Johnny Rawls Keeps His Cool in Raleigh, NC
“Everybody in Mississippi plays guitar,” Johnny Rawls says with a chuckle in response being asked about his early guitar history, his voice a bit crusty, but well broken-in, like an old leather jacket. “They sit on porches, pickin’.” He’s sitting in a chair by the stage at Loafers Beach Club in Raleigh, sipping water and chewing on lemon slices waiting for tonight’s backup band, the King Bees, to finish their three song opener.
Rawls turned pro in his teens, backing artists including Joe Tex and the Sweet Inspirations. In his early 20s, Rawls became OV Wright’s band director, leaving in 1980 after Wright’s passing to direct Little Johnny Taylor’s band, going solo in ’85.
Rawls guitar is attuned to blues, but his vocals are pure soul. He has some of Wright’s hoarse churchy crackle in his voice, smoothed by Tyrone Davis-style mellow soul.
Loafers owner Gary Gibson, a walking encyclopedia of classic blues/soul and R&B, says Rawls works like Chuck Berry used to. Rawls just shows up and works with a backing band, calling tunes on the spot, with no rehearsal or prearranged set list. He’s much more even-tempered and genteel than Berry, however, quietly calling out keys, moderating tempo and volume with small gestures and under-his-breath instructions that wouldn’t be noticed if you weren’t sitting right beside the stage.
He kicks off with 2008’s “Red Cadillac,” quickly filling the dance floor with couples gliding to the smooth buttery soul wafting from the windows of his red sled, talking about a Memphis road trip: “Going down on Beale street/I have all the pretty girls just looking at me./My top let down and my hair slicked back/Tell me the Southern girls, they like it like that.” When the songs ends and the dancers scatter, Rawls calls them back: “Where y’all goin’?” he asks in his soft Purvis, Mississippi, drawl. “We got a long way to go tonight.”
Rawls has a lot in common vocally with Clarence Carter, covering Carter’s ’71 version of “Slipped Tripped and Fell In Love,” laying in some nasty guitar licks in where Carter’s original was sweetened by syrupy strings.
“I’m gonna do a real dirty song,” Rawls says, introducing “Lucy,” from 2016’s Tiger In a Cage. Turns out it’s more suggestive than filthy, Lucy being a good-time girl with no shame in her game who can whip them hips and dance real good. Once again, Clarence Carter is represented, in tone and content, a PG response to Carter’s smutty classic “Strokin’.”
“I Say Yes” shows Rawls’ mellower side, a slow crawlin’ blues that has Rawls off the stage and prowling the dance floor for some face-to-face ministry, preaching the gospel of yes. “It’s what I tell my wife, girlfriend, mother,” Rawls says. “Anything my woman wants, I say yes.”
He gets even mellower with a slinky, soulful take on Lionel Richie’s “Easy,” delivering it with a crusty gospel rasp, surrounded by the King Bees’ organist’s Sunday go-to-meetin’ burblings.
He closes the set with Tyrone Davis’ 1976 hit “Turning Point,” also featured in the 1981 movie Thief with James Caan, Tuesday Weld, and Willie Nelson, performed by Mighty Joe Young. Featured on Rawls’ latest, 2017’s Waiting For the Train, it shows the singer-guitarist at his laid-back best, choogling smoothly along on greased rails.
Rawls doesn’t retreat to a dressing room for the break, choosing instead to sit at a table by the stage greeting fans and selling copies of his last two releases.
He opens up the second set with more Tyrone Davis soundalike material, “Can Ya Dig It,” a slinky bluesy lope that defines Rawls’ onstage demeanor, laid-back and cool, with an economy of motion.
His cover of “Stand By Me” owes more to Sam Cooke, whose “Stand By Me, Father,” recorded when he was with the Soul Stirrers, was the inspiration for the Leiber and Stoller song made famous by Ben E. King in 1961. Rawls’ vocal is the smoothest crooning of the evening, suitable for Sunday morning fellowship.
He whips out a Chuck Berry style rocker, 2014’s “Love Machine,” folding in some blues licks amid the Berry-isms.
But just so you don’t mistake his pedigree, he closes with “I’m a Bluesman,” from 2009s Ace Of Spades. Once again it has that Clarence Carter feel, easy riding blues that rolls along at a gentle lope but covers a lot of territory. He bemoans the fact that there are pretty girls in every town who want to git on down after the show, but he ain’t got time to fool around, got to get in his truck and head for the next town. It’s a tough life, he claims, but Rawls is a soul survivor, willing and able to live the life, and share it, for a living.