Music

Calgary bluesman Donald Ray Johnson celebrating a 50-year career

The idea was to do five things you may not know about Donald Ray Johnson or maybe five things you should know about Donald Ray Johnson.

It is, after all, to promote his show Friday, April 20 at Mikey’s 12th, which is one to celebrate the Calgary-based bluesman’s five decades in the biz.

But, perhaps because he’s been such a high-profile part of the scene since arriving here in the late ’80s, we get a total of one thing local music lovers may not be aware of about him.

“I used to drive Corvettes,” Johnson says and laughs.

So we’ll end it there and just remind people of what a remarkable career he’s had.

The Texas-born Johnson famously won a Grammy for Best New Artist and was nominated for another in 1978 as the drummer for A Taste of Honey, known for the disco hit Boogie Oogie Oogie. (They beat The Cars, Elvis Costello, Chris Rea and Toto, by the way.)

After that band fizzled out, he toured the world in various other acts and with other players before finally relocating to Calgary in 1989, where he’s since become an integral part of the local blues family.

In that time, along with regular gigging, he’s released seven of his own albums — most recently 2016’s Bluesin’ Around, which was recorded with the Gas Blues Band — and has earned multiple Maples Blues Award nominations as a vocalist and frontman.

Not bad for a relatively late starter.

“I didn’t really take up this whole singing issue until I moved to Calgary and started to front the House of Payne Band with Jimmy Payne,” he says of the late local musician.

“I was always somebody’s drummer … So Calgary was the launching site for my solo career.”

As for why Calgary, Johnson says past trips through town left a lasting impression on him.

“I had toured up here with Phillip Walker, we used to come up here and do the (King) Eddy and then go do the Blues On Whyte (in Edmonton),” he says. “I liked it up here, you know?

“And we were in Europe and the piano player invited me to come spend some time with him in Billings, Montana. Well, that lasted about four months, and I came across (the border), and I’ve been here ever since.”

Not surprisingly, Johnson has witnessed a great deal of change in not only the city, but the blues scene over the three decades he’s made it his home.

“It’s different from what it was,” he says.

He points directly to the venues, more specifically the loss of the old Eddy, which he speaks about with the nostalgia and fondness that many do.

Johnson recalls the days when there was a close-knit community, where people such as he, Bill Dowey and the aforementioned Payne, would make it their own kind of clubhouse.

“All of us after the club closed we used to go down in the bowels of the Eddy and sit down there and party,” he says.

“There was many a morning we came up and opened the door and the sun just blinded you, you know what I’m saying?

“And I remember the B.B. King Suite, it had a star painted on the door, it had room No. 1, and it had a star painted on the door with a Sharpie. That was the better room, you know, and you always had friendly cockroaches.”

He laughs at the memory.

Those who head to Mikey’s on 12th Friday night will likely get many more — 50 years worth, from a local blues legend with many tales to tell and songs to sing.

“I just want to be cordial with everybody and share memories with them,” he says of his plans for the celebration.

“It’s mostly going to be about the music.”

Donald Ray Johnson’s 50th Anniversary of the Blues Celebration takes place Friday, April 20 at Mikey’s on 12th.

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