The Herald, Sharon,
PA Published Thursday, Aug. 19, 1999


Local bluesman still looking for his big break after all these years -- 40 years

By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer

Elray Johnson has been playing the blues since the late '50s, but he sounds like he's just starting out when he talks about his career.

The Sharon man is trying to interest Alligator Records, one of the leading blues labels in the country, in signing him. He's looking to find a lucrative deal with a booking agent. And he's trying to work his contacts with better known musicians to get himself a break.

The veteran of the touring circuit and the recording studio said he's ready to move if he has the opportunity.

"I really have nothing holding me," said Johnson. "You have to keep moving because people will get tired of you. You bring Ray Charles here and they'll get tired of him."

Johnson has kept moving. He's lived in Nebraska, Ohio and New York, depending on what booking agency he's signed with. He leads his own band, plays solo and backs others.

But for the time being, Sharon, his hometown, is just fine because of its proximity to Pittsburgh and Cleveland. "It's all right to play there," he said. "I wouldn't want to live in those cities.

"I can't make no money in this town," he added. "I can't draw. This is a bad area to make a living."

Johnson, 66, started in music playing the bass in his early 20s. His first band was the Elmoroccos, a New Castle show band in which the musicians wore stone-laden turbans. The band opened for B.B. King and Aretha Franklin at Cascade Park.

Johnson, who also sings, soon tired of the bass. "It's a background instrument. I had problems playing what I wanted to play so I switched to the organ."

His early recordings include "Why Did You Take Her Away" and "Rinky Dink" in the '60s, and "Hold On To My Pride" and "Ebb Tide" in the '70s.

He characterized "Ebb Tide" as "the biggest thing going for me" and wants to reissue it. But he wasn't able to capitalize on the attention it brought him at the time.

"I didn't take care of business like I should. I got so busy playing six nights a week. I was making good money and thought I'd make that money all the time. It kind of backfired on me."

One positive thing from the time was he signed with the Lutz Agency in Lincoln, Neb.

"A lot of musicians don't like the Midwest because there's no glamour. There are farmers coming right out of the fields. But that's where the money is.

"I should have stayed with those guys," he said of Lutz. "I left them 15 years ago. I did a lot of dumb things when I was younger. I just quit on those guys. Now I'm trying to get back with them."

Johnson plays Chicago blues, although the choice was more a decision from his head than his heart.

"That's the musicians I got stuck with," he said of his early days as a sideman. "Because of the artists you back up you get known from them. They're making money at it so I stuck with them."

Johnson has played on about 40 albums, 10 of them released under his own name and the rest as a sideman. His most recent albums include "The Storm," an all-original collection, and "Blues in the Night," a compilation of cover tunes including "Georgia On My Mind," "Stand By Me" and King's "Rock Me Baby."

"I sent 'The Storm' to Alligator Records," Johnson said. "They liked the music but it wasn't enough blues."

Johnson opened for Deborah Coleman at the Cleveland Blues Festival and asked her to talk him up with Alligator, her record label.

The bluesman is working on two recordings, a Christmas one and an all-original disc, and he's hoping to have them both out by the holiday season.

In the meantime, he's plugging away with live shows -- most of them in Pittsburgh. He sells most of his recordings at gigs.

"These labels want you to get started and show you where there's a market, then they'll step in. They all say the same thing."

The Elray Johnson Blues Band plays Saturday at the opening of the Pepsi-Cola Roadhouse, Burgettstown, Pa., with Bobby "Blue" Bland. The show was to be open but is now a closed affair. The band plays a public show Aug. 27 at Kelly's Riverside, Bridgewater. Pa.

Back to TOP // Herald Local news // Local news headlines // Herald Home page

Internet service in Mercer County, only $19.95 a month!

Updated Aug. 19, 1999
For info about advertising on our site or Web-page creation:
Copyright ©1999 The Sharon Herald Co. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or retransmission in any form is prohibited without our permission.