Donald Ray Johnson has been Canada's Best Male Blues Vocalist for well over a decade and he's also one of the finest Blues drummers alive, a graduate of The Texas/West Coast school of time-keeping. I first met him when he used to tour Western Canada with the Legendary Phillip Walker and everyone knows Phillip's bands contain the premiere L.A. Blues musicians. Like a few dozen African-American Blues men before him, Donald Ray fell in love with Canada and he settled in the Calgary area, a decision that certainly made many Calgary players quite happy as Donald Ray quickly became a Calgary Blues Patriarch and mentor to many.
Like many Canadian
star-caliber Blues artists Donald has also become an in-demand, high profile club/Festival performer in Europe, while most Canadians East of Saskatchewan are totally ignorant of his abilities and even the name of Donald Ray. (We keep waiting for this to change but the Blues Media in Ontario stays
focused on acts connected to one Promoter/Publicist). Once thing is certain, if Donald Ray keeps releasing CDs like
Travelin' Man, he'll find his audience numbers growing and he'll be spending less and less time in small Canadian venues and more on Festival stages in Europe, Japan and Australia etc.
Calgary is considered by many to be Canada's Blues
Hotbed' and I must agree, with both Chicago and California Blues musicians performing regularly in Calgary clubs and connecting with local players. Some interesting alliances and cultural exchanges have taken place and Donald Ray has forged friendships with some good people, some who've shown-up on his past CD releases. On this recording, we get the talents of B.J. Emery (trombone), Maurice John Vaughn (guitar), Sonny Rhodes (lap steel) Murphy Doss (bass) and Gospel singer
Joh Max , a group comprised of 3 of Donald Ray's children on vocals (Panzie, Johnathon and Tonya). Donald Ray's also got the cream of Alberta Blues musicians on
Travelin' Man; Brent Wright, Michael Huston, Fred Brusse (guitar, harmonica), Chris Byrne, Luc Blackstone (bass), Ron Casat (keyboards) and Kent McCray on drums.
Opening with the title track Travelin' Man, you'll be hit with a blast of Donald Ray Johnson with his deep, powerful voice right up-front on this Chicago shuffle. Maurice Vaughn lends some tasty guitar and sax while Ron Casat adds some funky Hammond organ. Anyone hearing Donald Ray for the very first time could be easily convinced he's from Chicago. Very few artists could successfully pull-off a Little Milton Hit like
"If Walls Could Talk" but Donald Ray can power through just about any classic Blues/R&B tune thanks to the richness and depth of his vocals, which just flow out of the man. Even though this is the Calgary line-up backing him they sound like a Stax or a Muscle Shoals crew, and, there's a honkin' baritone sax solo.
While some may wonder why a Pop tune like
Always On My Mind is on this CD, if you're going to be forced to listen to the tune, Donald Ray Johnson's version is certainly the most palatable one you'll ever have to face. Johnson's talents and individuality allow him (like other extra-special
stars') to sing any song in existence and make it something special. (Also, Johnson is the last artist you should try and pigeonhole into a confined style niche as he's got a music history that includes a 1970s Grammy).
Last Two Dollars is a fine vehicle for Donald Ray given its' Southern Soul-Blues identity and this version may have outdone all others. P.J. Perry's alto sax solo has wings that take it right to the stratosphere. Again,
Steamy Windows the Tony Joe White song, is the finest version I've heard out of all the covers. Production work makes all the difference. Every instrument is handled by a real person and the performance level is stellar.
Me & Jack (Daniels) features Sonny Rhodes on lap steel, Maurice Vaughn on guitar and Murphy Doss on bass and it's a rollicking tribute to Johnson's years in California.
Yonder Wall has an updated sound and lyric content (Iraq). It's a pure, snappy Blues that'll make you forget all about the 2,000 other versions of this song.
Apple Tree is Donald Ray on keyboard synth, Gib Monks on tenor sax and Maurice Vaughn on guitar and it's 21st Century Blues at its' most adventurous and evolved. This could easily be an R&B Hit throughout the U.S. It's funky, infectious, hypnotic and ultra-cool. Perhaps this tune will still make some noise in 2008/2009, as it's too damn great to let it rest. Bill Withers '
Who Is He? again shows Johnson's genius as he's completely reworked the song, turning it into a smoldering Dance Hit complete with a searing Vaughn guitar solo.
This album gets better and better as you get towards the last few tunes and the last song,
You Reign King Jesus is the most incredible modern Gospel tune I've heard in a long time.
Joh Max (Donald Ray's 3 children) deliver an acapella masterpiece and THIS should be a huge Gospel hit. What incredible singing! Panzie Johnson, who handles lead vocals, is a one-in-a-million performer and apparently, she has been touring with Stevie Wonder for 12 years. So, this is easily the GREATEST Blues and R&B album to come out of Canada in 2007 (probably the Best of the last 8 years!), yet, Donald Ray Johnson gets none if the attention, accolades and Awards he should. The Politics of Blues in Canada certainly have become ridiculous but at least Donald Ray is acknowledged by those that truly matter. Besides an awesome voice, rock steady percussion skills and a knack for creating music that is a Joy to experience Johnson's production skills have also been shown to be Genius-level. 6 Bottles for the Best Blues CD to come out of Canada. The man is The Real Thing. Being born in Texas certainly didn't hurt his development!
A. Grigg Real Blues Magazine
DONALD RAY JOHNSON "PURE PLEASURE" MARVISTA MUSIC
BY PETER "BLEWZZMAN" LAURO (c) APRIL 2008
Ironically, as I'm sitting here listening to some red hot blues from Canada , the very people who sent me the disc are experiencing a mid spring snow storm. I guess, as the expression goes, you've got to suffer if you want to sing the blues.
" PURE PLEASURE ", by DONALD RAY JOHNSON, consists of thirteen wonderfully arranged tracks of which eight are DRJ originals. While assembling the ensemble for this project, DONALD not only sought out high quality musicians, he sought out a high quantity of musicians as well - nearly thirty of them. They are: DONALD RAY JOHNSON on drums, keyboards, piano and vocals; CHRIS BRYRNE, GEORGE PHILLIPS, ROB VAUSE and
RUSSELL JACKSON on bass; MICHAEL HUSTON, JOHN MILLS, BILL JOHNSON, JAMES CHIP BURNEY and MAURICE JOHN VAUGHN on guitar; RON CASAT on organ; B. J. EMERY on trombone; GRAHAM GUEST, NATE STRONG, DALE RENE` and GARY BOWMAN on piano; RALPH MONCIVIAS, MIKE YOUNG, DON "DICKIE" CHILDS, MIKE CLARK (also on background vocals) and PAT BELLAVEAU (also on soprano sax) on tenor sax; JIMMY CARVER on keyboards; GIBB MONKS and P. J. PERRY on alto sax; BRAD STECKEL on acoustic guitar; JOHN PAIN on drums; JANIS KIBLLE and STEVE PINEO on background vocals; PHEW! It's a good thing the horn section had no trumpet players or I'd be out of room.
Obviously, the opening track wasn't titled for the band, 'cause they certainly didn't " SLOW DOWN BABY ". This track features a funky rhythm with hot sax and guitar solos by RALPH and MICHAEL and dynamic vocals by DONALD. Great opener.
In spite of some fine guitar and tenor riffs by JOHN and MIKE, " HERE TO STAY " is all about DONALD. His very soulful and slightly sultry vocals and outstanding keyboard work highlight this very sexy and somewhat Barry White-ish type dance song.
"SONG FOR PERRY" (WALK AROUND HEAVEN ALL DAY) , is a spiritual ballad which, according to the liner notes, appears to be dedicated to a late friend of DONALD'S. Although melancholy in mood, the performance is stellar. GIBB'S alto sax at the onset and RON'S organ work throughout the track are both outstanding, the background vocals are right on and you can just feel the sorrow in DONALD'S voice. Ya gotta know Perry's hearing this one.
Had this song been written this year, " THRILLING YOU KILLING ME " would have been my nomination for song of the year. It just does not get any better....or more blue than this. If the question "What is the blues" should ever be asked, this is the song that should be played as the answer. It's the type of song that just stops you in your tracks, makes your eyes close, your head hang down and carries you away. I'm feeling this one. DRJ, ROB VAUSE and JOHN MILLS are flawless on this
one. By far, the discs best.
In addition to musically being another of the discs highlights, " NO GUITAR BLUES " is a lyrical pisser. In the middle of this very serious and low down blues number, while MICHAEL'S making his guitar cry out some scorching blues, DONALD starts softly telling a story about how a record company exec once said something to him about not having a guitar. The hotter MICHAEL'S notes get, the more hilarious DONALD gets. Good stuff right here.
Trouble is just one of the many " NAMES " that DONALD comes up with for his lady on this one. Because she "digs" so many guys, Shovel is another, and of course, there's Misery as well. Hmmm, I wonder if he's seeing one of my ex's? Along with some good tenor work by DON, some of the discs best bass and piano work can be heard right here by GEORGE and NATE.
Other tracks on this incredibly good disc are: "ROCKING IN THE SAME OLD BOAT", "GONE SO LONG", "DON'T LET THE GREEN GRASS FOOL YA", "IT AIN'T EASY BEING BLUE", "HEY GIRL", "WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD" and "TOO YOUNG TO KNOW". Although this disc is several years old, I'm highly recommending that if you don't yet have it, then you should make it new to your collection. You can do that by visiting
DONALD RAY JOHNSON at www.donaldray.com. Of course, after you buy the disc, ya gotta tell him the Blewzzman sent ya.
Peter "Blewzzman" Lauro Blues Editor @ www.Mary4Music.com
About Donald Ray Johnson
Donald Ray Johnson was born on November 12, 1948 in Bryan Texas. He took an early interest in music, as did his older sister Janice Marie. They sang in church and at family functions. At age 7, Donald Ray became interested in playing the drums, beating on whatever he could get his hands on.
"Our house was across the street from the Allen Military Academy, and I would rush home from school to listen to the marching band's practices, especially the drum cadences." During the summer Donald Ray worked in the cotton fields of the Brazos Bottom's plantations to earn money for school clothes.
In 1961 he was introduced to high school band director Waymond Webster, who taught him to play " Traps." (The drumset). At age 14, Donald Ray began his professional career with blues piano legend Nat Dove. Throughout his teens Donald played with the two local bluesmen based in Bryan. Organist Joe Daniels, and Guitarist Lavernis Thurman ("We played a live radio show every Sat. night.").
On January 18, 1966, Donald Ray entered the US Navy serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard. After two tours in Southeast Asia (Viet Nam ), he was honorably discharged. After his discharge Donald Ray relocated to San Diego. While working " house band " at the Downtown Hustlers Club, Donald met quite a few of the L.A. based blues & R&B artists including Lowell Fulsom, Bobby Womack, and Pee Wee Crayton.
In early 1970, Don was called to play weekends in LA with Phillip Walker, by long time friend Nat Dove, who now lived in LA. Some 29 years later the relationship with the Phillip Walker Band still exists. In 1971 Donald moved to LA to work with the Joe Houston big band backing some of the west coast's top blues artist.
While trying to find a weekend gig Don met songwriter - producer, Perry Kibble who was in the process of developing a group that featured the talents of two young African American women, (bassist, Janice Marie Johnson & guitarist Carlita Durhan). We later became known as " A Taste Of Honey ". In 1979, this band was the first Afro - American Band to win and be presented with the "Grammy Award" for "Best New Artist".
Now living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Don has become a well liked and respected member of the Canadian blues community. Named "Best Canadian Male Blues Vocalist" in 1997 by Real Blues Magazine, Don was also nominated "Best Blues Drummer" in 1997 and Best Male Blues Vocalist in 1998 by the Toronto Blues Society. He was recently nominated "Best Blues Artist" by the Alberta Recording Industry Association (A.R.I.A.)
Other Awards include: Best New Artist at the 1979 Grammy awards (A Taste of Honey), and 2007 Maple blues award nominee.
Donald Ray Johnson at MIkey's Juke Joint Jan 12, 2008