NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Names Can Be Confusing When You're Luther 'Guitar Junior' Johnson

The person I'm referring to sings and plays Blues under the name Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson. He is not to be confused with Luther "Snake Boy" Johnson, Luther "Houserocker" Johnson or even Lonnie "Guitar Junior" Brooks. Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson should be remembered as a latter day exponent of the West Side Chicago Blues styl,e mainly pioneered by Otis Rush and Magic Sam.

Johnson's hometown of Itta Bena, Mississippi, would be famous if only for giving us B. B. King. Along with next door neighbor Greenville, the area was also important in the careers of Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk and Muddy Waters. Like King and Waters, Johnson left the area to make his name in Chicago.

Born in 1939, Johnson, like so many Blues artists, started in music in the church where he led the choir. He also saw Williamson, Nighthawk and King regularly in Greenville. Johnson's mother gave him a Roy Rogers model guitar and he got his cousin to teach him to tune it -- he did the rest.


In 1955, Johnson moved to Chicago and got his first job, not on guitar but as a singer and dancer. He moved on to be vocalist and bassist for Tall Milton Sheldon's band and took over the band as lead guitarist when Milton became a preacher in 1962.

"The people on Independence Boulevard named me Guitar Junior," Luther recalls. "I carried a big crowd. I'd play in their backyards, on the streets and in the park."


While West Side musician Magic Sam was a major influence, it was Muddy Waters' South Side style band that gave Johnson his big break in 1973. He stayed with Waters until Muddy's 'old band' broke up in 1980. Then Johnson moved on to start his own band and become far more of a West Side stylist.

The West Side sound grew out of a small band guitarist needing to cover both lead and rhythm and is heavy on distorted, powerful chords interspersed with stinging single note runs. Luther Johnson would say that he "just naturally got that West Side style."

Sharp edged guitar, a big strong voice and an easygoing good humor has gained this "Guitar Junior" a rabid following; one that has kept him touring and recording and gathering new fans wherever he plays.

Related Content