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Jef Lee Johnson: It's Been So Long Since I've Seen with My Eyes

By Published: February 1, 2013
JLJ: No, it's all music there is no conflict. If I get a string of gigs, then I'll do them. Especially as far as Rachelle is concerned. She had me opening up for her at one point. It was just too weird for the people, that's all. She wanted people to hear this music, but it was like Hendrix opening for the Monkees...kinda odd (laughs).

I hate to keep bringing his name up. Ironically, there was a guy in England, a road manger for Rachelle, that actually was in England when Hendrix first came over and he was kind of the roadie. I just got a letter from him today about how happy he was about the French cd and a couple of things in Europe and to remember that things take time and to not get excited..not that I was anyway. Keeping me in check (laughs). He said, "Jimi didn't happen overnight," and stuff. It's weird, because they never talk to me about that stuff on the gig. They allude to it. I'm not a star guy. I think of myself as more of the goofy guy that writes these weird little tunes that people think are cute. So, we'll see. As far as any synchronicity or serendipity we'll see. If I'm around and someone wants me to play..I'll play.

AAJ: Can you take me through some of the time line and some of the folks you played with? Was your first major gig with Shannon?

JLJ: Actually, my first major gigs were together. I was playing with McCoy Tyner and Sister Sledge at the same time! To my knowledge, I'm one of four guitarists who played with McCoy, the others being Earl Klugh, Santana and Jean-Paul Bourelly. This was 1980 or 81. I once went from Sister Sledge gig to a McCoy Tyner gig! And I was kind of doing the gigs in the same head, just different notes. It was funny. Actually a little bit before that I did a James Cleveland thing..gospel. And I was a Drell for a minute, for maybe two gigs

AAJ: Archie Bell and the Drells?

JLJ: Yeah, there were a lot of gigs like that- Blue Magic and the Flamingoes. Late seventies. Harold Melvin, There was an Atlantic City mess and I played a few gigs with Aretha. I did Letterman for a minute.

AAJ: You were in the Letterman band? I'm flabbergasted.

JLJ: Yeah, for like a month and a half. I never held gigs for like a really long time.

AAJ: Just subbing for Hiram or before?

JLJ: He had gotten fired for the last time, so that was like a transition point. After Hiram and before Sid McGinnis, in '84. I did some gigs with Chaka and some gigs with Roberta Flack. Chaka's where I met Michael (Bland) actually. The D (Angelo) thing was later.

AAJ: When was Ronald Shannon Jackson?

JLJ: That was late 80's, maybe 87 when I started playing with him.

AAJ: You played on a killing Jamaaladeen Tacuma record.

JLJ: Yeah, one. "Dreamscape."

AAJ: That's a great record on DIW again. Hard to get..

JLJ: That's my M/O. "I can never find this guy." There were some weird ones too. A Dionne Farris session. I don't know what happened with that. Billy Joel.

AAJ: Billy Joel?

JLJ: Yeah, I'm on "River of Dreams"

AAJ: Really?

JLJ: Yeah, I'm playing bass on there. There's like three bass players and they made one track out of it.

AAJ: I wanted to make sure to mention that first Ben Schachter CD I love you in that downtown kind of bag.

JLJ: That's a real good record. Like the cuts where he wanted two basses. I'll do what I can. The weird thing to me was the tuning of the basses. Everybody was listening to each other on a scary level. But then again, that's how it should be. That goes back to the original part of our conversation. Conditioning. People see music more than they hear it these days. We should be a bit more strong than we are and depend on other people to do the right thing with us.

AAJ: So what did you pick up from your experience with McCoy?

JLJ: Well, you pick up everything everywhere if you're paying attention. The thing with playing with McCoy and Eddie Green is they collectively got me playing the claw style, like Jerry Reed. It's kind of a berserk jackin' style, a little more radical than Chet Atkins' rigid jackin.' They taught me the difference between striking a chord on piano and strumming it on guitar. Usually, when you strike a piano, you're striking simultaneously and with a guitar you're strumming across. To strike simultaneously with guitar, you have to claw it.

AAJ: So are you playing with all the fingers on the right hand when you comp?

JLJ: I have a pick and sometimes I'm pickin' and sometimes I'm not, but if I thought about it I'd probably confuse myself because I've just been doing it for so long.

AAJ: So pick and the fingers at the same time?

JLJ: Yeah, it's also a Southern thing. They call it "disappearing pick." After a while you don't think about it. McCoy, when he was doing a massive chordal thing he would wave me on to play with him. So I'm standing there going, "OK, you either have to figure out something to play with this, or stand here and look stupid, so what's it gonna be?" I had to figure out how to voice like him, around him, over him and under him.

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