It’s around lunchtime when we reach the veteran “Soul Blues” man Johnny Rawls at his home. So maybe that’s why he’s especially interested in food analogies when discussing his new record, Walking Heart Attack (Catfood Records).
“It’s like this, buddy, making an album is like making a soup!” he says in a raspy drawl. “You make it, and you say, ‘That’s good soup!’ But then you keep putting in more ingredients like tomatoes or squash and it gets even better! That’s how I feel about this album. It’s a very good soup!”
With a career that spans nearly six decades, the Mississippi-bred singer/guitarist is especially happy about the 10 tracks that make up the album. They include originals (“Free”), co-writes with Executive Producer Bob Trenchard (“Tell Me the Truth,” “One More Sin”), covers (“Trying to Live My Life Without You,” “Born All Over”—co-written by Houston’s late blues legend Johnny “Clyde” Copeland), and…Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart?”
“Well…that’s one was Bob’s idea. It certainly wasn’t mine!” Rawls laughs. “But I like challenges. That song is totally out of my genre!”
He's more positive about the title track, in which a Gentleman of a Certain Age takes notice of a smoking hot younger woman but worries aloud that she might just be too much for him to handle. And thus result in actual—not apocryphal—cardiac arrest.
“You can look at the menu, but you don’t have to order! Me and Bob always tease each other about that…it’s a man thing” Rawls laughs, adding that many of the backing musicians on Walking Heart Attack are familiar faces. “We put some funk to it, that’s Johnny McGee on guitar. Some of these guys have been with me for 30 years, and they are top flight musicians!”
Both Johnny Rawls’ publicity material and Rawls himself refer to him as a “Soul Blues” artist. But just what does that mean?
“Soul Blues is sort of like mixing Muscle Shoals with Stax and a pinch of Motown with a Gospel feel,” he explains. “I’m talking Gospel like the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Swan Silvertones.”
The now 72-year-old Rawls grew up in Purvis and Gulfport, Mississippi. As a child, he played the clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and other instruments. But when he heard his grandfather playing guitar on Christmas morning as a pre-teen, his entire musical direction switched.
By 15, he was performing in his high school music teacher’s band, who would back traveling performers like ZZ Hill, Little Johnny Taylor, Joe Tex, and the Sweet Inspirations. But in the mid-‘70s, he became bandleader for the man he calls “the greatest soul singer ever,” O.V. Wright. Rawls toured with him until his death in 1980 at the young age of 41.
A hugely respected blues/soul singer, Wright is known to hardcore blues/soul aficionados but rarely mentioned alongside more familiar performers of the era like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Ben E. King and Al Green.
Though Wright’s tunes “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry,” “Eight Men, Four Women,” “Ace of Spades” (his best-known song), “When You Took Your Love from Me,” and “A Nickel and a Nail” affected the R&B charts.
“O.V. Wright, Little Johnny Taylor and James Carr. I always mention their names because they don’t get enough [recognition]. No media coverage, no magazines. You just have those great records,” Rawls says, before adding the names Sir Charles Jones and King George to that list.
“These are top soul chitlin’ artists. But the world doesn’t know who they are! So. they’ll go down in history just like O.V. Wright. I was the luckiest man in the world to stand by him,” Rawls notes. “And you’ve got to travel to let people know who you are. All over. You can’t just stay in Mississippi and Alabama.”
After Wright’s death, Rawls then did the same bandleader duties for Little Johnny Taylor before launching his solo career in 1985. In 1989, he appeared with former Wright guitarist LC Luckett on You’re the One. And in 1996 came his proper solo debut record, Here We Go.
O.V. Wright also had a Houston connection, recording for Don Robey’s Duke/Peacock label as did Taylor and gospel groups the Swan Silvertones, Mighty Jubilee, and Mighty Clouds of Joy.
Rawls also shouts out Duke/Peacock artists Bobby “Blue” Bland and Johnny Ace. The Houston Connection is something that will be on Rawls’ mind when he comes here on November 3 to play a show at the Big Easy.
“I want all my fans to meet me there. I mean, beat me there! It’s going to be a great show. It will be packed. So, you better get there early!” he says.
Finally, when asked what he has planned for his career after the current tour is over, Johnny Rawls lets out a great laugh.
“When the tour is over? My tour is never over! I’m always on the go! I been on the road for 55 years!” he crows. “I will spread the word, spread the news, spread the soul, and spread the blues! That’s what I’m going to do when I come to Houston!”
Johnny Rawls plays 9 pm., Friday, November 3, at the Big Easy, 5731 Kirby. For more information, call 713-523-9999 or visit TheBigEasyBlues.com. Admission price not set yet.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.