I was born Thessex Johns, in a small town called Alligator, Mississippi, on Highway 61, twelve miles south of Clarksdale, in the heart of the Delta. My stepfather and his three brothers, they all played guitar-hollow-box guitars. On a summer night you could hear ’em from miles away.
That was my first remembrance. I was about four or five; I knew all the songs. They used to play their guitars and make me sing. When I was about seven, I was singing with the Kelly Brothers Band at Pleasant Valley Church in Alligator.
I lived with my great-grandmother Betty Patterson on my mother’s side. I used to see muscians like Little Milton, Ike Turner, Clayton Love, Raymond Hill every weekend. In 1954, I came to Chicago by myself and lived with my mother about eight months but then I went back south at 17.
I started living on my own in Shelby, and went in the military at age 18 for three years. While I was in the military, that’s where I learned to play drums. I used to sit in on drums when bands came around. I’d play one or two songs and that was about it.
When I got out of the Army in 1959, I was living at 62nd and May in Chicago, near the corner where Lovie Lee, Big Walter Horton, Carey Bell, Nathaniel Applewhite, and another guitar player named Sam were playing at a local club. I used to sit down and watch ’em play and soon I started playing the drums in Lovie’s band. I think the only way I got a chance to play with them was ’cause I was the only one who had a car.
After a while, I started playing with Eddie King, He had a little record out then and was doing pretty good. I played with Eddie from 1961-62, with Willie Black on bass and Willie Young on saxophone. I played with these guys off and on through the ’60s. From 1962 through 1964, I worked for the Chicago Board of Education, but eventually gave it up to play music.
Around 1962 I cut a record for Wonderful Records. The songs I recorded were “Lookin’ For My Baby” and “I Can’t Stop Twisting.” They wanted me to come back with another song, but I didn’t have another song! So the record never came out.
On that session, I had Eddie King, Willie Black, Roy Johnson, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and Otis Spann. with Monk Higgins producing. I also recorded in 1965 for Billy “The Kid” Emerson, with me overdubbing some Lonnie Brooks vocals on two tracks called “Conjured” and “Never Get Enough.” But the records never got issued.
Other musicians I had in my band during the 1960s, at various times, included Sammy Lawhorn, Johnny Twist, Lefty Dizz or Roy Hightower on guitar, Odell Campbell or Nick Charles on bass, and Eddie Shaw on saxophone. I also played drums on a few Eddie King singles.
I used the name Johnny Drummer from day one with Lovie Lee. I picked that name, because I’d watched that Sterliing Hayden movie, “Johnny Guitar”, and I thought, “Hey that’s hip”! Johnny Guitar… Johnny Drummer”. I don’t even know how I got the band name the Starliters. I just started using it.
I got a chance to play with B.B. King in 1965, at a club called Lee’s. It was B.B.’s birthday and his drummer didn’t show up. Then in 1966, I went to see Muddy Waters in downtown Chicago, and he asked me to sit in.
Muddy wanted me to go on the road with him, but I had a day job and was making more money than he was offering, so I turned him down. It was an honor though. He had Mojo Buford on harmonica, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Smith on drums, and Luther (Georgia Boy) Johnson on guitar.
In the ’60s my band worked just about everywhere they hired a band on the South and West sides. I really started to leave the drums alone when we were playing at a nightclub on a show with Syl Johnson and Jimmy Witherspoon. The club owner put me out front as a singer, opening the shows.
We just started hitting the bigger clubs then, like Walton’s Corner, The Bonanza, High Chapparal, Guys and Gals and Beale Street. My band, during the time, backed everybody – Z.Z. Hill, Denise LaSalle, Willie Mabon, and Junior Wells. We also backed a lot of the Brunswick recording artists on shows.
I was doing great, until I had a string of bad luck in 1971. All in about a week, I had a fire on a Wednesday and lost everything but my drums because they were in my car. But that Friday my car was stolen. I had a wife and three kids so I picked up the phone and got my old job back at the Board of Education. After that, I took a job with the Police department in 1974, and retired from there in 1994.
I never stopped making music. Though I kept gigging, I didn’t record again until 1975 when I recorded with the Aces and Bobby King in for the French label, MCM. “Someday Baby (Worried Life Blues)”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, and “Yonder’s Wall” were recorded during that time.
By the mid ’70s, I had cut my band loose. I started sitting in as a singer with the Aces, Louis and Dave Myers, Fred Below at Louise’s South Park Liquors at 69th & King Drive on Blue Mondays from 1974-76. I also worked at the Launching Pad and at Queen Bea’s Lounge around that time, with T.J. on bass and Luther Adams on guitar. Sometimes Son Seals played guitar and Snapper Mitchum was on bass. In the late ’70s, I cut two of my songs, “The Fire is Gone” and “I’ll Find a Way,” on the Abco Label.
I first started playing keyboards when I was about 12, playing the boogie woogie. But I first started to get serious with it, was around 1985. The reason I changed over from drums, was that I started to look out for my future. There are a lot of 75-year-old keyboard players around, but not too many old drummers, so I saw I’d better switch.
I really got the keyboard, because nobody remembered my songs, my keys, nothing. I got it just to lay out my recordings, not to put it on the bandstand. But after awhile I found out that I was playing better than some of the guys I was hiring. I’ve been playing keyboards ever since.
Junior Wells started me on harmonica. First in 1965, then in 1974 he got me another one, and told me, “You’re gonna blow it.” Junior taught me a few things, so now I just throw it in as a gimmick. Ever since I sat in on drums that first time in 1959, and got hired by Lovie Lee, I’ve been into music. I have always been hard on my band, making them sound good and tight. I never intended on getting out front! – Thessex Johns