A taste of Johnson

Donald Ray Johnson no longer wears Coke-bottle glasses. They don’t help. Besides, wearing sunglasses at night is more hip.

Donald Ray Johnson no longer wears Coke-bottle glasses.

They don’t help.

Besides, wearing sunglasses at night is more hip.

The 60-year-old blues drummer and singer is legally blind.

But it doesn’t affect his shows.

“I mean, I don’t do cartwheels or take a wireless mike and go out and start knocking people’s drinks over,” said Johnson from his Calgary home on Tuesday.

“So I guess I’m somewhat limited in that respect.”

Even as a little boy growing up in Texas, Johnson had trouble seeing.

“I’ve always had bad eyes from day one; I used to wear big glasses,” he said.

But it didn’t slow the fledgling musician down.

By the time he was seven, Johnson was beating on whatever he could find — old buckets, cardboard boxes, pots and even, much to his teacher’s chagrin, his desk at school.

“She’d say, ‘Whoever is doing that should be playing the drums,’” he said with a laugh.

Six years later, when he turned 13, Johnson was already touring with local Texas blues organ player Nat Dove.

“We were playing these little country towns,” he said.

They were making a grand total of $3 a night.

Although he was gigging, life in Texas wasn’t easy for the young black man.

“When I grew up, black people still had to go in through back entrances,” said Johnson.

“School was segregated, and if you went to a restaurant you had to go through the back door and eat out by the kitchen. It was all the Jim Crow bullshit.”

To escape the racism and to see the world, Johnson joined the US Navy at 18.

“I got to see all these foreign places like Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Hong Kong,” he said.

With more than 3,000 people on his ship, Johnson had no trouble wrangling a band together.

He bought a set of drums in Japan and the group of guys would shuffle boxes out of one of the storage rooms and jam.

After an honourable discharge, Johnson ended up in San Diego.

Compared to the South, racism on the coast was negligible.

“But racism takes on different forms, you know what I’m sayin’,” said Johnson.

“I think it exists in all of us to some degree — it’s kind of the way of the world we live in.”

Gigs relocated Johnson to L.A., where he met producer Perry Kibble, who was in process of forming a group featuring the talents of two young black women.

Kibble recruited Johnson and the band became A Taste of Honey.

Famous for its hit, Boogie Oogie Oogie, the funk disco group became the first Afro-American band to win a Grammy Award, for Best New Artist.

But after a number of years in L.A., Johnson got itchy feet.

Touring with Joe Houston’s big band and the Phillip Walker band, he ended up playing a gig in Montana.

Close to Alberta, he decided to hop across the border to get cozy with a sweetheart in Calgary.

He never left.

With the economy the way it is in Alberta, there’s always a good blues audience, he said.

But Johnson doesn’t “sit under a blue light singing Muddy Waters all night,” he said.

“The focus is to entertain — I don’t do Chicago blues all night.”

In fact, when he was still a little boy, Johnson fell in love with Motown.

But nobody was playing Motown in his small Texas town and the blues stuck.

“You develop a passion for it, because we all have the blues one way or the other,” he said.

Just back from a European tour, Johnson is happy to be returning to Whitehorse — except that his old bar, the Taku, is gone.

“A lot of times, I’m not fortunate enough to be playing with the calibre of player you have up there,” he said, mentioning Brandon Isaac, Dave Haddock and Ed White.

He’s also bringing up Alberta guitarist Yuji Ihara.

Although, he’s a drummer, Johnson now does a lot of gigs relying solely on his growley, husky voice.

He used to play the drums and sing.

“But I’m not that co-ordinated,” he said with a laugh.

Johnson is playing at Coasters Bar and Grill Friday and Saturday, April 11th and 12th.

Tickets are $10 at the door.

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