Chicago’s West Side brought a number of blues players to the attention of the world, such as Eddy Clearwater and Magic Sam. The West Side once had a reputation of being a little more easy-going place, not as serious as the South Side.
Sometimes it wasn’t so easy to get a record out, though. In March of 1977, Jimmy was then 48 years old and had spent a number of years onstage working the soul/R&B circuit and playing with Magic Sam and Freddie King. Pepper’s Hangout was intended to be Jimmy Johnson’s first album when he first set down these tracks for Ralph Bass, a veteran Chicago producer. Bass having launched the careers of T-Bone Walker, James Brown, and Little Esther Phillips had a plan to record the lesser known players of the district for a10-lp series called “Chicago Roots”. According to writer Peter Guralnick, who was in the studio at the time, the session was plagued from the beginning—the recording console blew out its fuses, Jimmy’s regular drummer didn’t show, a few problems with the engineer surfaced when he couldn’t get a gritty enough mix on the guitar to match the sound that Jimmy wanted. Nevertheless, Jimmy managed to record seven songs that capture the something of the sound of Chicago’s West Side of the ‘60s and ‘70s. As a first introduction to Jimmy Johnson, this record will push aside any current case of cabin-fever.
Jimmy’s long jazzy intro into the opening song “Same Old Blues” is a portent of things to come on the record, an upbeat take on the blues. Jimmy’s style of playing is precise yet full of surprising twists, and you can never quite predict where he’s going to go. Just listening to Jimmy’s long fade-out on the shuffle “Pepper’s Hangout” I couldn’t help but wonder where that guy might end up next. Some of the bright sound of the guitar might be in the accident of the mix, but underlying that there is Jimmy’s reserve of cheerful, good-natured playing.
Jimmy shows his sense of fun on “High Heel Sneakers”. The song never fails to raise the spirits of any room where performed. There are only four lines in the whole song, each one containing a weird twist of imagery and imagination. With only four lines, there’s plenty of room for building a lot of good-time instrumental music around the basic lyric structure. People have been building on the simple two-string turnarounds ever since the song first became popular back in the early ‘60s. What people today might not appreciate is that “Hi Heel Sneakers” (the legal name of the song) was written and became famous back in a time before such shoes were even invented. That’s why it was so funny back then.
From the music, there’s no way of telling that Jimmy may have not had the best time of his life making this record. The music disappeared for a time, the tapes languishing unreleased for years when Bass’s deal for the series fell through. As Jimmy pushed ahead with his career and had made a name for himself internationally, Bass was finally able to secure a deal for release in the mid-‘80s but the record was available only in Europe. At last, thanks to Delmark, somebody living in Chicago today might be able to walk down to the record store and pick up this record, recorded many years ago in Chicago by a local musician who shined up local clubs like Pepper’s. Pepper’s Hangout is a pleasant outing for today’s listener and well worth the walk if not the wait. The CD includes the original 1977 liner notes (and update) by Jim O’Neal, founding editor of Living Blues.