Harpmaster Returns - As Interviewed By Phoenix Blues Society
The Valley of the Sun is blessed with great Blues musicians. Many have played alongside the legends of Chicago Blues and can keep the interested listener enthralled for hours with tales of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, names most of us have only read about in books or magazines and heard on record or the radio.
Arizona Blues Hall of Fame harmonica player Johnny Tanner decided at a very young age that he would go to Chicago and learn firsthand where and how this Blues music he'd grown to love came about.
Call it on-the-job training.
Johnny was born in Argentina but grew up in Tempe and calls himself a Valley native. His father had moved to Argentina to take a job and Johnny spent his first nine years in South America before the family finally came back to Arizona.
Music was a big deal to all young people in the 1960s and Johnny was fascinated by the different sounds coming out of the radio day and night.
"There was just so much music on the radio and every week it was a different hit," Johnny told Frank Strickler in a 2001 interview.
Curiosity led to the discovery of Bob Dylan and his trademark harmonica, Johnny recalls. He says he just liked the tone of the harp and decided to learn how to play.
"Then when I was about 14 or 15 I heard the Credence (Clearwater Revival) harp solo on "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and that was it," Johnny recalls. "Then I found Magic Dick from the J. Geils Band, John Mayall, guys like that. After that I was off and running."
One of the first players Johnny remembers seeing was Valley Blues great Hans Olson.
"I was 17 and had my fake ID," he says with a laugh. "Hans would be up on the stage with just his harmonica and guitar and this incredible voice. He's drinking beer from a pitcher and looking cool. At the end of the night he'd pack his guitar and amp into his old truck and drive off into the night. I was sold."
Johnny then found Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite and later the Chicago sounds of Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson.
"I think it was just the drive and the backbeat and just the honesty of it that attracted me," he told Strickler in 2001. "When I heard it I just instantly knew. I was destined, that's what I wanted to do, what I wanted to listen to. From there, I tried to educate myself on the different people but I didn't have anybody out here who shared the same kind of dream or vision."
In 1974 the legendary Muddy Waters was booked for four nights in Scottsdale and Johnny went expecting to find a sold-out house.
"I went a couple of hours early because I thought there'd be a line around the building," he recalls. "About 10 people showed up to hear Muddy Waters."
The show proved to be a turning point because Johnny was able to meet and befriend Jerry Portnoy, Muddy's great harmonica player. The two palled around for the four days of Muddy's engagement in Scottsdale and Portnoy showed young Tanner the proper way to play the instrument.
Being an adventurous sort and wanting to find out more about this thing called the Blues, Johnny decided to go see where they made it.
"I hitchhiked to Chicago in 1974," Johnny says. "When I got there all of the guys I had heard or read about were playing every night all over town."
The transformation from fan to bona fide player didn't happen overnight. By 1978, after having traveled all over the country playing, Johnny found himself back in Chicago able to hold his own with his idols.
"I must have seen Big Walter (r Horton) play between 50 to 100 times. I took lessons from him and he was my main influence. He had such a huge tone. Later I played with and was taught by James Cotton. I met and played with Jr. Wells. These Blues guys were not getting rich by any means, but they sure loved the music. I was in Blues heave."
During this time Johnny found it necessary to eat regularly so he worked a day job as a mason.
"It was up on the scaffold by 7, work all day and hit the clubs at night," he says now with a laugh. "It was a pretty tough way to live but you're in your 20s and you aren't thinking about anything but the music. The Chicago musicians treated each other like family and would take care of each other."
The late '70s and early '80s found Johnny playing in the Pacific Northwest in a band called Blue Lights. The band had a regional hit called "Mt. St. Helens Blues" right after the famous volcano exploded in 1980. The band later embarked on a five-week tour of Alaska and were encouraged to take the great Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's guitar player with them.
"Hubert was the sweetest guy ever," recalls Johnny. "He never had a bad word to say about anybody."
Blue Lights eventually broke up and the band members each went their separate ways finding Johnny back in Arizona.
By 1986 the performing bug lured Johnny back to Chicago where he teamed up with his old buddy, Barrelhouse Chuck. Some of the old Blues guys were getting a little long in the tooth by that time but many of them were still very active.
Johnny calls this time one of the best in his life.
"That's when I got to play with just about everybody- Sunnyland Slim, "Smokey" Smothers and a lot of others. I also opened for both Muddy and Willie Dixon which was great."
Fast forward to 1991 and we find Johnny back in the Valley looking for a place to play. It was about this time that Bluesman Bob Corritore, himself a Chicago transplant, scraped together the funds needed to open the Rhythm Room which today is one of the most famous Blues venues in the country. A house band was needed and Johnny found himself playing with the great Chicago Blues drummer Chico Chism, another Chicago migrant. The band was, and still is, called The Rhythm Room All-Stars, having undergone several personnel changes over the years.
The Rhythm Room gig kept the playing Jones at bay while allowing Johnny to own and operate Tanner Masonry, a business he ran until the real estate crash about six years ago. Johnny was finally able to put together a band calling itself Johnny Tanner & The Tonemasters.
During all his travels both in the US and in Europe, Johnny's friend list reads like a Who's Who in the Blues world. One of his best buds is harmonica wizard Kim Wilson, frontman for The Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Kim Wilson All-Stars Band.
"We got to be good friends after he started coming out to Arizona a few years back," Johnny says. "I've always been a fan of his. He's one of the best, if not the best, harp player in the world."
For the past four years Johnny has lived in Costa Rica, playing gigs there as well as in Thialand and Singapore.
"They have some very good Blues players just about everywhere you go," he says. "Now I'm back in Tempe in my old house and ready to get busy with my new band, Johnny Tanner & His Aces."
The band will feature Chicago-style Blues. If you're going to have a Chicago band it stands to reason to use Chicago players.
Drummer Frank Rossi is a Windy City transplant as is guitarist Dave Clark who used to tour with the legendary Jimmy Rogers. Tanner will handle guitar, harmonica and vocals.
"We'll use a bass player when we need a bigger sound, but many of the early Chicago players went without a bass," Johnny says. "We're going to try to stay true to the Chicago sound."
There's much more to this tale that could be written but the best way to experience Johnny Tanner is to go and see him live.
Bob Corritore went through a difficult time after the death of his father a few years back and was unable to perform for a while.
"I asked Johnny to take my place in the All-Stars," Bob says. "That's about the best endorsement I can give him."
Author: Jim Crawford, The Phoenix Blues Society
May 7th, 2013