Don Johnson plays blues purely for pleasure

Donald Ray Johnson
January 31 and February 1
Kaos Jazz and Blues Bistro

Donald Ray Johnson's new CD, Pure Pleasure, is the perfect antidote to the mid-winter blahs, the stress of tax time, the fear of impending war or whatever else might be bugging you. Yes, it's a blues album, but Johnson's good humour and positive vibes infuse every number on this impressive disc.

Johnson has an equally weighted career as a drummer and a vocalist, receiving honours in both categories. He received Real Blues magazine's award for best male vocalist in 1997 and in 2002, as well as nominations for the Toronto Blues Society's best blues drummer award in 1997 and best male blues vocalist award in 1998.

Maurice Ginzer, manager of Kaos, says, "In my opinion Don is perhaps the best male blues and R and B singer in the country - and one of the most down-to-earth guys you'll ever meet. He is one of Calgary's true hidden treasures."

Born in 1948, Johnson grew up in Bryan, Texas, where, along with his sister, he sang at church and family events.

"Our house was across the street from the Allen Military Academy," Johnson says. "I would rush home from school to listen to the marching band's practices - especially the drum cadences."

He got his first lessons in 1961 in his high school band and his first professional gig was at age 14 with blues pianist Nat Dove. While still in his teens, he played on a regular radio program based in Bryan, with organist Joe Daniels and guitarist Lavernis Thurman.

Like so many Texas bluesmen, he was drawn to the music scene on the West Coast.

"I was stationed in San Diego while I was in the navy, and just started playing drums with local musicians there like Lowell Fulsom, Bobby Womack and Pee Wee Crayton."

Over the years he also played with the likes of Percy Mayfield, Big Joe Turner and Smokey Wilson.

It was through old Texas friend Dove that Johnson was invited to play drums on weekends in Los Angels with Phillip Walker. Then in 1971, Johnson moved to L.A. to work and tour with Joe Houston big band. While he was there, fortune smiled upon him.

"It was a real break to meet up with Perry Kibble in Los Angels, just when I was looking for work." says Johnson.

Kibble, a songwriter, lived down the street, and was putting together a new singing group called A Taste Of Honey. The foursome, including Johnson, produced gold and platinum records, and made music history in 1979 by being the first African-American band to win the Grammy for best new artist.

Johnson's new CD is dedicated to Kibble, who died in 1999.

After two previous CDs (It Ain't Easy Being Blue in 1995 and Donald Ray in 1998), Pure Pleasure is a summation of Johnson's work to date - and a leap forward in the direction he hopes to take next.

"What I wanted to do with the new CD is bring my own work to the forefront," says Johnson.

Seven of the songs are originals, and Johnson brings his own style to the blues lament - in songs like "It Ain't Easy Being Blue" and "Trilling You Killing Me," the itemized litany of woes is more humorous than tragic.

"Musical maturity sort of snuck up on me," says Johnson, now in his 50s. The fact that younger musicians look up to him comes as a surprise. But, he adds, "I'm really satisfied with where I'm at right now, professionally and personally."

-Sandra Vida
FFWD Music Preview (jan 30 - feb 5 2003)