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Johnny Childs - Groove (CD)
Big Whale Artists
Junkman’s Son - Self Produced DVD - 1:56:26
Johnny Childs’ is a driven man. He is driven by his aspirations but also by his demons. While I am certainly not a psychologist, I have managed people at a variety of levels for close to 40 years and have lived in over a dozen places. His energy and focus on becoming a successful bluesman is phenomenal; some would call it obsessive. This new CD and biographical DVD sheds much on his moxie, mojo, and motivation.
Let me start by giving you a little biography based on what I have learned. Johnny was born Yonah Krohn into a strict orthodox Jewish family where the expectation was all the males would commit themselves to their religion. Born in Brooklyn, NY, the orthodox community there at that time was mostly ghetto based. His father was strict but also later found out to have enormous problems, including being bi-polar and having alcohol problems. The family moved to Toronto where Johnny spent most of his youth. The Dad and family at various points spent time in Jerusalem, too. Johnny rebelled at 12 and moved out to the streets, embracing drugs and sex. He came in and out of his family’s life, settled into Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles to embark on a career as a blue guitar player and singer, something he picked up quite adeptly on in his life of rebellion. He set a goal to have a recording contract by the time he was 30, and the video culminates with his 30th birthday and (spoiler alert) he didn’t make it.
There is a lot of interesting stuff in the DVD. Filmed by a number of friends, family and strangers, it shows the mental and economic hardships Johnny endured to find himself, support a drug addict brother, and deal with his family and religion. I grew up in NYC in a Roman Catholic, Italian-American family and I fully understand the concept of guilt. There is one group of people who are better than the Italians at this game of guilt, and it is the Jewish community. The orthodox members of the community place their religion above all others and accept no alternative. Many of my friends including my very best one in High School were Jewish, and I encountered much of this first hand. He and I laughed over the comparators for his family and mine. In Johnny’ case, the family was supportive of him, but all felt his redemption would come when he return to orthodoxy. Johnny embraced his Jewish-ness but rebelled. He would return to family over and over and continues to for weddings and other events. One can see he feels comfortable in his family setting but one can feel the strains as he also wants to be part of the gentile community and achieve his own dreams.
What results here is an interesting and raw musicianship that is fully a part of the blues. Like Klezmer music is to jazz, Johnny’s blues is to the “mainstream” of blues (if there can be said to be such a thing. Childs’ guitar play is raw and minimalistic, in a JB Hutto/Little Ed/Dave Weld sort of way. There is a hesitation at times, with spacing to the notes and a raw and angry tone that emerges from the guitar. I love it. It is cool, almost subliminally pre-historic. At times he wants to blow it all up and yet he pulls it back in with some restraint. It is quite an interesting and fun listen!
Johnny was criticized for his vocals early on in his quest, with some producers and labels wanting him to sign on a lead singer. He refused; he was not looking to be some slick proto-80’s rocker. His vocals are fine for the blues; I think his big mistake was trying to do this out West. Not to criticize the West Coast blues scene at all, but it is a different scene. It embraces the slick and fast lane. Johnny’s vocals in Chicago, Memphis, or New Orleans would have been right up their alleys. But on the West Coast? No way. They want Robert Cray, not Robert Johnson. I like his vocals. The same angst is evident with his voice as in his guitar, with occasional hints of a Yiddish accent. He even has some songs like “Junkman’s Son” where he embraces traditional Jewish traditional dance music and adapts it to the blues. It is quite clever and what got me thinking about this being a blues parallel to Klezmer music.
Child’s last ditched effort to get a contract by his 30th birthday included a performance where he invited several labels to come out. One of the attendees was HighTone’s Bruce Bromberg. Bruce moved to LA from Chicago in 1958 and is one of the stalwarts of the West Coast blues scene. While he was impressed with Child’s, it was not until about 5 years later that he signed Childs on. Shortly thereafter he sold HighTone, but his support of Childs appears to continue as he was the producer for this 2011 CD release. Johnny’s latest obsession is winning a W.C. Handy/Blues Music Award. Given his drive and intestinal fortitude along with his talents I do not hold that outside the realm of possibility.
The DVD is cinema verite; this is not a slick Hollywood production. Street-smart, guttural, it is life at its’ best and, more often, worst. While troubling at times, one can also regale with Johnny’s drive and progress. The CD is a great accompaniment as it shows the level of playing Childs’ is at. He’s a darn good guitar player, songwriter and singer. While the world may not “need” another one of those, Childs certainly has been another very good musician in all facets of music.
On the CD with Childs are Cliff Schmitt on bass, Michael Bram on drums and Dave Keys on what else?- keyboards. It ranges in style from down home and dirty Chicago blues to rockabilly and slicker stuff. He is a throwback to the blues as it was in the 50’s and 60’s, a very good thing in my mind because he sells his sound and talents quite well. I’m sold- this is one helluva bluesman and I recommend the CD highly and the DVD is an interesting account of how life’s pages can turn!
Reviewer Steve Jones is secretary of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and work with their Blues In The Schools program.