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This Week on Blues Unlimited - Play That Guitar 'Til It Smokes: A Tribute to Willie Johnson, Part 2 (Hour 2)
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September 27, 2016 08:27 AM PDT
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Picking up where we left off last time, part two of our extended tribute to Willie Johnson finds us in Memphis sometime around the late summer or early fall of 1953, with Willie and the Wolf making some recordings at an undisclosed location (now thought to be Lester Bihari's Meteor studios). In 1954, the Wolf left for Chicago for good, leaving behind Willie Johnson for the time being. The following year, 1955, he and Sammy Lewis cut a couple of tough sides for Sam Phillips, which appeared on his Sun label. One side featured Sammy on the lead vocal, the other, Willie — it would end up being the only single ever issued under his own name (and it was only for half of the record, at that!)

After Wolf's new lead guitar player, Jody Williams, unexpectedly quit on him one day, he drove back down to Memphis and retrieved Willie Johnson, who would rejoin forces with the Wolf on stage and in the studio. By January 1956, the two of them were making records again, cutting one of Wolf's most iconic and recognizable songs of all time, "Smokestack Lightnin'."

Their renewed relationship proved to be short lived, however. By 1959, the Wolf had had enough of Willie's antics, not to mention his drinking (it was considered strictly taboo by the Wolf while the band was onstage), and Willie decided to call it quits. He still appeared on the Chicago scene from time to time, but never for very long.

Part two traces the remainder of Willie Johnson's career, starting where we left off last time — in Memphis — and on to Chicago, where he would be a driving force on some of Howlin' Wolf's most memorable recordings. Rare sides featuring Willie Johnson backing up other artists are also profiled, as are some "comeback" recordings produced by Michael Frank in 1988.

A hugely influential artist in his own right, Willie Johnson will perhaps always be remembered as the Wolf's first great guitar player, but his trademark gritty tone and firebrand fretwork will forever be remembered in the hearts and souls of blues fanatics all over the world.

Pictured: Willie Johnson, during his Chicago days with the Howlin' Wolf. Image by: Corrinia Harris Wallace/Living Blues Collection

This Week on Blues Unlimited - Play That Guitar 'Til It Smokes: A Tribute to Willie Johnson, Part 2 (Hour 1)
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September 27, 2016 08:21 AM PDT
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Join us for Part 2 of our extended tribute to blues guitarist Willie Johnson. Once called the linchpin of Howlin' Wolf's band, Willie and the Wolf made some of the most iconic blues recordings of all time, starting in Memphis in 1951, and continuing on in Chicago in the mid 1950s.

Pictured: Willie Johnson, during his Chicago days with the Howlin' Wolf. Image by: Corrinia Harris Wallace/Living Blues Collection

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Play That Guitar 'Til It Smokes: A Tribute to Willie Johnson, Part 1 (Hour 2)
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September 20, 2016 09:18 AM PDT
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Blues guitarist Willie Johnson was born in Tate County, Mississippi in 1923. Showing a talent for guitar at an early age, he crossed paths with the Howlin' Wolf in the late 1930s. At the time, Wolf had been playing with Son House and Willie Brown, and everyone agreed the teenager showed promise. Wolf taught the young Willie Johnson what he knew – Wolf had been a student of the great Charley Patton once – and from that point on, the two musicians formed a musical bond that would last the better part of 20 years.

By the late 1940s, Wolf and Johnson were playing together in West Memphis, Arkansas, but it was Wolf's appearance over the airwaves of local radio station KWEM that would probably change his life forever. Acting on a tip from a friend one day, Sam Phillips, founder of the legendary Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue, tuned in to hear the Wolf, and immediately sought him out to record him. Soon, the Howlin' Wolf and his guitarist, Willie Johnson, were making records together at Sam's tiny studio.

The story doesn't quite end there, however. Due to a handshake understanding that the Bihari brothers had with Sam Phillips, a fight quickly erupted between themselves and the Chess brothers in the Windy City after Phillips sent some of the Wolf's first recordings to Chicago instead of into the waiting hands of the Bihari brothers in Los Angeles. Soon, Joe Bihari was in West Memphis, making his own recordings on Howlin' Wolf, while Sam Phillips continued to record him across the river in Memphis, sending the resulting masters up to Chicago.

In the meantime, Howlin' Wolf and Willie Johnson continued to make musical history together, as these early recordings from their career easily testify.

Part one leaves off in 1953, Memphis, with the Wolf making the trip to Chicago in 1954. Soon afterwards, he would come back down to West Memphis to retrieve Willie Johnson, where they would go on to make some of the most iconic recordings in blues history.... but we'll save that for Part Two.

Pictured: Guitarist Willie Johnson, in his later days. Photo courtesy of John Anthony Brisbin/Living Blues.

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Play That Guitar 'Til It Smokes: A Tribute to Willie Johnson, Part 1 (Hour 1)
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September 20, 2016 09:11 AM PDT
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Perhaps one of the most underrated blues guitarists of all time, Willie Johnson is best known for his incendiary, firebrand work with Howlin' Wolf. Starting his recording career in 1951 – right along side the Wolf – he helped to define and shape the overall impact of those early recordings that put Wolf on the map. Join us for an extended tribute to blues guitarist Willie Johnson (Part 1 of 2).

Pictured: Guitarist Willie Johnson, in his later days. Photo courtesy of John Anthony Brisbin/Living Blues.

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Windy City Mandolin (Hour 2)
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September 13, 2016 07:33 AM PDT
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When you think of the words "Chicago Blues" and "mandolin," the first name that probably comes to mind is Johnny Young. And while he was certainly the top mandolin man in Chicago for many years, that doesn't quite tell the whole story.

James "Yank" Rachell -- who, as a young boy, traded a pig his mother had given him to raise in exchange for a mandolin he saw his neighbor playing one day -- got his start with Sleepy John Estes in the 1920s, and by the 1930s was recording with him. Thanks to his long associations with cities like Saint Louis and Indianapolis, as well as Chicago, he sparked many recording sessions during the 1930s, and was thankfully lured out of retirement during the 1960s for the Blues Revival. He continued to record extensively after that, becoming an elder statesman of the Blues mandolin, until his death in 1997 at the age of 87.

Johnny Young made an explosive recording debut in 1947 for the tiny Ora Nelle label, run by a man named Bernard Abrams who operated a radio repair shop down on Maxwell Street. He had a crude machine that would cut discs instantaneously, and after a string of Blues musicians came by to make some sample recordings, he finally got the idea to issue a couple 78s of his own. One was by 17 year old Little Walter Jacobs, the other was by Johnny Young and his guitar playing partner, Johnny Williams. Years after Abrams folded up the Ora Nelle label, you could still apparently walk into his shop and buy a brand new copy of either one for a dollar (they're both considered to be rare collector's items today). Oh, and another piece of blues history/trivia -- Muddy Waters was another regular customer at Abrams shop, but always took the discs he made with him -- presumably to give to his latest girlfriend (as the story goes).

Young's other notable 78 was cut for the hyper-obscure Planet label the next year. It was later picked up for reissue by Al Benson, a prominent Chicago disc jockey, on his Old Swingmaster imprint. For the complete story on the Planet label, which had just three releases -- but played an important role in the history of Postwar Chicago Blues -- be sure to check out this story at the Red Saunders Research Foundation website: http://campber.people.clemson.edu/planetmarvel.html

Other featured mandolin players include Charlie McCoy, a journeyman session musician of the 1930s and 1940s, Carl Martin, yet another talented multi-instrumentalist, and also Willie Hatcher, whose "Garbage Man Blues" is pretty much the show-stopper of the episode. We close out the program with a sampling of the recent mandolin work of Green Bay native Billy Flynn, who is keeping the mandolin tradition alive in the Windy City, thanks to current releases on the Easy Baby label, and a lovely collaboration with Billy Boy Arnold that came out recently on the Electro-Fi label.

Pictured: Johnny Young, with his mandolin. Image by Marc de Jonge/Robert Vanderschueren.

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Windy City Mandolin (Hour 1)
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September 13, 2016 07:24 AM PDT
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When you think of the words "Chicago Blues" and "mandolin," the first name that probably comes to mind is Johnny Young. And while he was certainly the top mandolin man in Chicago for many years, that doesn't quite tell the whole story.

Pictured: Johnny Young, with his mandolin. Image by Marc de Jonge/Robert Vanderschueren.

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Hill Country Gospel (Hour 2)
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September 06, 2016 07:58 AM PDT
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Join us for our annual gospel show! Guest host Brother Hawkins will lead us on a journey down to Memphis and the Hill Country, to hear music from Mississippi Fred McDowell and the Reverend Robert Wilkins. Plus, selections from a five-star slab of vinyl — one of the most beloved documentary LPs of all time. It’s the annual gospel show, on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Pictured: The Rev. Robert Wilkins, whose epic masterpiece, “The Prodigal Son,” is featured on this program. Illustration by William Stout.

To hear this episode in its original full-fidelity high quality audio, it may be downloaded from Bandcamp at: http://tinyurl.com/htktqzw

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Hill Country Gospel (Hour 1)
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September 06, 2016 07:47 AM PDT
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Join us for our annual gospel show! Guest host Brother Hawkins will lead us on a journey down to Memphis and the Hill Country, to hear music from Mississippi Fred McDowell and the Reverend Robert Wilkins. Plus, selections from a five-star slab of vinyl — one of the most beloved documentary LPs of all time. It’s the annual gospel show, on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Pictured: The Rev. Robert Wilkins, whose epic masterpiece, “The Prodigal Son,” is featured on this program. Illustration by William Stout.

To hear this episode in its original full-fidelity high quality audio, it may be downloaded from Bandcamp at: http://tinyurl.com/h9wq6op

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Killer Rhythm Rockin' Blues (Hour 2)
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August 30, 2016 08:20 AM PDT
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Join us for a grab bag of uptempo, hot and fast Blues and R&B. Rock on down to classics from Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Eddie Taylor, Lightnin' Hopkins (pictured), Hop Wilson, Sam Price, Cal Green, and many more. Get your dancin' shoes on! This one's all killer and no filler!

To hear this episode in its original full-fidelity high quality audio, it may be downloaded from Bandcamp at: http://tinyurl.com/zlm2mca

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Killer Rhythm Rockin' Blues (Hour 1)
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August 30, 2016 08:13 AM PDT
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Join us for a grab bag of uptempo, hot and fast Blues and R&B. Rock on down to classics from Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Eddie Taylor, Lightnin' Hopkins (pictured), Hop Wilson, Sam Price, Cal Green, and many more. Get your dancin' shoes on! This one's all killer and no filler!

To hear this episode in its original full-fidelity high quality audio, it may be downloaded from Bandcamp at: http://tinyurl.com/hocvba2

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