ZEKE JOHNSON: MEMPHIS BLUES SOCIETY FEATURE STORY...
As told by Mark E. Caldwell
Zeke Johnson, June 03, 2014, Memphis Blues Society Bluesday Tuesday, Overton Square, Memphis, TN
Zeke Johnson was born in 1943 in the northeast hill country of Mississippi in Ripley. He grew up with his two sisters, Betty & Eleanor. At age six his family moved to Blue Mountain, MS. He also started singing in the church choir. He lived in Blue Mountain until age eleven when the family moved to midtown Memphis to a home on Forrest Avenue. Zeke’s mother was a teacher and she knew she could get a better job in Memphis. They lived near the Memphis Zoo & Aquarium and Zeke remembers he could hear the zoo animals from his home. The family went to the zoo often. His father was close to retirement so he kept his job and the house in Blue Mountain. He lived there during the week and drove back to Memphis when he could. Zeke spent many weekends in Blue Mountain. In Memphis, he went to Snowden Elementary, Humes and Frayser High School.
While growing up, Zeke’s parents didn’t listen to much music at home. However, his mother and sister Betty sang and were church pianists. Betty also played ukulele. They offered to teach him to play piano but he never had an interest. He said “I wish I would have done that. I preferred to be outside playing ball with my friends, although I never was good at any of the three major sports.” His dad sang a lot. His sister Betty recorded herself singing ‘Polly Wally Doodle’ in the record booth in a Memphis Woolworth. Zeke said Betty was marvelous at piano. No one in his family tried to sing professionally. His sister Eleanor at age 85 now still sings in the choir at Eudora Baptist Church. His nephew Russell (died in 2007) was a fabulous guitar player.
Soon after he heard Elvis Presley for the first time he bought a record player and started buying 45s. He was twelve years old and barely a teenager when Rock N’ Roll started. He remembers listening to the Dewey Phillips radio show. Zeke said “Dewey talked about Budweiser and said “If you can’t drink it, freeze it and eat it. Open up a cotton pickin’ rib and pour it in.” Dewey was something. If you had a song you thought was the sorriest in the world, but Dewey said it was a hit, it was going to be a hit and you had better push it. Dewey knew. And if you thought you had a hot one (song) and Dewey said it won’t go, you’d better listen to him. Dewey had the same knack about music that Dick Clark had. He knew what the kids were going to like.
Zeke said “At Humes School, I saw Elvis soon before he became famous. I was already an Elvis fan from a friend that listened to Elvis all the time on a radio in Blue Mountain.” In January 1956, before Elvis’ January 28th network television debut on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show, Elvis came to Humes for a band booster benefit. The first half of the benefit was a talent show followed by a second half performance by Elvis. D.J. Fontana (drums) had just joined Elvis’ band. The band included Scotty Moore (lead guitar) and Bill Black (bass). Zeke said “I was a trombone player at the time. I knew right then at the concert I wanted to play music. The show inspired me. That was the one and only time I saw Elvis perform. I got his autograph and lost it, dumb kid! Shortly thereafter, I sang ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’ on the radio in New Albany, MS (15 miles south of Blue Mountain). Daddy bought me a guitar and said he was throwing away his money, and he was right. I didn’t learn how to play at that time.”
Rock ‘N Roll
While growing up, Zeke remembers “No one in my family objected to Rock ‘N Roll music. Many of my friends could listen to Rock ‘N Roll, but only music by ‘White’ musicians. They weren’t allowed to bring home music by Chuck Berry, Little Richard or other African-American musicians.” Zeke could listen to anything he wanted to. His dad wasn’t a Little Richard fan, but he liked Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. The late-night radio show ‘Randy’s Record Mart’ out of Gallatin, TN (WLAC, Nashville, TN) was wellknown for the ‘nasty’ R&B music it played. The shown couldn’t be picked up on the radio in Memphis. However when Zeke’s wife was a kid, she used to hide in her bedroom and listen to the show. Zeke’s wife Donovan said “If my parents heard that, they probably wouldn’t allow it in the house.” Zeke said “Keep in mind this was a time when you couldn’t pick up ‘Randy’s Record Mart’ in Memphis on the radio, but WDIA 9 could be heard as far away as Toronto.”
45s and Albums
Zeke writes: “When I first got my little portable record player, I bought as many 45s as I could. RCA soon reissued Elvis’ Sun recordings. Also I bought ‘Heartbreak Hotel’/’I Was the One’ as soon as Joe Coughi put it on the Pop Tunes shelves. I bought Little Richard, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee; Carl Perkins, Clyde McPhatter (‘Lover’s Question’) and LaVerne Baker’s ‘Jim Dandy’ (Oh, La Verne!), Nervous Norvus’ ‘Ape Call’ and ‘Transfusion’. I’m certain my first Blues awakening was seeing Nat King Cole’s W.C. Handy biopic playing at the Strand downtown. I loved it. Then I bought ‘Yellow Dog Blues’ (B-side ‘Martinique’) by Joe Darensbourg and His Dixie Flyers. Oh my God! I can hear it right now; if I close my eyes I can still see that baby-blue Lark label. That kind of Dixieland for a 14 year-old trombone player was pure Heaven!“
Zeke thinks the first Blues album he bought was ‘Three of a Kind’ by Leadbelly, Josh White & Lightnin’ Hopkins. Later, Zeke’s friend ‘Moss’ bought him the 4-record set ‘Folk Box’ by Vanguard. He thought Zeke needed to hear the record. Zeke said “This fabulous record collection included Blues, Gospel, Mountain and Western music.” He also remembers a Mississippi John Hurt record he purchased on the old Gryphon label. It’s one of the few records where John’s playing harmonica. Zeke primarily bought Blues records, most at the Memphis State Student Book Store. Zeke recalls “In junior high and high school I hung out at a lot at Pop Tunes Records on Main Street. I bought 45s there. When the store moved and changed the name to Poplar Tunes Records I started to buy albums. The store had wonderful listening rooms and they wouldn’t hassle you about listening. I would go in there and buy obscure Folk stuff or Classical music. I loved classical music. Beethoven is one of my all-time heroes. I consider him to be one of the greatest human beings to walk the earth.”
Singing, Trombone and Theater
The first instrument Zeke played was trombone. From 6th grade through his freshman year at Ole Miss he played trombone. Playing the trombone in high school helped him get a band scholarship to attend Ole Miss. During his freshman year at Ole Miss, he started to have conflicts between continuing with band and going into theater. In 1961, after his freshman year, he lost his band scholarship. His dad told him the family couldn’t afford to pay his college tuition and Zeke didn’t go back to Ole Miss. Later Zeke went to Memphis State where he earned two college degrees in Theater. The last time Zeke played trombone was in the Air Force ROTC band at Memphis State. Zeke said “I left my trombone in the equipment room at the ROTC. I didn’t pay attention until about a year later when I wanted to sell the trombone and found it wasn’t at home. I went back to the Memphis State equipment room to look for it but it was gone.”
Around age 21, Zeke’s girlfriend gave him a Silvertone guitar from Sears Roebuck. Zeke and his girlfriend had a mutual friend Al Mossberg from Pittsburgh. Al played acoustic guitar and sang under the stage name ‘Moss’. Although Moss never showed Zeke how to play, Zeke credits Moss with inspiring him to play guitar. Zeke said “Just by watching Moss, I learned a lot of (Bob) Dylan songs. Zeke played the Silvertone for a while and then went out and bought a Gibson B25. Zeke said “Whenever I talk about guitars I have to mention my school friend Gordon Wilson. As a matter of fact the first words on my CD are “Corrina for Gordon”. “When I bought that B25 I showed it to Gordon. Gordon said “Zeke you damn fool, you’re just throwing away your money you’ll never learn how to play that thing.” Zeke said “I thank him forever for that. That’s the spark I needed to learn to play.” In May 1966 Zeke went to Paul Craft's Music on Highland Street. Zeke recalls “I went to the store with the intention to buy a Gibson Hummingbird.” At the store Paul said “Zeke, before you leave I want you to check out this Guild D40 guitar. I think you’ll like this better for playing slide.” At the time, Zeke was starting to play slide guitar. The Guild guitar was about the same price as the Hummingbird. Zeke said “The minute I put my hands on that guitar, I knew that’s what I had to have.” Zeke’s mom had a small life insurance policy on Zeke that she cashed in to buy the Guild guitar. This is the same guitar he performs with now. Zeke said “It’s never crossed my mind to ever sell that guitar.”
Professor Jim Dickinson
In the summer of 1963, Zeke met Jim Dickinson. Zeke said “The one person that turned me on to the Blues was Professor Jim Dickinson. I always referred to him as ‘Professor’. Together Jim Dickinson, Philip Arnoult, and Andy Eudaly opened an experimental theater called Market Theater in the old Curb Market on Cleveland Street. The theater started out on Friday nights with one act plays and folk music. This is a time when Sid Selvidge came to town and Jim Vinson was the king of the Memphis folk singers. The theater ended up turning into a folk music venue. Zeke thought he knew something about Blues because he knew about Josh White and Mr. (W.C.) Handy. Then Zeke started hearing Jim play records at the theater by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson and Jimmy Yancey (a Pittsburgh parking lot attendant, who was also a genius on piano). Zeke said “Jim is the first musician I’ve heard that could style a beautiful, passionate song in a ‘growly’ voice. He pre-dated Rod Stewart, Melissa Etheridge, Kim Carnes and others with that voice style. Although everyone at the theater had the intention to continue the next year, the theater only lasted the summer of 1963. Zeke’s father passed away later that year and Zeke joined the Marines in 1964 as a 6-month reservist. Afterwards he served another four years. As a reservist he injured his knee and credits that with possibly saving his life by keeping him from going to Vietnam.
Guitar Tuning and Gigs
I asked Zeke if he played his guitar with any special tunings and if he played in any bands. He said “I use open D which is called Vestapol, open G which is called Spanish and I use a capo very liberally. I’ve played in open tuning for about forty five years. I’ve never been in a band, although in my craziest days (after grad school) I was backed by a band called Wood.” The band was in town from Tulsa. They played together at a legendary coffee house out in Raleigh called Serendipity Revival. Zeke said “Tony & Phyllis Yarbrough had a good deal to do with that. We called ourselves Christmas Teeth. It didn’t last very long. We played one gig and called ourselves The 1812 Death March. We also played a gig at LeMoyne-Owen College when I was on the faculty there. The show didn’t thrill the administration too much.”
For about a year and a half Zeke Johnson and Friends played as a band at the Midtown Saloon at the corner of Madison Avenue and Cleveland Street. Zeke was in the band with his nephew Russell (guitar), Tony Elder (guitar, vocals) and Woody Wall (piano). Zeke recalls “Some guy wanted to record us and we were all for it. We did a recording session of about 10-12 songs at the old American Recording Studio at Chelsea and Thomas. We added Les Birchfield on drums for the session. Nothing ever came of the session, and I think I lost the tape from it. Interestingly, at my Otherlands gig on July 12, 2014, the three living members of Zeke Johnson and Friends were in the house. Very moving!”
At Memphis State, the Westminster Fellowship and Wesley Foundation had a coffee shop called The Razor’s Edge. Zeke said “That’s where I did my major ‘teeth cutting’. I played a little bit at the Bitter Lemon, but I was still too inexperienced to play much there. I played at the Folklore on Madison Avenue. There was a place in Overton Square called The Perception. I’m proud of this. I went and played there and they ran out of beer. However the people stayed around for about an hour to hear me play. That’s when Nathan Beauregard’s nephew Marvin Reeves, introduced himself and asked if I can play the ‘Bumble Bee’. I said I don’t play the ‘Bumble Bee’. I know your uncle plays ‘Highway 61’ sometime. Would that be okay of I played that for you?” He said “Yes sir that would be fine.” and Zeke played the song for him.
Zeke Johnson, June 13, 2014, Java Cabana Coffee House, Memphis, TN
Mary Burns and The Dot Bunny
Zeke said “Let me quickly pay my tribute to Mary Burns. I was inactive as a musician for a long, long time because of school teaching.” From 1971-2008 Zeke taught at Bishop Byrne High School (a Catholic School), Lincoln Junior High, Raleigh-Egypt, Lausanne (an independent academic school), East and Colonial. “In my early thirties I tried playing music in the evenings during the week and teaching school during the day. That didn’t work; bad idea. About four to five years ago I ran into Mary at Ike’s Pharmacy.” She said “Do you want to come back over and play?” I said “Sure.” Mary replied “I’ll give you one night a month at Java Cabana like we always did.” By this time Zeke and his wife moved to the Cooper-Young neighborhood in midtown Memphis. Zeke said ”She gave me a regular gig to do.”
There’s another lady I need to pay tribute to, my darling departed bride Mary Donovan Long-Johnson, better known as ‘The Dot Bunny’. That’s also what I call my guitar. She went by the name Donovan. For the longest time she spent many an hour at the coffee house or beer joint listening to me play. She was loyal to the core and that helps a whole lot. “From 1977-79 Zeke didn’t teach school. Zeke says “I was independently unemployed during this time. I laid off teaching and tried to make it on music. I was playing some rough gigs during this period. Donovan worked a truly sorry job at the time to help us get along. She was actually making less than I was making on unemployment and that wasn’t working. That’s why I almost never go out and not play her favorite song which is ‘See That My Grave is Kept Clean’ by Blind Lemon Jefferson. Zeke was married to Donovan for 41 years until she passed away two years ago. Zeke said ”Although I taught at Bishop Byrne forty years ago, and the school has closed, those ‘Byrne’ kids have remained my most loyal fans. When Donovan died, I got eighteen condolence messages from my BBHS kids, and eleven were at the memorial.
The Gaslight and Overton Park Shell
Zeke has two shows he’s played during his music career that he calls his Pride and Joy. He recalls “I played amateur night at the Gaslight in New York City on December 30th 1969. The friend I was staying with in Queens told me “Don’t go in there (the Gaslight) and act so country. I said to my friend “For god’s sake, I know I’m not country, but I’m going to sound country to New Yorkers no matter how I say anything. If I go in there and pretend to be a New Yorker, I’m going to just be a fool. So I played the show for all it was worth. I got up there and said “Hi ya’ll, my name is Zeke Johnson and I’m from Quonset Point, Rhode Island and I rode my mule down to New York City to see if I could make it in the big time. I had them after that, but the damn record man never showed up.”
Zeke’s biggest thrill ever was the first time he played at the Overton Park Shell in the early 1980s. Zeke recalls “There’s a great Shell video on YouTube called ‘A Tribute to Furry Lewis’. The first half of the show is me and the second half is Jim Dickinson, Lee Baker, Sid Selvidge and Jim Crosthwait.” In early 1957 Zeke saw his first big show and it was at the Shell. It was a Rock ‘N Roll show and it had everybody. Elvis came out and took a bow, but his contract obligation wouldn’t allow him to play. Zeke said “He wore a baby blue sport coat. Roy Orbison, Eddie Bond, Warren Smith and Carl Perkins were there. I can’t remember but Johnny (Cash) may have been there too. That was plenty good! I was thirteen years old and I was just in heaven.” Zeke didn’t get home from the show until around 12:30am the next morning. Although his mother was a lifelong teacher, she let Zeke stay home from school the next day. She said “You’re going to be worthless if you go to school tomorrow. You promise me you’ll do your school lessons at home?” Zeke did that.” Zeke went to the Shell every chance he had. He used to go to all of the Delta Blues Festivals there. Zeke said “The best one I can remember was the first one I saw in 1966 or 1967. Furry Lewis, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Booker White, Nathan Beauregard, Rev. Robert Wilkins, they were all there. The show in 1968 is the most famous. That’s when an iconic photo was taken of 14 English Blues singer, guitarist Jo Ann Kelly holding a big parasol over Mr. Beauregard in the brutal heat that day. We lived over on Avalon which is about a mile from the Shell. The night Johnny Winter was there we actually heard some of the show from our house. There was still a residential neighborhood around the corner from the Shell. Johnny preferred “10” when it came to setting his amp. Trouble began for the Shell after Johnny’s show.”
Zeke Johnson, Sleepy John Estes Home, July 17, 2014, Brownsville, TN Photo by Tristan Moyer
Bluesman and Blueswomen
Zeke was a trained singer and trombone player, but a completely self-taught guitarist. He said “I didn’t have much interest in playing in a band. Once I heard Furry Lewis I wasn’t much interested in anything but that anyway. During Zeke’s music career some Blues legends have held the Guild D40 guitar he performs with now. Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Booker ‘Bukka’ 15 White and Jessie Mae Hemphill all held his guitar. For a couple of years Furry Lewis and Lee Baker weren’t playing together. During that time Zeke played as Furry’s sideman at shows. Zeke said “We played a show in Fayetteville, AR that has a fabulous story and even a decent song about it. I’ll be playing that song soon.”
Zeke played one gig with Jessie Mae Hemphill. He never performed with Booker ‘Bukka’ White or Sleepy John Estes but he knew them and talked to them on occasion. He took Booker White to several gigs. Zeke said “I played with Sleepy John’s harmonica player Hammie Nixon. I brought him to Lausanne school, an interesting experience to say the least. It was very strange but it worked and turned out alright.”
Zeke watched these Blues guitarists and learned techniques from them. He never played on stage with Mississippi Fred McDowell. Zeke said “However I used to drive down to Oxford to Ole Miss Football games a lot. On the drive home I liked to stop in Como. I visited Fred at his home several times. We would sit on the porch and talk. I took my nephews and my fiancée’s children to see him. Every now and then we’d have a chance to play a bit. He was such a nice man and a refined gentleman.” One of the first big compliments Zeke received was when he played a song for Booker ‘Bukka’ White. Zeke said “I think the song was ‘Panama Limited’. As a matter of fact, I pretty much picked up the song off a Tom Rush album.” Booker said “You know, you’re gonna get there, you ain’t there yet. You’re playing a lot like Tom does. I think one day you might be better than Big Al (Al Wilson of Canned Heat).” Zeke almost did a back flip after hearing this.
In the early 1980s Dr. David Evans arranged for Zeke and Jessie Mae Hemphill to play a gig together at Court Square during an Oktoberfest celebration downtown. The temperatures during the show started to chill, but no one left. Everyone stayed for the entire show. Zeke said “Playing that show was one of my favorite memories of Jessie.”
Zeke started to play guitar in 1965 after he got out of the Marines. Around May of that year he saw Furry Lewis perform for the first time at The Bitter Lemon. During a break at the show, Zeke asked Furry how he tuned his guitar. Furry said “I tune it cross note.” Zeke said what do you mean?” Furry said “I cross a Major over a Minor.” And Zeke said again, what do you mean? Will you do this Mr. Furry? I live nearby. Will you go down the strings on your guitar and show me, I’ll then run home and tune my guitar that way.” After the fourth time Furry showed Zeke his guitar tuning, Zeke said “Thank you sir” and out he went to his home to tune his guitar. Zeke learned this was the Vestapol (open D) tuning. Soon afterwards, he learned the Spanish tuning (open G) from a Mississippi John Hurt record.
Zeke visited Furry Lewis in town on occasion. Before Furry moved to 811 Mosby, he lived on Leath Street. Zeke first visited Furry at this home. One day during a visit he played ‘John Henry’ for Furry. Furry then played his version of the song. One day Furry held his bottleneck slide up in the air and said “Zeke, I would be nothing without this.” Zeke said “Furry I’ve heard you play without the slide. Okay; the slide is why you’re famous, I’ll go for that. But, don’t tell me that slide is the only reason you’re a famous Bluesman. You can play fine and sing.”
Fayetteville, Furry Lewis and Booker ‘Bukka’ White
One of Zeke’s favorite memories about Furry Lewis is from a Fayetteville, AR concert they played with Booker ‘Bukka’ White. During the drive to Fayetteville, Zeke and his wife Donovan sat in the front seat 16 of the car, Booker and Furry sat in the back. Donovan baked a chocolate cake. Zeke said “The icing she makes is pure Dot Bunny. That’s the icing I learned to make.” About halfway between Memphis and Little Rock, they ate the cake. The whole time Furry was playing jokes with Donovan calling her little honey, little honey this, little honey that. Booker said “Ms. Zeke, I swear before God that cake is the best thing I ever put in my mouth.” Furry didn’t say anything. Donovan knew she was being set up, she knew something was coming. Finally Donovan couldn’t stand it any longer and said “Well Furry, you haven’t said anything about the cake.” Furry said “Oh little honey it was horrible; I think you’re trying to poison me. Give me another piece.” Donovan said “Now wait, if it was that bad and you think I’m trying to poison you, why do you want another piece.” Furry said “I don’t want nobody else to get hurt.”
During the drive to Fayetteville, Furry and Booker weren’t getting along too well and Furry was acting real cranky. Zeke and his wife decided they didn’t need to sit together so Donovan sat in the back seat with Furry. During the trip they stayed at the home of some hippie ‘wannabes’ that didn’t treat them well. Zeke said the song goes “I ain’t never gonna go back to Fayetteville, Arkansas because the land lady treated me like I was her son-in-law.” During the drive on Highway 71 (near Devil’s Den State Park in the Ozarks) they all looked up the road and saw a chicken running for its life. Right behind the chicken was what we thought was a dog or coyote. Zeke said “We drove by the chicken at just the right time to save it. I looked and saw a wolf chasing the chicken, not a dog or coyote. The chicken got away on one side of the road and the wolf turned around on the other. This scared Furry half to death. Furry said “Zeke what was that?” Zeke replied “That was a wolf.” Furry then said “There ain’t no wolves in the South, there ain’t no wolves around here.” Zeke said “Yes Furry that was a wolf. I know because I just saw one at the Memphis Zoo about a week ago.” Furry said “Whoa mercy, whoa mercy.”
While Zeke taught school he took an extended break from performing. Around 2006, just before he retired, he started performing again at Java Cabana in the Cooper-Young neighborhood of Memphis. Zeke refers to Java Cabana as his home base. For several years he wasn’t in the mood to perform and he took a break. Soon thereafter he went back to performing at Java Cabana.
'Old & Young' (2013)
Old & Young
One evening in 2012, Larry Stanley saw Zeke performing and offered him an opportunity to record his first record. Larry told Zeke he would fund it, and he did. On another evening Zeke was running late to see Valerie June perform at Java Cabana. When he finally got there she had finished her show. Zeke told her “I’m, sorry but I’ve got to hear you. I’ve been hearing about so long, I’ve got to hear you.” She played two to three songs and then she sat down with Zeke and traded guitar licks for a while. Earlier in the evening, Chris Nanney ‘Screamin’ Eagle’ opened the show for Valerie June. ‘Screamin’ Eagle’ gave Zeke a copy of his CD. Zeke said “I went home and listened to the CD. I thought to myself this boy reminds me a lot of myself when I was back playing at his age. I called him up and he came over to my house and hung out some. It slowly developed that we would do the ‘Old & Young’ CD together. At the time ‘Screamin’ Eagle’ had a lot of original songs and I had a few. The one original I have on the CD is ‘African Queen’. I did some standards on the CD including ‘Corina’ which starts the CD. The CD was recorded at Ardent Studios during a 7-8 hour session. During the session they recorded over fifty songs, all in one take. Larry Stanley went back through all of the songs and suggested five of Zeke’s songs and five ‘Screamin’ Eagle’ songs. Together they selected the songs for the CD. The CD was released in 2013. Zeke’s favorite songs to play live from the CD are ‘African Queen’, ‘See That My Grave is Kept Clean’ (his wife’s favorite song) and ‘Casey Jones’. Zeke said “The African Queen exists. I recently talked to her and I’ve written three songs about her.
Zeke has some ideas about other CD projects he would like to try ahead including music by some of the 18 Bluesman and Blueswomen he knew and performed with. When he first hung out with ‘Screamin’ Eagle’ at his house, Zeke told him he only had written five songs that were from over forty years ago. Zeke said “I guess I’m just not a song writer. ‘Screamin’ Eagle’ said “Do you know what you can do with that thought? The next time that comes to mind, dismiss that as foolishness.” Zeke immediately thought about a Whitman poem in which he says “A child is the father to the man”. Zeke said to me “and ‘Screamin’ Eagle’ was being a father to me. From then that just stuck with me and I went crazy writing songs.” Since February 2014 Zeke has written over forty songs. He credits this all to ‘Screamin’ Eagle’. When Zeke’s not playing music he likes to read a lot.
His new CD 'Old & Young' is for sale at his gigs, Camy’s (Memphis) and at the West Tennessee Heritage Museum (Brownsville, TN).
The interview for this story took place on June 13, 2014 at Java Cabana Coffee House, Midtown Memphis, TN
© 2014 Mark E. Caldwell, All Rights Reserved.