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Real Music - Old Soul - June 2016


Real Music - Old Soul - June 2016

by Robert Feuer

Soul music lives on, thanks to musicians like guitarist Johnny Rawls, who, at age 65, spends much of his time on the road, spreading the love and pure harmonies of music America grew up on.

Raised in the 1950s in Mississippi, where he still lives, Rawls says, during a phone interview in May, “Music was everywhere all around me.” He had a high school band that backed up top-drawer blues/soul performers like Z.Z. Hill, Little Johnny Taylor, and Joe Tex, who passed through his town on their way to the bright lights of New Orleans or the Hi-Hat Club in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. “Every star in show business came though the Hi Hat,” he says. “That was a sign that you’d made it.”

Rawls joined soul artist O.V. Wright in the mid-70s as a player and bandleader. Wright told him as long as he lived Rawls would have a job, but Wright passed in 1980, after which Rawls spent five years with Little Johnny Taylor

Then, Rawls decided to go solo, and took a song he’d written to a radio station, where they began spinning it on-air. “The next thing I knew I was on shows with Bobby Womack and toured with B.B. King.”

He’s released 17 recordings, and has been nominated for Blues Music Awards, blues most prestigious honor, more times than he can recall. In 2009, Rawls won Best Soul Blues Male Artist

Rawls started his own record company – Deep South Soul in 2002 – and has produced, arranged and written hundreds of songs for himself and others. He refers to a Blues Trail Marker at the former site of the Hi-Hat Club, closed since 1994, as “one of my most proud accomplishments.”  Blues Trail Markers are impressive metal signs strewn around the deep South, telling stories, through words and images, of blues artists, and how the places where they lived, and the times in which they existed, influenced their music.

Much has been lost along the way, including most of those musicians he joined on the road. “It’s unreal, man,” he says.

Rawls believes the turning point for soul music was when it stopped being played on the radio. Young kids no longer grew up with it. “They don’t hear it. We heard it and saw it all the time. They just don’t know.” As to what’s called soul these days, he says, “I don’t think much of it. It’s soulless. They’ve taken all the realness out of it.”

Rawls comes out to Sonoma County often, part of his extensive itinerary, which includes Europe. “For me, it’s not about the money – it’s about my music and people liking my music. If I’m not on the road, I’m in the studio. I’m always gonna do that as long as I can move.”

 He’ll perform June 24 at Cotati’s Redwood Café. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear music from an era that has receded into a past that is thankfully still present, due to artists like Johnny Rawls. 

Photo credit – James Gregas