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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: At one point I did. It hardly ever comes together. I always wanted to be some kind of session guy, or so I thought, or a producer. I was reading and practicing every day but I wasn't getting any gigs. And then the first gigs I got, there were no charts. It would just be, "Play something funky!" So you had to have all of it. It was never a case of having a funky chart or somebody explaining it in such detail that you understood the part. That's the history of R'n'B anyway. It's usually some guy making $20 or $50 that came up with the great part. I remember when I met Sugar Bear (Michael "Sugar Bear" Foreman), the bassist who did, probably most of, those historic Philly International songs from the 60s and 70s. I remember someone said something like, "This is a young boy, Jef. Got any words of advice for him?" He told me to quit before it's too late. He was sitting there with his bass-and a bottle-and he said, "What do you think of this?" And he played the descending bass line from "Bad Luck?" He said, "Who wrote that?" I said Gamble and Huff. He said, "Well, Gamble and Huff didn't come up with that bass line! I did!." When you think of that line—that's the song, and you don't think of Sugar Bear. But that's history. I mean I've played on a couple people's records where I didn't necessarily play a signature like that, but I played some stuff, got my check and went home..whatever. Again, not good or just is and you just have to find your way to exist without losing it. Some cats can just lose it. If your threshold is down there, you will lose it.

AAJ: You probably couldn't play a lot of music if you were holding on to that stuff.

JLJ: Well, if you keep your threshold high you can deal with this or that and make it to the point where you can hopefully do something that makes some people, like me at sixteen go, "Whoa man, who is this guy?" For me, that was people like Edwin Birdsong, Stanley Clarke, Maxanne. By the way, Maxanne was a nasty, funk R'n' B artist who sang in a band by the same name. On some level, you can't explain the impact music like this makes on our lives. You have to live through it. You can't explain to some kid how Hendrix used the wah-wah pedal or Miles did whatever, you have to know how it came about.

AAJ: And transcended it.

JLJ: Yeah, but at the time they didn't know they were doing anything transcendent. To them, they were just playing some music. They were just doing what the voices in their head were telling them to do. You can hear it when they do it. They did, and I try to do...gravitate towards things..certain harmonies..certain sounds of your instrument...and they're not going to lie to you or mislead you..and if you're not afraid of 'em you go there and represent. And when some kid says, "Man, that was the most incredible mess I ever heard," and you can look 'em in the eye and say, "OK, what are you gonna do about it kid?," that's how the chain keeps goin.' Michael Bland was wondering if there were still any kids that react to music like that? I hope so.

AAJ: You're going to run into a few if you start gigging with those guys! (laughs)

JLJ: Let's hope that happens, with all the guys. The community should be like that. I'm going to be naive enough to wake up during the time it's not happening' to think that maybe that's the day it's going to come together, because I can't think of it any other way, even for the most part I know its whack.

If the right people find each other, some good stuff happens. It doesn't happen as often as it should, or maybe even as often as it did, but it does happen. Ted and I were just talking and we said, "Well, what if it didn't happen?" If I was convinced of that I'd go get a nose job and some liposuction and become a crooner I guess. (laughs) But really, the good stuff keeps happening on a continuing basis. There hasn't been a gig that Ted and Charles and I have done that hasn't been a lofty level. Rehearsals are on that level. And that's the way it should be. Ted is not necessarily an avant or whatever you want to call it guy, but he does his version of that and gets right into it. He doesn't fear it.

AAJ: What would have to happen for you guys to mount a 20 date east coast tour?

JLJ: Simple-some tour manager would have to come along and book the dates. I have no management at the moment. I don't do it well. I'm too busy trying to do the music. I can only get a date at the Knitting Factory or in Philly. In France, a local promoter takes care of those dates. If somebody came along that was into the music, and had a few things booked, we'd be there.

AAJ: You must have some conflicts yourself with everyone your working with.

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