begin in enumerating the long player’s virtues. Your faithful friend and narrator takes special delight in the funky New Orleans shuffle of the soaring “Brightside,” a bit of philosophy in song about staying positive in hard times (how appropriate for this juncture in history!), with Ms. Johnson strutting heartily through her message and shadowed by a trio of high-spirited, gospelized female backup singers; when the vocalists retreat, Lance Keltner serves up a blazing guitar solo, and as a sign-off Andy Roman sends the track out wailing on alto sax. Johnny Rawls contributes a gritty love ballad, “Love You Still,” through which Ms. Johnson roars and growls her undying affection and is answered in turn by Mr. Rawls himself, whose emotional, aggressive response is a classic bit of soul testifying that summons memories of great gospel and gospel-influenced vocalists ranging from Julius Cheeks to Wilson Pickett, all in service to a track lent added majesty by the big horn section surging and pumping its way through the arrangement. From Bob Trenchard of the Rays band, which accompanies the titular artist throughout, comes the moving “Wash Your Hands.” A big soul production with a full band plus horns and background singers building inexorably to a boil, “Wash Your Hands” finds Ms. Johnson exploring the lower pitch of her range, her husky tone imploring gravely, as if from the pulpit, about getting straight with God, using the title sentiment as a metaphor for abandoning all the bad habits that keep you from falling short of His grace. Trenchard is also the source for the gracefully swinging album closer with its own timeless message, “Keep The Faith,” which gets into Edwin Hawkins territory as Ms. Johnson and the background trio engage in spirited call and response in advancing the lyrics’ message about the enduring power of spiritual love, even in the darkest hours, to exalt the soul and summon strength to fight all manner of adversity.

‘I truly believe that God uses me as a vessel’: Jackie Johnson, an a cappella rendering of ‘Down To the River to Pray’

Jackie Johnson is so sure of herself that she even puts a new coat of pain on Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown.” She finds her way in by taking it at a more deliberate pace, letting tension build through the verses until she and her backup gals cut loose in the choruses, which also feature a cool, ascending horn arrangement complemented by a similar figure on the keyboards in a nice instrumental embellishment that adds a dollop of extra tension to the track. Even better, her version of Betty Wright’s classic “Clean Up Woman” cooks mightily behind the robust horns blaring away, the scratch guitar that opens the festivities, and the delightful romp Dan Ferguson executes on the keys. But always the story is our gal Jackie, who sings it with a certain soulful chagrin in recognizing how her inconsiderate ways drove her man into the arms of the title character, who’s ready “to give him love twenty-four hours a day.” The lyric advises listeners to “take a tip, better get hip” to the clean up woman. The tip in this review is to get hip to an artist destined to find her way into the top ranks of the ongoing soul music resurgence. Memphis jewel Jackie Johnson is the real deal.

(NOTE: On February 15 Jackie Johnson suffered a stroke and incurred daunting medical bills as a result of her treatment and physical therapy at Baptist East Hospital. A September 24 benefit concert to help defray these expenses is being planned for Memphis’s Nell’s Music Room. For more information, check American Blues News.)

Jackie Johnson’s Memphis Jewel is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024