I'll Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive

Old blues man: Joel Johnson
Nanci Olesen

October is pledge-drive month for Fresh Air Radio (KFAI-FM 90.3/106.7), during which listeners celebrate KFAI's rich ties to the local music and arts communities. One of the most recognizable voices on the KFAI airwaves belongs to Lolly Obeda, whose Friday afternoon show The Sugar Shop is a buoyant one-stop of vintage blues and R&B.

But last Friday, Obeda's normally quixotic voice was choked with emotion, as she and other KFAI DJs struggled to eulogize Joel Johnson, 55, the Twin Cities blues scene fixture who died of a massive brain hemorrhage on October 2.

"There was no more proud supporter of KFAI and the blues than Joel Johnson," Obeda told her listeners. "He was very much loved by the staff here, by the volunteers at KFAI, and of course by the listening audience... Joel Johnson was never anything but kind to me, and I think many of you have that same story as well. He was always willing to invite you into his pleasurable experience; if Joel was partying, and you were there, you were partying, too. That's the kind of guy he was--big-hearted, generous, always willing to help. I will miss him with all my heart."

Johnson fell ill in the KFAI studios on the West Bank near the University of Minnesota, just as he was about to do his Thursday shift on The Lazy Bill Lucas Show, which he'd hosted for 13 years. He was rushed to Hennepin County Medical Center, where he died at 9:00 p.m. Last year, Johnson earned the award of "Best FM Radio Personality" in the Best of the Twin Cities 2003 issue of City Pages, which noted, "Listening to Johnson for an afternoon is like going to the great blues dive of the imagination, where Bessie Smith rises to belt it out one more time, the beer's forever cold, and the smoke never gets in your eyes."

A Minneapolis native, Johnson gravitated to the West Bank in 1966, where he met such Minnesota blues and folk-blues pioneers as Willie Murphy and the late Dave Ray. Over the years he acted as master of ceremonies at plenty of blues jams, including the once wildly popular Monday and Tuesday happy hour acoustic jams at Big Daddy's BBQ in St. Paul.

On her show last Friday, Obeda and others took e-mails and phone calls from listeners who recalled Johnson's respect and support for Twin Cities musicians and fans. More than one caller remembered his cameo appearance in August with the Fabulous Thunderbirds' Kim Wilson at Floyd's Bar in Victoria, Minnesota, as being one of the highlights of Johnson's performing career. Obeda filled her playlist with Johnson-inspired cuts from the likes of the Fairfield Four, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, the Holmes Brothers, and Johnson's own "Old Blues Man," which he recorded with the Joel Johnson Blues Band, a classic Chicago blues-style outfit that recorded three albums, including one for Johnson's Diamond Blue label.

"He had a gentle and kind nature; a very generous human being," said Obeda. "I'm greedy. I want that. I want that from the human beings I know. Joel was someone who gave it to me. We need more people with spirit and heart like that in the world."

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