Shaven-headed Johnny Heartsman did so many musical things so well that he's impossible to pigeonhole. His low-moaning lead guitar work greatly distinguished a myriad of Bay Area blues recordings during the '50s and '60s, and still played his axe with delicious dexterity and dynamics into the '90s. But Heartsman was just as likely to cut loose on organ or blow a titillating solo on flute (perhaps the unlikeliest blues instrument imaginable). He possessed a mellow, richly burnished voice to boot.
Through one of his principal influences, guitarist Lafayette "Thing" Thomas, a teenaged Heartsman hooked up with Bay Area producer Bob Geddins. Heartsman played bass on Jimmy Wilson's 1953 rendition of "Tin Pan Alley," handling guitar or piano at other Geddins-supervised dates. He cut his own two-part instrumental, the "Honky Tonk"-inspired "Johnny's House Party," for Ray Dobard's Music City imprint and watched it become a national R&B hit in 1957.
The early '60s brought a lot more session work -- Heartsman played on Tiny Powell's "My Time After Awhile" (soon covered by Buddy Guy) and Al King's remake of Lowell Fulson's "Reconsider Baby." By then, Heartsman's imaginative twiddling of the volume knob with his finger to produce an eerie moan had become his guitaristic trademark.
Stints in show bands, jazzy cocktail lounge gigs, and a stand as soul singer Joe Simon's trusty organist came prior to the inauguration of Heartsman's edifying back-to-the-blues campaign. In 1991, Dick Shurman produced Heartsman's most satisfying set to date for Alligator, The Touch. He remained a versatile performer until is death in December of 1996. ~ Bill Dahl