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Shirley Johnson

Like so many African-American vocalists, Shirley Johnson started out singing in church and then went on to embrace secular music. The Chicago resident, whose influences range from Mahalia Jackson to Koko Taylor, Etta James, and Ruth Brown, is a gritty, big-voiced blues singer who can also handle soul and gospel. Although Johnson has spent much of her adult life in Chicago, the Windy City is not her hometown; she was born in Franklin, VA, on June 7, 1949, and raised in Norfolk, VA. Johnson came from a very religious family and she was only six when she started singing gospel in a church choir. Johnson's family didn't think much of either the blues or R&B, which are considered sinful in some of the stricter, more fundamentalist Christian churches. Nonetheless, she managed to hear the blues as a little girl and fell in love with secular black music; despite her parents' disdain for the blues and R&B, she developed a healthy appreciation of Brown, James, and Taylor, as well as male bluesmen like B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Little Milton, and the late Z.Z. Hill. None of those artists have been blues purists and James, in fact, is primarily a soul singer who often detours into the blues and listening to them obviously taught her that the blues and classic soul often go hand in hand. When Johnson reached adulthood in the late '70s, she was free to pursue a career in secular music, so she made her presence felt in Norfolk's blues and R&B circles and went on to become an opening act for Aretha Franklin, Jerry Butler, Z.Z. Hill, and other well-known artists who were passing through town. In the early '80s, she recorded some singles for two regional labels in Virginia and those recordings caught the attention of a man who was planning to start a label in Chicago. The aspiring record man expressed interest in recording Johnson and sent her a plane ticket to Chicago, but when she arrived in the Windy City she learned he didn't have enough money to pay for a session. Nonetheless, she decided to remain in Chicago and became active on the city's blues circuit, where she has performed both blues and soul. The people she worked with in Chicago included Little Johnny Christian, Artie "Blues Boy" White, and keyboardist Eddie Lusk (who took Johnson on the road with him on international tours). In the '90s, Johnson made some recordings for the Appaloosa label, including her 1996 album Looking for Love. Then, in the early 2000s, she signed with the Chicago-based Delmark, which released Killer Diller in May 2002, following it up with Blues Attack in 2009. ~ Alex Henderson
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