(Editor’s note: Grab a harmonica lesson with the main man, here 🙂 )
Jelly Roll Johnson grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which he describes as “a small city on the edge of Cajun country; very hot in the summertime and a lot of other times.”
“My mother is a full-blooded Cajun,” he says, born and raised in Eunice, Louisiana. His dad was from Central, Louisiana. During the Second World War, they both moved to Lake Charles, working at a defense plant, she as a secretary, he as a shift foreman.
After the war was over, the couple remained in Lake Charles and married in 1949. Stephen Kirk Johnson, their only child, was born on the fourth of July 1953, giving them one more reason to celebrate.
Kirk would take on the name Jelly Roll years later, when the harmonica became front and center in his life. But, as a boy, any thoughts of the harmonica were confined to holiday gatherings, when his dad would play a tune or two on his Marine Band.
But his childhood was not without a few steps, or missteps, in music-making. Among them, was a brief flirtation with the clarinet. A lack of commitment on his part thwarted any lasting relationship. “I didn’t realize you had to practice,” he laughs, noting that he wasn’t exactly his junior high school orchestra’s star player. “I ended up last chair,” he laughs, but somehow he made it to the marching band in high school.
But, by the second year, he didn’t make the cut when it came to the school’s concert band. Johnson says he remembers thinking, “I’m not going to be a musician.”
It would take him a while to find his way to the instrument that would prove him wrong. And, even then, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. As Jelly Roll tells the story, it was more about the box than what was inside it.
“It had a picture of the Beatles on it,” he says. As for the harmonica inside the box, he admits, “I played around with it, but I wasn’t serious about it.” Besides, he had other things going on in his life, including changing high schools just in time for his senior year, when, in 1970, the family moved to Cleveland, Tennessee.
He says that while the move was hard — at least at first — a good thing came out of it, when a friend who played guitar in a local band talked the other members into taking him on as a roadie.
There were a few trips, mostly local, during that year, but he says the experience was enough for him to get a taste of what it was like to be out on the road with a band, and he loved every minute.
As time went on, some of the members of the band wound up practicing in the Johnson’s basement. “This was a rock band,” he says with an emphasis on the word “rock”, “and my poor parents endured a lot because it was really loud.”
But it was also well-connected, giving Jelly a chance to hone his writing chops: “The group was working with a publishing company based in Memphis, and I started writing lyrics. And, during the process of writing those lyrics, I decided that I needed to play an instrument to play the music I was hearing in my head to go with them.”
Cue the harmonica? Not exactly.
“I decided to get a flute,” he explains, “because it had the same fingering as the clarinet.”
The flute? Seriously? For a rock band?
Yep. Johnson points out that, at the time, Jethro Tull was making waves as one of the more progressive rock bands, led by flutist Ian Anderson, and Johnson’s band was playing some of their songs.
“So I got this flute, but I could barely get a sound out of it.”
He soon realized that producing notes on a flute was different than on the clarinet. “And my dad saw me struggling with it, and he said, ‘Why don’t you try the harmonica? You breathe in and out, and you’ve notes’.
“So I went out and bought a Marine Band. For the first three months, I had a C harmonica, and I was trying to play songs in C, and for the rock sound second position or cross harp. So I was getting notes out, but it wasn’t quite working.
“After playing for about three months, our guitar player introduced me to another guitar player named Donnie Jenkins, and he explained how, if you wanted to play in the key of C, you actually needed an F harmonica, but on the C harmonica you could play in the key of G.
“Most people know that you can play in several different keys on one harmonica, but that was the most common. I was listening to Rolling Stones records, and if they were playing in G, they were using a C harmonica.”
Unlike the days when his clarinet lay dormant between band dates, Jelly says, he practiced a lot, listening to and playing along with records made by some of the harmonica’s most iconic players, people like Little Walter Jacobs, Paul Butterfield and Charlie McCoy. He also picked up the saxophone, and finally learned to play the flute.
Jelly says he was lucky in that he was playing with musicians who were a lot further along than he was: “It wasn’t like 13- or 14-year-old kids in a garage band starting out at the same level. So I learned much faster and, by that time, I realized that you really have to work at it.”
While the group was based in Cleveland, there was a short six-month period during which Jelly packed up his hopes and dreams and moved to Syracuse, New York, wooed by the prospect of starting a band there with the aforementioned Donnie Jenkins, who had had some success in the area.
When things didn’t pan out, it was back to Tennessee, where Johnson found himself in high demand, playing with three and four bands at the same time. It was a nice break but, after a year-and-a-half, he was ready to get back on the road, touring the south-east and Midwest with a band called Lawdy Mama.
“By that time, my parents had moved back to Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans,” he says, “and I was going to move there. But the band’s bass player — a fellow named Larry Turner — asked me to hang around a little bit longer.
“He said, ‘I know a guy in Knoxville (Tennessee) named Tommy Cole who knows all of the musicians there.’ And so we moved there, and I sat in with him.”
As time went on, Jelly Roll found his thoughts drifting increasingly westward towards Nashville, some 160 miles away as the crow flies.
“I’d been thinking about going there,” he says, “but I didn’t know how to go about doing that. I wasn’t sure I was good enough.
“And then I started doing some session work, with recording sessions being my long-term goal.”
By 1979, Johnson had yet to make his move, while growing increasingly road-weary. And no wonder, with a killer schedule that had the band crisscrossing the country with Warner Brothers recording artist Con Hunley. “I was on the road too much,” he says, with some 175 concert and club dates a year taking their toll, “and I knew that if I wanted to do more recording sessions, I needed to be in Nashville.”
He finally made the move in 1984. “ We were still doing about 100 dates a year,” he says, “but Con’s road schedule was slowing down, and I thought, ‘Now’s a good time’.”
Though Jelly would continue playing with Hunley through the end of the decade, the move to Nashville would change the course of his career. But it was far from a slam dunk, as, despite the fact that by that point he knew quite a few people there, he was, in his words, “still starting fresh”.
Looking back at the way things unfolded, Jelly Roll says that he had two lucky breaks that paved the way to his success as a first-call session musician.
The first was the fact that Con Hunley’s band had opened for a number of big name acts, including Alabama, The Oak Ridge Boys, Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris. It was the kind of exposure that’s hard to beat.
“At that time, Con’s producer was a guy name Kyle Lehning, and he used me on one of Con’s records. I’d only been in town about a month at the time.”
It was a hopeful start followed by a pause, a long pause.
A year-and-a half later, Lehning gave the harp player a call. “He said ‘I’ve got this new guy I’m producing on his first record and I’d like you to play a song or two’.”
That “new guy” was… (wait for it)…
“I moved to Nashville in August of ’84 and this was in January of 1986. And the record came out very shortly after that.”
The cut that put him on the fast track? No Place Like Home.
Says Johnson, “The album was a huge success right from the start.”
And that second big break?
“I had a friend in Knoxville named Gary Loyd. He had moved to Nashville before me, and was doing demos at a studio owned by Brent Maher, who had been producing the Judds.”
One day, while Jelly was playing on one of Loyd’s demos, Maher happened to walk through the studio and liked what he heard.
“He sat down and asked me what kind of harmonicas I was playing, and a little about my background.”
And then… a bit of a wait.
A two-year wait, but then, quips, Johnson, “It’s the story of Nashville: get here and wait your turn.”
The wait ended when Mayer called and asked him to play on the Judd’s latest album. It would prove to be a turning point, and once things took off, they really took off.
“It has a lot to do with word of mouth,” he says. “Producers call the number one guy, and he can’t do it. So they go down the list. Or maybe they want someone new or different, and they’ll ask the other musicians who they would call. And that’s when my name would come up. That’s how it happens with everybody. It’s kind of like casting a movie.
At this point I have somewhat of a track record. People know who I am.”
Oh boy, do they.
Over the past 34 years, Jelly Roll Johnson has recorded with nearly every A-lister on Nashville’s playlist, from Kenny Rogers to Travis Tritt, Shania Twain to Alan Jackson, Guy Clark to Lee Ann Womack, Vince Gill, John Prine and Trisha Yearwood.
Thoughts of Yearwood take him back to the 1996 CMA Awards, where she was a featured artist. Jelly Roll had known the singer before she got her first record deal, having played with her, along with songwriter Pat Alger.
Yearwood was slated to sing a song by Fred Knobloch and Steve Goodman called A Lover is Forever, backed by Knobloch on acoustic guitar, a three-piece string section, and Johnson on chromatic.
All went according to plan up until the last minute when, just before the rehearsal, Knobloch got a call saying that he would have to cut a minute-and-thirty-seconds out of the arrangement.
“The obvious place to cut was the harmonica solo,” says Jelly, “but Fred had other ideas. He said, ‘We’re cutting the solo where it normally is, and you’ll play the second chorus instead of Trisha singing it’.”
The question was, how would Yearwood feel about that?
Explains Johnson, “The CMA award show is a prestigious event, where the performances are more important than awards because that’s what people remember.” Most artists, given that option of handing over a large part of a small window to their harp player, would understandably balk at the idea, but not Yearwood.
“Fred showed her the new arrangement and she said, ‘You mean I’m not singing the second chorus?’” Fred nodded. And then, her reply: a simple, and generous, “Okay.”
Says Johnson, “And that’s the way we did it.”
If you didn’t happen to catch that performance, there were a lot of others to choose from. Over the years he has backed up a long list of artists on a wide variety of TV shows, including Late Night with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the ACMs, Country Music Association Awards, Austin City Limits and Soundstage.
Back in the studio, the list of artists is even longer, and choosing a special artist or moment in time is like asking a parent to name his favorite child.
When pushed, Jelly Roll Johnson recalls one particular session that holds a special place in his virtual scrapbook. The artist: the late blues singer, Etta James.
“The producer was Jerry Wexler,” he says, “who produced Aretha and Ray Charles.”
Johnson explains that unlike the old days, when everyone from the artist to the musicians and back-up singers recorded their part of the song at that same time, today’s sessions are multi-layered affairs, with the rhythm section laying down their part first, followed by the strings or brass, woodwinds, or harmonica, harp, steel guitar… or whatever is called for.
Says Johnson, “It varies. Sometimes the artist is there, either to record, to provide input, or I may meet them at a later date or end up doing a live show with them. But not during the session. But with Etta James, she and the band recorded at the same time, like Charlie McCoy used to do.”
And what a session it was! “Etta and Wexler were there, and it was like a Who’s Who of musicians.”
They would record two tracks that day, one of which didn’t make the album, the other, a soulful tune called I Sing the Blues.
Recalls Johnson, “At the end of the song (on the outro) she just started ad-libbing, and I started answering it. And so it was live, not after the fact.”
It was one of those instantaneous interactions that can make a tune a classic.
Does Jelly Roll Johnson ever think about recording his own albums?
“I’ve done some instrumental albums,” he says, “but my primary focus has been on being a recording musician, and backing up singers.”
Over the years, Jelly Roll Johnson has received more than a few nominations and awards, among them the 1998 Nashville Music Award for Best Wind Instrument Instrumentalist, the 2003 and 2008 Best Specialty Instrument Award from the Academy of Country Music, Hohner Harmonicas Lifetime Achievement Award for 2017, and the 2018 Pete Pedersen Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica —better known as SPAH.
The award has a special significance to Johnson, who says that one of the things that inspired him to improve his chromatic skills was hearing Pedersen play at the group’s 1994 convention.
“It was at a certain point that I realized that the chromatic was really a different instrument, and thought, ‘I’ve got to put a lot of time into it’.”
Up until that point, he says that while he was familiar with Toots Thielemans and Stevie Wonder, he hadn’t been exposed to the music of other key chromatic players. And so the award took on a special significance.
And that’s saying something, when you factor in the list of over fifty gold and platinum albums, including three Grammy-winning albums by the aforementioned Randy Travis.
The session thing has turned out pretty well, to say the least, but, as busy as he is, he still makes time to accompany three of Nashville’s best songwriters twice a month at the famed Bluebird Café.
It’s been that way for some thirty years. The group consists of Thom Schuyler (Love Will Turn You Around, 16th Avenue), Tony Arata (The Dance, Dreaming with my Eyes Open), Fred Knobloch (Killin’ Time, Why Not Me, and Don Schlitz (who wrote The Gambler), which is to say a lot of hits under their collective belt.
Says Johnson, “There’s a tradition of singer/songwriters playing their own songs that are recorded by famous people. The marriage works.”
Any thoughts of putting out another album or two or three of his own?
“I’ve done three Instrumental albums,” says the first-call session player. But does he have stars in his eyes? No.
And that’s how Jelly rolls.
And, by the way, How did he get that famous moniker? “When I started playing, I used to sing a song written by Loney Johnson called Mr. Jelly Roll Baker.”
And so it was that Stephen Kirk Johnson became Jelly Roll Johnson.
The name stuck.
Looking back over his life, Johnson says, “The best part of my journey has been with my wife, Mary Jo. She has been with me every step of the way for the past twenty-four years. I thank God I was lucky enough to find her.”
Any tips? As Jelly Roll told Hal Walker, practicing holding notes, and controlling how loud or soft, long or round they are can be helpful in improving your tone.
He also says that the most important thing to remember when you’re accompanying a singer is to be sure and stay out of the way of the words.
“The harmonica has a very vocal sound,” he explains, “so it’s easy to cover up the vocalist if you’re not careful.”
And finally, “Practice as much as you can.”
For more information on Kirk Jelly Roll Johnson and his music, head to jellyrolljohnson.com. And let the good times…roll.