Johnny Rawls Thinks "Washed-Up Rock Singers" Have No Place in the Blues

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Johnny Rawls is a decidedly old-school kind of guy. An award-winning singer, he takes his cues from classic R&B singers like Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and his personal mentor, O.V. Wright, the man he credits with launching his career.

“I sing soul,” Rawls insists. “I stand out because I do original songs that have a good beat to them. It’s a different side to the blues. I take a lot of time and effort to write songs so they don’t sound like they were just thrown together. In order to stand out, you have to write great songs.”

In that regard, Rawls readily agrees that "genuine soul music" is in short supply these days, its classic sound having been displaced by rap, hip-hop, and other styles informed by the urban experience.

“Kids these days don’t know anything about genuine soul music,” Rawls says in explaining why those classic sounds seem so scarce these days. “They don’t hear it on the radio, so they don’t know. When I was coming up, you could hear Joe Tex and Sam and Dave and the Temptations, and we listened to that music all the time. But nowadays, these kids don’t hear that, so they have no idea what it’s all about.”

Rawls remembers playing clarinet and saxophone in the marching band growing up in Mississippi: "When I was in eighth grade, this promoter came to my school because he was trying to put together a dance band in Jackson, and so he asked me if I would play sax. I agreed, and after that, when all the artists came through area, they would use us as their band, and we’d play with them from Mobile to New Orleans, anywhere within a 200-mile radius. I got to meet all these great stars when I was only 16, 17 years old. How lucky can you get?”

As a result, Rawls’ career path was decided early on. “I never worried about making a living,” he reflects. “Music was my life... I didn’t worry about no day job, no night job, nothing. I played music all day and all night.” And he considers it his duty to show a younger generation the soul music they’ve been missing. “It’s my mission,” he insists. “I’ve been doing it 45 years."

Rawls’ new album, Tiger in a Cage, reflects that basic savvy he learned along the way. Songs like the title track reflect the frustrations of a wayward generation trapped in the ghetto, with no hope of a reprieve. “Born to the Blues” relates his personal mantra. A handful of well chosen covers — the Rollings Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” Sam Cooke’s oft-covered classic “Having a Party,” and Jackie Wilson’s familiar standard “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me (Higher and Higher)” — attest to a pedigree Rawls gained early on.

While he laments the fact that younger people lack some important musical exposure, he also has some choice comments about certain older musicians who've exploited the blues and soul sounds as a final career move.

“What is this thing 'rock blues'?” he asks. “All these old rock 'n' rollers have suddenly taken to the blues because they have nowhere else to go. They don’t have their own audience anymore, so they’re coming over to the blues to get their last shot of glory. It’s this attempt at a rock-blues hybrid, but in reality, it has nothing to do with the blues. They’re just washed-up rock singers.”

That may be another reason Rawls’ commitment has never faltered. “I’ve been on tour since I was 15,” he says. “Unlike some other artists, I don’t have the luxury of taking off for four months to write new songs. I can’t take off the whole winter and go somewhere and just write.”

Fortunately, he doesn’t have to: “People that I observe give me my songs,” he says. “A lot of things in life give me inspiration. Maybe I should write a song about this interview.”

Riverwalk Blues Festival
With Johnny Rawls and others. 6  p.m. Saturday, February 27, at Esplanade Park on the Riverwalk, 400 SW Second Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $15 to $25 per day. Go to riverwalkblues.com .

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