BluesWax Sittin’ In With
Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone
Interview and Photo by Mark Goodman
When you are finished with Part One of this interview, be sure to jump over to this week’s Photo Page to see some of Mark Goodman’s photographs of Johnny Sansone.
To many people on the blues scene, Johnny Sansone is a relatively new name. It was his last two records, Poor Man’s Paradise and The Lord is Waiting, that really seemed to catch fans’ attention and bring him the recognition he so richly deserves. Sansone’s songwriting provides a window into his world, the city of New Orleans, and, yes, into his very soul. Best known for his harmonica and accordion skills, Sansone is also an accomplished guitarist. I had the opportunity to see his one-man show when he opened for Royal Southern Brotherhood in Pennsylvania. I have lost count of the times I have seen him perform, but he always seems to pull something new out of his toolbox that keeps me amazed.
With his win for Song of the Year at the 2012 Blues Music Awards maybe the spotlight will shine a little brighter on this multi-talented artist.
Mark Goodman for BluesWax: Tell me a bit about your early days, where you’re from originally, and how you got interested in music.
Johnny Sansone:Early days… my father was a sax player in big bands. He played with Dave Brubeck during World War II, and he got me started playing saxophone when I was a teenager living in New Jersey, just outside New York City. He got me interested early and he had a pretty cool record collection. A lot of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, stuff like that.
I started playing saxophone at eight years old and then I picked up the harmonica and guitar just a few years later, and started collecting my own records.
BW: Okay. Why did you switch from saxophone to harmonica?
JS: Well, I was taking lessons and I was just a little kid and the saxophone was bigger than I was, you know. The harmonica was a lot easier to carry around. But I played saxophone up until it was stolen in the early ’80s in Kansas City. It was my dad’s horn, and after it was liberated from my van I never played saxophone again.
BW: Tell me a little about your early professional career.
JS: I started doing gigs when I was in high school. You know, we had a little blues band and I always played Jimmy Reed kinda stuff with the harp in a rack. When I went to college at Colorado State, I met a piano player who was from Kansas City and a guitar player from Chicago. We all had the same kind of record collections, so we put a band together and started playing parties. That eventually gave way to playing in the bars and clubs.
It was a really good time back then for blues. It was the late seventies and I was still a teenager then. A lot of the Chicago acts were coming through on their way to California, so, you know, I got to meet and hang out, and learn from these guys. [James] Cotton was coming through, and Junior Wells, most of my favorite harmonica players, so I got to be friends with them and study them. It was just a really good time back then when a lot of real deal blues guys were walking the earth. [Chuckling] It’s a lot different today.
BW: Okay. How did you eventually get your gig with Ronnie Earl?
JS: Well, we skipped through a couple years there but I had gone to the east coast to join a band with Jimmy Carpenter called the Alcho-Phonics. This would’ve been around ’84, something like that. We both ended up quitting that band and putting together…actually reassembling the band that I had that included members of the Iguanas, and moved to Richmond, Virginia, where Ronnie is from, and we were putting together our first record.
Now I’d known Ronnie since he was playing with Roomfull of Blues. They would come through Colorado and hangout after shows at my house. Years later I asked if he would do a guest spot on the first record that came out on King Snake Records. The band didn’t last much longer after that, about another six months to a year.
We had done a couple of shows in support of Ronnie, and he had heard my band was breaking up, so he eventually just gave me call. He said, “I need a singer and harp player. Would you come up to Boston?’ So it all fell into place and I moved up there around the late ’80s.
BW: What made you decide to make the move to New Orleans?
JS: I had been coming to New Orleans for years. I lived in Austin for about a year and spent most of my time driving down to New Orleans and staying with friends. I had family here and my cousin owned an oyster bar and, you know, it’s a really great place to visit but I was on the road all the time. So after I left Ronnie’s band, the Iguanas were here and most of my old buddies from Colorado had moved down here. Actually, they became the Iguanas about the same time I moved down here. We were gonna all get together and play but it didn’t work with what I was doing. I had my CD coming out on Ichiban Records, so when I got to town I was trying to promote that record and I kinda just moved all my stuff here. Things were better then because I was touring a lot and had a house up-town.
BW: What is it, in your opinion, that gives New Orleans’ music its distinctive vibe?
JS: Yeah, I mean… it’s a really tough question and there is no definitive answer. I mean, in my opinion, I think it’s the syncopation of the city… it seems to have a lot of grease on it, it seems slippery and the tempos are relaxed. It’s almost like an intoxicating sound, like the drummers and the second-line beats. I’ll give you an example. I was playing in Lucerne, Switzerland, and my drummer was warming up doing some second-line thing during sound check. This guy came over to me and said, “Man, I’m sorry, I know this is a big show.” I asked him what he was sorry about and he said, “Your drummer, he’s drunk.” I said, “He’s not drunk, he’s not even drinking.” He said, “It sounds like he’s drunk.” [laughing] I told him that’s the style of the way he plays. These guys didn’t really get the idea that the dragging syncopation of the second-line is a style. I guess they heard it as a guy that was drunk.
Sometimes people hear this music and they think it’s… like sloppy. The slop is what makes the music cool, and that’s only a little tiny bit of what I think makes the music here interesting. There are a million different reasons why it’s different from a lot of other music.
BW: Most people are familiar with you as a musician but most don’t realize what a good songwriter you are. Tell me about your process.
JS: Well, unfortunately I have… or fortunately, it depends on how you look at it, I’ve been writing from life experiences. I guess the song that was nominated first was “Poor Man’s Paradise.” It was a tragedy song that I wrote by just gathering peoples’ pain. I thought it would really be helpful to regurgitate the suffering and that would be a healing process for people.
I had written songs for when the oil spill happened. I heard there was going to be a bunch of records, so I wrote songs for that. It looked like they had cleaned everything up [laughing], but they haven’t! They haven’t cleaned everything up but the benefits kind of disappeared. It’s a tragic song that I had written and when I played it for people I saw real emotion. I mean I saw some people crying, you know, I actually saw tears when I played the song. I thought, “Well, all I’m really doing is expressing stories I’d heard and put to music.”
BW: You’re a solid songwriter with a fairly long career. Why only four album releases?
JS: It took a long time to clean up my Rounder releases and Poor Man’s Paradise. It was kind of a contractual thing. I had written a lot of songs, but I was still under contract with Rounder. I still have a whole lot of songs; I mean I never stopped writing. I guess it was just a timing thing.
BW: This next one is more of a personal question. One of my favorite songs by you is “Crescent City Moon,” yet I have never heard you do it live. Why is that?
JS: I actually do that song a lot in my club shows where I always feature a guitar in the song. I think you’ve probably been to a lot of the festival sets and that song is a slow blues and you can only do so many slow blues in a 60-90 minute festival show. For festivals I concentrate more on the harmonica, but I do that song pretty much every night in my club shows.
BW: Being a true bluesman, what made you decide to pick up the accordion?
JS: I saw Clifton Chenier a bunch of times and was really moved by the energy of the music. I was playing guitar at the time and was looking for an instrument that had more voice than the harmonica that I could use as a second instrument. I went to Clifton’s wake and decided the king was gone, and I was really fascinated with the instrument, so I started that day. I don’t remember exactly, but it was back in the mid 1980s.
BW: You have a very talented group of friends to play with such as Anders Osborne, Tab Benoit, and Mike Zito, to name a few. What’s it like, and what impact does it have on your own music?
JS: Well, first off I have to comment on how lucky I am to be in a group with those guys. I owe a lot to Reuben Williams for putting this thing together, making sure that we all came together as The Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars. I went to the session and I got thrown right in and was standing next to Dr. John and playing accordion. I played on the record, but didn’t know I was going to be asked to join the band.
An interesting little story there was, Reuben had asked me to come to the session but I didn’t know what we were going to do, I walked in and they were all there, and a guy with a camera.
BW: Believe it or not, I was the guy with the camera, if we’re talking about the same session. Anyway, go on.
I took the accordion out, but didn’t know what key or what was happening, we just started playing. George Porter was guiding us through the song and giving us the chord changes. I was standing right next to Dr. John, and when it was time for me to take a solo I was a little bit nervous. Anyway, after my solo I glanced down at Mac. He stopped playing for a second and gave me a thumbs up. I said to myself, “I guess I must be doing it right.” It was great!
I can’t tell you how important it is to play with a rhythm section like that and being out on the road and seeing what they’re like. You can’t imagine the importance that goes along with being on stage and playing with what are essentially your heroes at this point. I mean, I don’t even know where to start saying how important it is. Every night something is different, there’s such great imagination in these guys. Everybody is at the top of their game; they’re just an incredible group of musicians.
I’ve known Tab pretty much since he started on the blues scene in New Orleans. I’ll give you a quick little story about how we met. My record had just come out on King Snake Records and Kenny Neal was working down there [Sanford, Florida] and had this Dodge Transvan. It was kinda like a motor home thing and driving around in it was really cool. So when I saw one for sale I bought it, just because Kenny had one. I did a couple tours then decided to sell it downtown. This kid comes to look at it and I asked him what he wanted it for. He said, “I’m gonna be touring with my band.” I told him that’s what I had used it for and asked what kind of music did he play? He said, “I play blues!” I told him I did too and asked where he was playing. He said he was playing a little bit here and there, so I invited him to sit in with us at the Howlin’ Wolf. That’s how we met, and he would play with us all the time before he actually had anything going on. He’s been a huge help to me by letting me sit in over the years and putting me on his records. Tab Benoit is a really helpful guy to have in the music world!
Mark Goodman is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax
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