A few years ago, Alligator Records president, Bruce Iglauer, was interviewed about the current sad state that the modern blues business was (and still is) in. "What we need to happen right now [to reinvigorate the blues world and bring in new fans] is for a major crossover artist to emerge, either someone from the present group of artists, or somebody new coming up."
Having recently heard about this exciting new artist in Southern California, I began listening to Johnny Childs' debut CD, The Truth, in my car for several days before seeing him perform for the first time.
On Sat. January 19th at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach, Childs had the club packed to capacity with music fans and conventioneers. Judging by the random shouts of enthusiasm throughout the show, it was obvious to me that I wasn't the only one feeling like I was experiencing something fresh. As a testament to his performance, at the end of the night the audience would not let the band leave the stage and continued to ask for encore after encore.
Quietly and steadily, Johnny Childs has become one of the region's best kept secrets; a highly unusual blues-rock six-stringer with few peers. As a guitarist he has a rare triple-threat quality that I'll call "the three T's": touch, timing and taste. The evidence shows that he has taken the finer points of artists such as Albert King, Thumbs Carlyle, Django Reinhardt and Albert Collins and fused them into a idiosyncratic style that is all his own.
As an added bonus, he's a songwriter with an unusual flair for exciting arrangements, rhythms and dynamics that incorporate the best elements of many diverse musical genres such as Blues, Jazz, Swing, Rock, Gypsy stylings even Klezmer music. Think of mixing Tom Waits, Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker, and you kinda get the idea.
Obviously this is why Southland Blues reviewer Char Ham wrote the following of Childs in 2000; "He paints blues riffs as radically as Picasso. He pushes blues to experimental and quirky heights."
It is clear that he is not your typical, traditional blues artist, (an often confining medium for musicians with a thin imagination, or lack of depth).
But Childs has smartly avoided trying to play and sing like anyone but himself. Instead, he has done what successful artists such as Jimmie Vaughan and Eric Clapton have done; understanding their vocal limitations and using them to their advantage by adapting an effective minimalist approach.
Before writing this article, I met with Johnny in his very modest apartment in Hollywood and he told me some interesting stories about his personal life including how he was born the third oldest of ten children into a strict, Orthodox Rabbinical Jewish family; how he ran away from home at the age of twelve, stole cars, worked dozens of odd jobs in New York City, Toronto, Miami and Boston, and how he eventually settled in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. In fact, there are too many crazy details to print.
When he talks music, Childs becomes very serious. "Honestly, the most common feedback I get is that I don't quite sound like anyone else. When I hear that, I feel like I've really reached my own port of gold in a way and I sleep well."
"Someone even asked me the other day if I ever dream of winning a Grammy! I didn't know what to say. The truth is, my plan is, God willing, within six months or so, to record a full-length record with one of the major blues labels and to make it gutsy and polished enough so that it will be nominated for a W.C. Handy Award."
After witnessing what Childs was playin that night at the Blue Cafe, and with the authority in which he was delivering it, I was again reminded of Bruce Iglauer's thoughts on the next major blues crossover artist. In fact, it even prompted me to imagine what it must have been like for some back in Texas, circa 1981, to see a band called the Double Trouble that featured a hardly-known guitarist who eventually hit major fame. Unfortunately, most of Stevie Ray Vaughan's recent musical heirs seem to have taken the wrong approach, favoring mimicry over exploration. That's why I'm particularly excited about the future for Childs. In my opinion, this leaves him standing at the vanguard of a very small handful of innovators who also have the vision and the chops to actually pull off something profound.
Career-wise, it does look promising for Johnny, now that many of the major music venues and some national festivals have come calling. One thing is for sure, you are going to be seeing and hearing much more from him. I encourage all contemporary blues fans to check your calendar's local listings and search him out.