By Brian M. Howle
Singer, songwriter, guitarist, arranger, producer and (whew!) bluesman extraordinaire Johnny Rawls will be performing as part of the roster of stars at this year’s Charleston Beach Music & Shag Festival in Charleston, SC, running Thursday-Sunday, August 27-30, 2009. Rawls will perform at 4pm on Saturday, August 29 at The Citadel Alumni House, 69 Hagood Street, Charleston, SC.
As a teen in high school, his band instructor hired him to play in his band. Rawls backed singers like Joe Tex, Z.Z. Hill,Little Johnny Taylor, and the Sweet Inspirations. Determined to form his own blues/soul ensemble, he began backing up touring musicians.
In the mid-70’s, Johnny went to work for OV Wright as Wright’s band director. opening for the likes of B.B. King, Little Milton, Campbell and Bobby Bland. After Wright’s death in 1980, Johnny led Little Johnny Taylor’s band until 1985, when he began touring as a solo artist and made his first solo recording under the Rainbow label.
In total, he has performed on, written songs for, or produced over 40 albums.
Originally recording under Touch Records, Rooster Blues, Rock House, Reach and JSP Records, Johnny Rawls has done it all from producing, songwriting, horn arranging, rhythm, lead and bass guitar, keyboard, vocals and background vocals. Johnny started his own record company, Deep South Soul, in 2002 and has released his CD’s Lucky Man, Live in Montana, and The Best of Johnny Rawls. Heart and Soul was released in October 2006. His collaboration with fellow legend Roy Roberts, Partners & Friends, debuted in 2004 under Rock House. No Boundaries was released under the TopCat, Catfood and Deep South Soul labels in 2005.
His latest release is Red Cadillac (2008), and his music is available for purchase at http://www.johnnyrawlblues.com.
I caught up with the Mississippi-born artist as he awaited a flight out of Texas, and his wonderfully rich, Mississippi drawl put me at immediate ease. (It’s a Southern thing; some of you will understand, some of you won’t):
Howle: First off, thank for taking the time to speak to me about your upcoming show at the Charleston Beach Music & Shag Festival, Johnny.
Rawls: Oh, well it’s my pleasure and I’m happy to talk to you.
Howle: So tell me … how did you become interested in music; what’s the story behind the musician?
Rawls: Well, you know, I grew up here in Mississippi, and there’s always music going on around here, always has been from as long as I can remember. In church, in school, in the community, and of course, at home.
Howle: And what was the first instrument you learned to play?
Rawls: Actually, I began playing clarinet and saxophone when I was seven or eight years old.
Howle: So how did the guitar come into the picture?
Rawls: Well, when I was about 12 years old, my grandfather – who was blind – just pulled out this guitar one Christmas morning and started playing. I didn’t even know he had one, much less played one – that set the tone for me from then on.
Howle: Was he a blues player, or just guitar in general?
Rawls: He would play a regular guitar style, but was a well-known blues player around Hattiesburg, too. But it got my attention.
Howle: And it didn’t just stop at guitar, huh?
Rawls: Oh no, I learned rhythm, lead, and bass guitar, keyboards, vocals and background vocals, and later on songwriting, horn arrangements and producing. I started up my own recording label, Deep South Soul, in 2002.
Howle: And what is your songwriting process like? Do you go into it with a fully-envisioned song, or do you ask bassist and keyboardists …
Rawls: Oh, no, I have it all in my head, exactly what I want and the way I want it done. It’s the easiest way for me to try and do it, there’s really no other way for me to achieve what I’m after unless I see it all the way through.
Howle: I know you do your own charts for the horn sections. Do you prefer the big blues band with a horn section, or a more basic 3- or 4-piece band?
Rawls: Well, that all depends on the show, and the crowd. If it’s a big stage setup and a huge festival, oh yeah, I want that horn section burnin’ up there with the band. But if it’s a small club, tight, intimate … I just want that stripped-down 3- or 4-piece band, because it’s more personal.
Howle: And this isn’t your first time in South Carolina, is it?
Rawls: (Laughs) Oh, no, I’ve been there for the Blues Bash (in Charleston in February) several times, and for Harriet at the Beach Music Shag Festival, and over in Camden … I’ve played South Carolina many, many times, and I always enjoy my time there. It’s a good place to be!
Howle: And we can attest to that, Johnny! So, over the course of your career, what’s been the biggest change you’ve seen in the blues scene?
Rawls: Well, you’re a musician so you know, too; when we started out, the blues’ audience was mostly black – as well as the artists themselves. But over the years, white folks have really taken to the genre, and anymore it’s mostly white crowds at the shows we play. And the influx of young people, who have found this style of music and embraced it so much, has been one of the greatest joys to behold – and they are predominantly white, but now there’s a mix of other ethnicities in there, too. So now, the lineage is still true and always will be – the black man may have started the blues, but now the blues belong to everyone. And we’re all the better for it, and there’s just no denying that.
Howle: I couldn’t have said it better, Johnny. I’ll let you go so you can catch that flight; thank you again, and we look forward to seeing you in Charleston on August 29.
Rawls: And I thank you, Brian. And I’m looking forward to being there again!
I do love my job, especially when it allows me to spend some one-on-one time with a truly special someone who is not only a great talent, but a great person. And let me tell you … Johnny Rawls is one of those people.
So if you love the blues and beach music (and how can you not?), make plans on August 27-30 to head on down to the Charleston Beach Music & Shag Festival. On Thursday, Aug. 27, DJ Pat Patterson and his puppets greet you at J.B. Pivots at 7pm; On <Friday, Aug. 28, Angel Rissoff and Rhonda McDaniel open, followed by The Rick Strickland Band at J.B. Pivots.
On Saturday, Aug. 29 there will be a Shag Workshop at noon at The Citadel Alumni House, 69 Hagood Street, Charleston, SC, followed by Fabulous Shades at 1pm, Angel Rissoff/Rhonda McDaniel at 2:30pm, Johnny Rawls at 4pm, and Melody Makers at 6:30pm (then take a break at head back to Pivots at 9pm); and on Sunday, August 30 there is a Shag Workshop at noon, followed by The Catalinas at 1pm, East Coast Party Band at 2:30pm, The Swingin’ Medallions at 4pm, and it all wraps up with The Tams at 5:30pm.
Call 843-571-3668 or Toll Free 1-866-571-9362 for information or tickets, or visit the website http://www.pivotsbeachclub.com/charlestonbeachmusicandshagfestival
This article also appears in Alternatives NewsMagazine at http://www.myrtlebeachalternatives.com under “Nightlife & Entertainment”, August 13, 2009.