"FAREWELL TO A NORTHWEST BLUES GIANT, JOE JOHANSEN"
WHEN IT COMES TO GIFTED GUITARISTS, the Pacific Northwest’s music scene has always produced way more than its rightful share. But it's an awfully short list of players who can fairly make claim to having been among young Jimi Hendrix’s early local role models. And now, that short list is shorter with the recent passing of Joe Johansen.
In June 1997, I received a phone call from local R&B pioneer, Little Bill Engelhart. He had some sad news to share: Joe had died in his sleep in Spokane around June 4th. Hearing this from Bill was perfectly fitting; he had been friends with Joe since the 1950s. I had been Joe’s pal for only a few weeks — Bill had kindly introduced us.
To backtrack: A month earlier, Bill had called to inform me that Joe had agreed to return to Seattle for a four-night homecoming mini-tour. Well, Bill got us together, and I discovered in Joe a wonderful fellow, a man with deep soul, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and a keen love for his musical roots. As a student of Pacific Northwest music history, I had, of course, always wanted to meet Joe and plumb his memories about the early days. As one of the architects of the original Northwest Sound, Joe had contributed his all to the scene. But in recent years he’d given up music and was laying low. His life story, however, is that of the quintessential Northwest bluesman.
Born in Alaska in 1941, Joe later moved with his family to tiny Mossyrock, Washington, where he acquired his first, crummy Hawaiian steel guitar from a door-to-door salesman/teacher. Later, in the school band, Joe played upright string bass, trombone, tuba and drums. By age 14 he began performing bass with a Chehalis country band. But then in ’57, he had the chance to hear Tacoma’s first white teen-age R&B band, the Bluenotes (with Little Bill), and that’s all it took for him to see his own future. He was born to be a bluesman. So, after only a quarter or two of college, Joe dropped out and began hanging out with older black musicians in the seedy blues dives along Tacoma’s lower Broadway area.
After Tacoma’s first rock band, the Wailers, scored a national hit in ’59, teen bands proliferated. Joe joined the Adventurers, a combo that cut a few 45s and played a lot of great gigs, including a date at the Spanish Castle Ballroom in Midway in support of rockabilly star Gene Vincent. When the Bluenotes crumbled in the wake of their ’59 hit “I Love an Angel,” Little Bill also joined the Adventurers. The group made history by being the first combo to cut a 45 of the song that was to become ingrained over the next few years as the region’s signature tune, “Louie Louie.”
At the end of 1960 -- when Tacoma’s Ventures began touring in support of their debut hit “Walk-Don’t Run” -- Yakima’s finest band, the Checkers, got an offer to tour the Midwest opening for the Ventures. The Checkers’ wunderkind guitarist, Larry Coryell, dropped out when he was forbidden to skip classes to go along. Johansen stepped in and by summer the Checkers were in Hollywood’s legendary Gold Star Studios recording the cool instrumental 45, “Blue Saturday”/“Cascade.” The single suddenly went Top-10 in Seattle, Phoenix, and various midwestern towns where the Checkers were touring (with the likes of Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell, Freddy Cannon, Donny Brooks, the Champs, and Johnny Burnette), but it never achieved the momentum required to propel it to the national charts.
All the while, Joe and Bill took every opportunity they could to attend gutbucket R&B shows down at Olympia’s legendary roadhouse, the Evergreen Ballroom. The two young R&B addicts saw shows by such seminal ’50s acts as James Brown, Ike & Tina Turner, Hank Ballard, Fats Domino, Junior Parker, Bo Diddley, and Etta James. Some of Joe’s fondest recollections were of meeting his idols there — Freddy King taught him how to play “Hideaway,” a song that over time, and with Joe’s endorsement, became a bedrock Northwest standard. Another night, Bobby “Blue” Bland’s guitarist Wayne Bennett talked music with Joe for hours. The guitarist from Little Richard’s Upsetters, Joe Hughes, spent 45 minutes teaching Joe Johansen the correct way to play “Hold It” — a song that included the same vexing chord that Hendrix later based “Purple Haze” on. “Those kinds of lessons that you learn;” Joe told me, “Man, that’s important stuff!”
By age 19 Joe already thought he "was a pretty hot-stuff blues player. I’d been listening to B.B. King. I’d been listening to the blues. I thought I knew what I was doin’. Uh, ... it wasn’t quite true. Now: he had a big band — a 13-piece band — and they started this song and he played one note and it went out over the crowd and then just dripped down on everybody and I could feel it in my spine — goin’ down. And I can remember thinkin’: ‘Back to the drawing board, Joe.’ Just one note. Whooo! You know, his philosophy of 'less-is-more' is so valid. I mean the more notes you play — that’s fine if you’re showin’ off — but the human brain can only take in so much and they can overload. Somebody plays three or four real tasty notes and you remember them and they mean somethin’. So, that’s what really turned me around.” After the show they met up with the star and Joe recalled: “He taught me one thing: Don’t try to say more than you have to say.”
That Joe’s minimalist style had plenty to say was becoming obvious to everyone. It seemed every local band tried to recruit him. After the Checkers broke up, Joe briefly joined a re-formed Bluenotes, and he also substituted for the Wailers. Then he got a shot at joining his longtime favorite black R&B band, the Playboys. Around June ’63, Johansen joined the Frantics, Seattle’s premier white combo, who held down a regular gig at a downtown nightclub, Dave’s Fifth Avenue. Finally, in December 1963, Joe was recruited into the scene’s most influential music ensemble, the Dave Lewis Trio. Over the next three years, the trio became a tremendously popular nightclub act. More important they were the stylistic kingpins of the scene. Their tasty arrangements of organ-driven R&B helped define the distinct regional substrain of teen R&B that came to be known as the original Northwest Sound. Signed by A&M Records, the trio scored a strong regional radio hit with “Little Green Thing.” Their follow-up LP perfectly distilled the Northwest R&B aesthetic, creating a true classic of the era.
In ’67, Joe joined Bill Richardson’s quartet and held a steady gig downtown at the 5th Amendment club, where he crossed paths with many jazz stars. His friend Gabor Szabo, the late jazz guitar master, once offered him this critique: “Joe, you know how to play guitar. Now you gotta concentrate on playing the music.” Great advice, but by ’68 Joe was ready to rock again — though he certainly was proficient at playing jazz, it just wasn’t his favorite music form. Seattle magazine once noted that “Johansen has said he stopped playing jazz because he didn’t like its complicated technical requirements. He prefers the simple, uncluttered sounds of rock because ‘it’s not necessary to think about what you’re doing. When you have to think about it, it’s no fun.’”
Joe’s next band, the Floating Bridge, included the Wailers’ former guitar ace, Rich Dangel, and featured killer dual guitarwork on heavy acid-rock tunes like “Today’s Pig Is Tomorrow’s Bacon,” “Three Minute & Ten Second Blues,” “You Got the Power,” and “Gonna Lay Down ‘n Die (Slow Blues).” In August ’68, the Bridge performed at the Sky River Rock Festival -- and also signed a deal with a bigtime L.A. label, Vault Records. An LP followed, but a commercial breakthrough never did. Great gigs kept coming though: In July ’69, the Bridge performed at the Seattle Pop Festival, in August at the second Sky River, and in January ’70 they shared the bill with Joe’s idol, B.B. King, at the Eagles Auditorium.
Just when it seemed that the band was really happening, bad luck struck and their band van and gear were stolen. The Floating Bridge never recovered from this loss and soon was history. In 1971, Johansen took an offer to work as a session player on the L.A. studio scene. It wasn’t very satisfying, understandably, for Joe to cut generic surf movie soundtracks, Bobby Sherman hits, and stuff of that ilk. So when the opportunity arose to tour and record with Southern rock soulsters Delaney & Bonnie, Joe took it. Their recording sessions were among Joe’s favorites, especially those that also included sax legend King Curtis and slide guitar god Duane Allman. Eventually road weary, Joe returned home, and from the late-’70s on, he could often be found performing in downtown Seattle at The Mint. The club was good, the music great, the fans appreciative, and the booze and drugs bountiful.
For 13 years Joe’s life was a hazy blur. He eventually resolved to straighten out, and figured that he’d need to shun the music scene to achieve it. Johansen eventually resurfaced in Spokane as a counselor for drug and alcohol abusers — a topic, he wryly noted, that he “knew a little somethin’ about.”
After not playing for a decade, he finally found his way back to the guitar. Word quickly spread along the blues grapevine that Joe was back, and the May, 1997, shows’ audiences were made up of a virtual Who’s Who of local R&B veterans. Oh, and some mighty fine blues did flow. When Johansen soloed, it was a perfect exposition of rootsy tastefulness. It was the Northwest Sound. Little Bill reflects: “Joe reminded me of B.B. King. Real sparse. He wasn’t a million-note guy. He didn’t want to be. Joe was a master of understatement. He had a touch. He didn’t need to overplay.”
Exactly. Johansen’s approach was all about feeling. Without fuzztones, wah-wahs or echo devices, his tone was stunning, his fluidity a marvel, his phrasing jaw-dropping. Johansen knew he was rusty. We knew he was back. And Joe’s long-standing status as one of the Northwest’s pre-eminent bluesmen was once again validated. Johansen played a total of four shows that week, culminating in a transcendent jam at Tacoma’s Swiss Inn on Sunday, May 18.
After he went back home to Spokane, Joe called me a couple of times. He just wanted to say how much he had enjoyed talking — that our afternoon interview was the first time he’d ever actually bothered to reminisce in fine detail about his career. And, he’d realized that, all in all, he’d actually accomplished a lot. I had to concur. He was, after all, the only musician who had played a role in most all of the key bands who had helped forge the original Northwest Sound. First generation Northwest bands that legions of up-and-coming local players — including young Jimi Hendrix — were inspired by. Indeed, as far back as February 1970, Seattle magazine noted that Joe “has had a pivotal influence on nearly all rock guitarists in town.”
Joe also wanted me to know what a great time he’d had playing all the old tunes again with his friends. But, he wasn’t sure that he’d ever come over again to play. How come? “Well, that last night at the Swiss was a high point of my career,” he said. “I just don’t think it could ever get that good again. At one point that night I noticed that my face was all wet and then: I realized that I was crying. Unconsciously. Tears rolling down. And I looked up and other members of the band were crying too. The music was that fine. As a musician, you live for those few nights when that magic happens. It was a peak moment. I don’t know that that can be repeated.”
[Note: a version of this essay was originally published by Feedback Magazine in November, 1997]