Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
BIG LLOU JOHNSON
Bringing sexy back to the blues
The voice of B.B. King’s Bluesville radio network releases his debut blues CD
by Jennifer Noble
photos: Jennifer Noble
photos: Jennifer Noble
Listening to the smooth and sultry bass voice of Big Llou Johnson is akin to eating chocolate – just one taste leaves you craving more. It’s no wonder that Johnson’s velvet pipes have provided this native West Side Chicagoan with a successful career in theater, films and voice over work. To blues fans, he’s the announcer for XM Sirius Satellite Radio’s B.B. King’s Bluesville. And now Johnson has joined the ranks of blues artists whose music is heard by millions on the radio network he emcees, with the release of his debut CD They Call Me Big Llou, on his Goldenvoice Audio Records indie label. In December of 2011, Chicago Blues Guide’s photo director, Jennifer Noble, sat down with Big Llou to discuss his newest venture into the blues.
Q - How old were you when you realized you could sing and that your voice was unique?
Big Llou: I started getting attention in eighth grade. I woke up one day it had changed and it was different. And then in high school it became really apparent. (laughs) To tell you the truth, I don't consider myself a singer, I consider myself an entertainer. I consider myself a lover of music and singing is one way I express that. I know a hell of a lot of people who I prefer to hear sing more than me. People that I consider singers, you know. I am amazed that people enjoy hearing what I do and I'm appreciative and love it, but I don't consider myself a singer.
Q - How and when did you first get involved in music? Has music always been a part of your life?
Big Llou: I had a band. My first professional band was in high school. It was called Deep Involvement. I was one of the singers but my main function was playing the tenor saxophone with this group. And we were together for about 3 or 4 years and we managed to get invited to Motown and we got up there but I don't remember anything substantial coming from being there. But we were a very tight group and played the local circuit. But when I got to college, I put my effort there and put the horn down. But I am looking forward to picking it up again. I am hoping it will be like riding a bike when I go to pick it up. (laughs) My friend and blues singer Jackie Scott has been encouraging me to hook up with Eddie Shaw and get my chops back so I am hoping that Eddie Shaw will give me some pointers.
Q - A lot of blues music fans don’t know you are from Chicago.
Big Llou: I was born and raised on the West Side of Chicago. I have lived here my whole life. I go back and forth to New York and L.A. for work but have always lived here and my residence has always been the West Side. Most people think that because I am heard on Sirius Radio that my residence is in Washington D.C., where the studio is. But I have a studio in my home where I record from.
Q - Why did you decide to make a blues CD and how long did you think about it before you actually went into the studio to record the tracks.
Big Llou: For the last 10 years as the voice of B.B. King’s Bluesville radio, blues has been such a big part of my life. I did a blues album because of my love of the art form. I’ve recorded R&B, choral and pop but now, every time I hear a blues tune that I love, I can actually see myself performing the song live in my mind’s eye. They Call Me Big Llou is the physical realization of those mental visual images. But it could not have happened without my producers, Russ Green and Keith Stewart making it come to life!
Q - I noticed that your CD has only one song written by you, which is “They Call Me Big Llou”. On your next CD do you plan on writing more of your own songs?
Big Llou: I do plan to write more. On this CD I wanted to express my creativity both vocally and with the pen, and that's why I did “They Call Me Big Llou”. And again, not being a recording artist with tons of projects under my belt, I tend to listen to those who have been there before me. And at a recent Blues Music Awards I attended, I was having breakfast with Lonnie Brooks and Bobby Rush, and Bobby Rush said: “If you really want to do something, boy, you got to write a song and put your name in it.” So... (laughs) I went out and wrote a song and put my name in it following his instructions and so far people are really liking “They Call Me Big Llou”.
Q - How did you select the blues musicians that you were going to record with?
Big Llou: My musicians were hand selected by my producer Russ Green who also plays the harmonica on the CD. He is an incredibly talented musician My long time friend and voice over agent, Vanessa Lanier of Grossman Jack Talent in Chicago actually hooked the two of us together and I truly thank her for it. We've become great friends in the process and I owe them both a great deal of gratitude for making this project a reality.
Q - One of my favorite songs on the CD is “Flesh and Blood”. When I listen to that track, it puts me in a near trance-like state. It's really deep. It's definitely a song you would listen to more than once. Why did you choose that song?
Big Llou: It's more like poetry isn't it? And I had to listen to it more than once. I heard this song listening to Sirius one day and I knew it was Solomon (Burke) the moment I heard him sing it. I never heard Solomon sing a song like that and it stuck in my head. I went on the internet and investigated who wrote it and I saw that (it was written by) Joe Henry, who had done so many other wonderful songs and it made the cut. I had like 20 something songs to choose from for the CD, but I insisted that “Flesh and Blood” be on there. I hope that I did it justice because Solomon did such a wonderful job with it. And I just wanted to put my spin on it. You know on the original he had a saxophone and we brought in a wonderful trumpet player, Charles Pryor, and I was glad that he agreed to work with us on this project.
Q - I see that you have chosen some blues standards like “Rock Me Baby”, “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy” and “Help Me.” Why were you attracted to those standards?
Big Llou: Well, I knew that I was going to have something written by or popularized by Howlin' Wolf. I had to (laughs). Growing up on the West Side of Chicago I was exposed to his music and him on a regular basis and “Three Hundred Pounds” was one that I always listened to. That was the perfect tune. Out of all the songs he recorded, that one fit the “Big Llou” persona. I couldn't use two popular Wolf tunes (on this CD) and my other choice was to record “Built for Comfort”. Perhaps it will show up on my next project.
Q - What about “Rock Me Baby”?
Llou: I picked “Rock Me Baby” ‘cause who doesn't like being rocked, baby (laughs). Most people would do that song a lot faster than I do it. When we were going over the song with the band, I told them it has to be slow, it has to be sexy, it has to be funky ‘cause I was going to bring my bass to it. I think “Rock Me Baby” is a sexy song, a really sexy song and I think that my voice suited doing that song the way I did it. I really enjoyed recording it.
Q - After listening to “Your Sweetness is my Weakness” by Barry White, I found myself singing the song over and over again in my head. It's contagious and catchy. Why that Barry White tune?
Big Llou: My producers didn't want me to sing a Barry White tune on a blues CD. But the way this came about was that my friend Keith Stewart, the producer who used to sing with Heaven and Earth, he called me on the phone one day and said he heard “Sweetness is My Weakness” on the radio and, as it was playing, he heard a blues side to it in his head. He immediately went home and recorded the music, called me and said Llou, listen to this, I think you should do a Barry White tune but do it with a blues vibe and what you hear on this CD is the final version.
Q - Your CD is pretty sexy throughout. Did you intend for this CD to be really sexy? Was that your intention?
Big Llou: I am sexy period (laughs). I like to think that I am sexy -- beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Since this was going to be for public consumption I did not want to put something out there that wasn't sexy. I love sexy, don't you? I'd like to think I'm “bringing sexy back” to the blues. The tunes are not necessarily “love songs” but they are about love in one form or another (laughs). It just depends on how you look at it (more laughs).
Q - Do you wish to think of yourself as the “Barry White of the Blues”? I don't know of anyone else being called that on the blues music scene but that's who I think of when I hear your voice.
Big Llou: (Laughs)....well I am a bass and I do recognize that we all get compared to one another like Isaac Hayes and Barry White. If I have the favor of the gods to come anywhere near how they were appreciated and loved, that would just make my world. But I do know that since, unfortunately, those gentlemen are no longer here to create their art, I would like to be able to fill that void in the music world ‘cause there are far too many tenors and too few baritones and basses making music for people to enjoy.
Q - Do you have any other family members that sing or play music?
Big Llou: My sister Marcy was the first to expose me to music by having me sing in the choir with her at church when I was four or five years old. Next, my cousin Dwayne, who is no longer with us, was a bass player. He and I, as kids, would sit back, I would do my sax and he had his guitar and we always dreamed and talked about being great musicians. But he lived far away on the South Side of Chicago and I lived on the West Side, so it was hard to get together as often as we liked when we were teenagers and make music. That is why the band Deep Involvement for me was the closest thing to a real performing family as you could get.
Q - Is there anyone that you have a strong desire to play and perform with?
Big Llou: When I started to get back out performing again, I have to give a big thanks to Billy Branch. He has always let me announce the fact that Big Llou from B.B. King's Bluesville Radio was in the house. And when I told him I had aspirations to do a CD, he said: “Well, you need to start singing” and he would bring me up onstage. And let me do whatever. So I was encouraged by Billy Branch to go down this road as well. But Chicago being in my opinion, “Home of the Blues” with singers both male and female, I think it's an honor every time I share a stage with them, whether or not I am hosting or performing or just being a spectator, it's always a pleasure.
Q - Who influenced or inspired you musically?
Big Llou: It's been a varied career. Because I have dabbled and studied with folks whom I always admired in Negro Spirituals. And that lead me to Paul Robeson in my high school years and, although I am no Paul Robeson by no stretch of the imagination, I was fascinated with him because of his accomplishments and his voice. He was one of my biggest inspirations, which is why I was doing choral music with the Oak Park Concert Chorale. And, of course, Barry White and Isaac Hayes. From a jazz genre, I am a big Arthur Prysock fan. I like all those old cats. From a musical standpoint I used to emulate Stanley Turrentine on his tenor sax when I was coming up playing on my porch when I was a teenager, disturbing the neighborhood until my mother told me to quit.
Q - Do you have any gigs in the area now, or in the near future? Do you plan on supporting the CD with live shows?
Big Llou: I would hope so, to support the CD, just like with any music you put out there. We would like to tour and have people appreciate our art. I am no different from other artists in that respect. I have been overseas and performed before. I have been to Poland at least four times doing gospel and R&B.
Q - What about Chicago gigs, Big Llou?
Llou: We are planning a tour in 2012. We are planning a CD release party, hopefully in February, in Chicago somewhere and we’ll hopefully get lots of festival gigs!
Q - Since this is your first blues album, what type of work have you done before? What have you been doing with your voice?
Big Llou: I have pretty much been making a living in the entertainment media most of my adult life. My first foray into the entertainment media was that I owned a talent agency and I represented actors, models and musicians in Chicago. After doing that for fifteen years, I decided to promote myself because people were asking me to record commercials and things of that nature. And I found it to be a conflict of interest to represent people who did that and also do it for myself. That is one of the reasons I became a full-time voice over artist when I closed my talent agency. And as a voice over artist, I do everything from TV, radio, commercials, corporate narration and animated films and cartoons. This blues thing is just a progression of me as an artist. Anywhere I can lend my voice and it would be complimentary, and I wouldn't get cursed out, I thought I would try.
Q - Is there any other place you would like to live and have a blues career or do you think Chicago is the place to be?
Big Llou: You know, I am fortunate. I am very fortunate in the fact that I have been making a living doing voice over and acting for quite some time now. And because of that I can do what I do from virtually anywhere because of technology. Of course I have family and friends here and I grew up here and I would love to have homes here and in all the other wonderful places that I love, too. I am actually planning on moving to L.A. in the not too distant future because the Chicago winters are starting to get to us. But I will always have a home in Chicago, always. But I look forward to seeing the world and sharing my music with the blues and/or R&B fans.
Q - I realize that you just released this CD, but do you plan on doing a follow up CD?
Big Llou: Oh, for sure. I did this one in 2 weeks because I was so busy doing commercials, movies and other things that I had to actually MAKE myself find the time and the resources to do this, and I did it in 2 weeks, which is one reason there are so many covers on the CD. But those covers actually took some time and research to select -- to find one which ones fit me and that I liked personally from a musical standpoint. But my next CD will be songs that I have written myself.
Q - What's next for Big Llou?
Big Llou: Well, I am looking forward to spreading the good news of the blues with “They Call Me Big Llou.” I was fortunate enough to do two movies this year that will be coming out next year. There will be a third (film) that I am scheduled to be in L.A. for. I'm just looking forward to being creative and sharing all that music that is inside of me with all those wonderful people out there who are supporting it right now, and I thank them. Because without them, there would be no me, and God bless them all. Keep the blues growing y'all. Indeed!
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