Something Else! Featured Artist: New Orleans roots rocker Johnny J.

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NICK DERISO: You would call Johnny J.’s stuff rockabilly, but that’s too small of a space.

He’s got some blues in one corner, some echoey 1950s-era balladry in another. Carl Perkins, Fats Domino and Buddy Holly are party guests.

This is the point where blues, jazz, country and rhythm music meet to form a uniquely American sound.

Ask Johnny about this spot, and you get an after-midnight description of the house band: “Flame-shootin’ maniacs lit up on twice-boiled barley soda, with a shot of Brylcreem on the side.”

Yet, there it is, on the cover of his new release: “Louisiana Rockabilly,” it’s called.

Yes, and no.

Johnny’s latest CD includes tunes from familiar roots-rocking stars like Al Ferrier and Dale Hawkins — who worked as a producer on the session.

You can’t wall Johnny in for long, though. Before you know it, he’s sampling Faron Young and Sugarboy Crawford.

This is a guy who moves effortlessly from booze-soaked blues numbers (his 2000 duo collaboration with Ben Maygarden featured the great “Early Times,” this brown-bottle splash of brilliance) to driving hi-fi throwbacks like the celebrated “Fever Water” in 2001 (a Top 20 release on The New Orleans Times-Picayune’s year-ending best-of list).

Even on a silky-smooth set of sophisticated tunes like 2006’s “Urban Soul Ballads,” you’ll find Johnny sneaks in a few stinging notes on his signature reverbed Telecaster during “Good for You.”

Johnny is all over the map, a complete original.

This is a guy whose MySpace biography lists primary influences as Sinatra, Little Walter and Davy Crockett. He will record an album like 1994’s “J-Walkin’” in a studio where Louis Armstrong used to broadcast his radio show, then cop to the stereotype by performing for a time with a group of aging rockers in a band called OLD.

Yes, Johnny was the first to play a set at a now-famous mid-city bowling alley in New Orleans, where the Brooklyn native has long been based. But he’s anything but a homebody: Johnny’s terrific old album “Nuclear Hayride,” this 1986 blast of high-energy rock music, still gets airplay in Europe.

His collaborators, perhaps to no one’s surprise, crisscross genres, too: “Hayride” was produced by soul-stirring former Boxtops frontman Alex Chilton. In 1991, he worked with Ben Keith on “Wizard of Odds,” a guy who also helmed Jewel’s multi-platinum debut CD.

The late Wayne Bennett, best known for work with Bobby “Blue” Bland, was a central figure on “J-Walkin.’”

He’s hip enough to make a lyric about his fear of heights (“Elevator Love,” where in ’01 Johnny insisted, hilariously, that his next girl live on the ground floor) into a party track. Yet he’s authentic enough to completely inhabit Coco Robicheaux’s “Thrift Store Suit,” back in 1989.

His recordings, like his shows, are toe-tapping delights. Even Johnny’s world-gone-wrong tunes — see the new version of Tony Joe White’s “I Want My Fleetwood Back” — turn into romps.

He relieves himself on an ex’s correspondence during 2001’s “Your Letter,” grooves his way through 1994’s “Everyday I Have To Cry Some,” and adds a disclaimer to a 2000 version of Willie Dixon’s timeless “My Babe” — saying “any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is coincidental.”

He’s simply brilliant at rearranging tunes, and expectations. Johnny’s hound-dog howling blues end up swinging, his country ends up as an upbeat shuffle.

It’s a place, once you’re inside, that you’ll never want to leave.


Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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