If you want a picture of what Chicago blues sounds like these days, look no farther than Shirley Johnson, whose new CD, Blues Attack, presents a full-bodied, wide-ranging selection of traditional blues flavored with gospel, soul and R&B. Johnson's voice is strong yet tender as she sings her way through 14 songs of bad-lover blues, love-gone-wrong ballads and independent woman anthems.
The CD comes seven years after Johnson's first album for Delmark, Killer Diller. In the interim, Shirley's been performing regularly at the Blue Chicago club on Clark Street. According to liner notes by David Whiteis, Johnson has been singing at the North Side Club nearly weekly for 17 years.
Johnson grew up in Virginia and grew up listening to blues/soul artists like Etta James, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Ruth Brown. This musical foundation is evident in her musical, as her vocal style shines comfortably among the horns, back-up singers and easy rhythms of these songs.
The majority of songs on the CD are originals, several written in whole or part by Maurice John Vaughn, another frequent Blue Chicago performer. Outstanding among the covers is the classic "Unchain My Heart," which Johnson slows down and infuses with a gospel spirit.
Making up the band are some top-notch musicians deserving of their own spotlight. Roosevelt "Mad Hatter" Purifoy on piano and organ delivers tasty solos on both instruments, notably on the first track "You're Reckless," a classic shuffle about a no-good man, "My Baby Played Me for a Fool," a soul-style tune complete with back-up singers, and "Selfish Kind of Gal," an uptempo song you can dance to. Purifoy and lead guitarist Luke Pytel trade licks on the slow, sad blues, "Let It Rain." The horn section is also excellent, especially tenor saxophonist Lawrence Fields.
Female vocalists have always led the way with the blues, though they are often overshadowed by the louder, more aggressive guitar-centered blues. It's too bad. Shirley Johnson is a quality blues artist, both on this CD and in live performances.