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CD Review -- Shirley Johnson


Blues Attack

Delmark Records

 Shirley Johnson CD

By Eric Steiner


Last time I checked, Blues Attack, Shirley Johnson’s follow up to her 2002 Delmark CD Killer Diller, was sitting on top of the Living Blues radio charts.  It’s well-deserved recognition for a blueswoman who’s left everything on the stage every week at Blue Chicago for over the past 18 years at what may be the city’s record for blues performers-in-residence. 


Shirley's diverse vocals are front and center on this CD, more so than on her earlier Delmark effort.  She can belt the blues with the best of them (think of her Chicago contemporaries like Zora Young, Mary Lane, Liz Mandeville and also the late, great Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor).  Shirley also possesses a dynamic range that roars and then purrs like a sultry kitten on the softer sides of this CD.  If your travels bring you to Chicago, I'd highly recommend one of Shirley's sets at Blue Chicago (or any festival she might highlight).


On Blues Attack, she offers up 14 solid cuts with some road-tested musicians that are keeping the blues very much alive in Chicagoland.  My favorite songs feature the horn section of Kenny Anderson, Hank Ford, and Willie Henderson on numbers like “”Blues Attack” and “634-5789” and “I’m Going to Find Me a Lover.”  If you don’t recognize Hank or Willie’s names, check out their work with Bill McFarland and the Chicago Horns.  Along with Laurence Fields on tenor sax, they put quite a punch in these songs.  That phone number, originally dialed by Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd for the likes of Wilson Pickett, rings loudly as a tribute to the Memphis sound, with some talented backup vocals courtesy of Roberta Thomas, Danielle Smith, and Billy D. Richard.  “You Shouldn’t Have Been There” recalls a moment when the ex-in-question decidedly shouldn’t have; Shirley delivers her rebuke with slow and sultry aplomb.  The set’s closer, “You Just Using Me,” written by labelmate Quintus McCormick, is a real treat.  I’m confident we’ll hear more from this bluesman as time goes on. (Editor’s note: McCormick is releasing a CD on Delmark, due out September 22, 2009.)


I really enjoyed Blues Attack from start to finish. I especially enjoyed it for the way Shirley opened the door for her musicians to strut their considerable stuff, just like Muddy Waters did for his bandmates back in the day.  The keyboards from Roosevelt Purifoy are unforgettable, as are the guitar solos from Luke Pytel and Herb Walker.  Bass player Mr. Lovely “JR” Fuller, Jr. and drummer Cordell Teague keep the beat going nicely from their engine room.


I’m glad that Shirley Johnson’s getting some additional attention from the blues community: this past June, she headlined opening night of the prestigious Chicago Blues Festival on the Petrillo Main Stage, and she’s been nominated for two 2009 Blues Blast Music Awards in the Best Female Artist and Best Traditional Blues Recording categories.


Dave Whiteis’ thoughtful liner notes tell the story of a singer steeped in Gospel, but drawn to the blues, and I hope that Shirley Johnson’s Blues Attack will attract the attention of festival promoters from Notodden, Norway to Naperville and back.



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