Canadian legendary bluesman Johnny V Mills talks about his life in the blues world, and...Greek retsina

“I'm a "Music Junkie". If I do not play music my body rebels and releases evil toxins into my system until I do...”

Johnny V Mills: Pythagoras Blues

Johnny V forged his original fire-brand style of blues touring and performing internationally for more than three decades. Like the original blues greats, it has not been an easy course for Johnny to chart in order to reach larger and more understanding audiences. It's his distinctive phrasing and monster guitar tones that make the V-man stand out.
He's garnered the respect of the genres finest artists and feels fortunate to have shared the stage with such luminaries as B.B. King, John Hammond, Otis Rush, Dr. John, Amos Garrett, Delbert McClinton, Pinetop Perkins, Eddy Clearwater, Sonny Rhodes, Frankie Lee, Larry Davis, Mighty Joe Young and Johnny Clyde Copeland to name a few. Even the recordings he played on with Canadian blues godfather Richard Newell (AKA King Biscuit Boy) and Amos Garrett. Elder Chicago Bluesman Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater first noticed Johnny in 1986 and invited him to live at his home in Chicago and join the band. Eddy took Johnny out on the road to promote him to the blues audiences in the U.S. and Canada. In 1988 Eddy put up the initial capital for Johnny to start work on his first solo recording project.
Throughout the years that followed, Johnny pursued his own career gleaning many awards and recognition along the way. Then in September of 1998 Eddy Clearwater once again invited Johnny to Chicago to be part of his new band. Johnny accepted the offer and moved to Chicago, he performed with "The Chief" in United States, Europe, and South America for almost a year, then in July of 1999 he accepted an offer to become a member of Billy Branch's band "The Sons of Blues" and continued touring the globe as part of the "SOB". He remained with Billy until late January of 2000 when he was invited to fly to Riga, Latvia to groom and record with the Latvian Blues Band. He then was invited to Greece to perform with the original Louisiana Red. In 2001 Johnny spent almost 4 months in the Ukraine establishing himself and trailblazing a path for future bluesmen. He is presently home in Colchester writing new songs, and enjoying life with his wonderful wife.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

 

When did you first desire to play the blues?
I was almost 13 when my dad took me to a club in Yorkville called “Home of the Blues” to hear Lonnie Johnson perform, Later that year I heard records by Otis Rush, Albert King, and Freddie King at friend’s house, and that’s how it started.

 

Who influenced you musically?
My father was the first major influence, he was a great musician, and songwriter, but did not pursue it as a profession. One of the first things he told me was to be versatile, to learn more than one style of playing, and that way I would always be able to gig. Since then I’ve been open to any kind of music that has artistic merit.

 

What were the first songs you learned?
The first tunes I learned were instrumentals passed on to me from my father when I was 11 years old. Some of the titles I recall are Golden Slippers, Crooked Stove Pipe, Wildwood Flower, Pretty Redwing, Mockingbird Hill, Silver Bell, St. Anne's Reel, Maple Sugar, and a few others

 

Is "blues" a way of life?
For some maybe, but speaking for myself, no. I think of blues more as a category for marketing agents, just like Country, Folk, Roots, Jazz, Classical, Rock, Rebetiko, Swing, Rock & Roll, Rhythm & Blues, etc. If the music has artistic merit, it will move the listener emotionally. BUT it must be packaged, and labelled to be marketed. Money makes the world go round..

 

What was the best moment of your career and what was the worst?
The best was the day my mother-in-law phoned me while I was on tour to tell me my wife had given birth to a healthy baby boy..
The worst was missing being with my wife when she delivered our child...

 

Is there any similarity between the blues today and the blues of the 60s & 70s?
Music constantly incorporates different influences and evolves. It started with Pythagoras' 12 note theory, and discovery of the Tri-Tone, since then composers and artists have been pushing the boundaries, exploring new instrumentation, grooves, forms, harmonies, etc. The glue that holds the music together is the tradition of a story being told, the melody being played, and the feelings it evokes.

 

What does the BLUES mean to you?
It's a category for marketing that style of music, but if you had asked what does music mean to me, then I would have to say it’s the universal language that speaks to the soul. It’s like the hub of a wheel, and there are many spokes, but without the hub there’s nothing to connect to.

 

Do you think younger generations are interested in the blues?
I think there will always be artists who are attracted to this style because of the freedom it offers the performer.

 

What did you learn about yourself from music?
I'm a "Music Junkie". If I do not play music my body rebels and releases evil toxins into my system until I do...

 

How would you describe your contact with people when you are on stage?
Hard to put into words, but when I see people dancing and having a good time while I'm playing it makes me think I'm earning heaven points.

 

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Raising a child. Every parent knows what I mean.

 

How do you want to be remembered?
As a good parent, loving husband, and capable musician.

 

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
Being hungry with no place to sleep.

 

What was the first gig you ever went to?
If you mean the first gig that I saw, then it was Hank Snow in Toronto with my father when I was 5 years old
If you mean my first gig, it was in a one room schoolhouse near Cornwall, Ontario when I was 13.

 

Describe the ideal rhythm section to you?
Depends on the promoter's budget. What I mean is, working a Trio (Bass and Drums) gives me a chance to open up as a guitar player, or in a Quartet setting (Bass, Drums, Keyboards) because the keyboards add a very cool dimension to my music, but if the budget allows I’ll invite the Scorned Horns (6 piece horn section).to join the Quartet and assemble Johnny V’s House Rent Party Band (AKA The Recession Blues Band), and that is the ultimate band for me to perform with.

 

What are some of the memorable gigs you've had?
I think every gig is memorable in some way (good, or bad), but the one that stands out is when my son played his first gig drumming with my 10 piece band in 2006 at South Country Fair. He was 15 years old wearing a poker face to mask his nervousness, and played great. It was a father/son moment that neither of us will ever forget.

 

What were your favourite guitars back then?
Every guitar I own is a favourite, that's why I own and play them. It's like being with a different woman every time you pick one up. I miss the red sparkle Goya I had when I was 13, and would love to own another Gretsch Astro Jet, but they’re like ex-wives, just memories..

 

If you weren't a musician, what would you be?
Dead, or in jail

 

Three words to describe Johnny V & what does GUITAR mean to you?
Father, Husband, and Musician

Guitar...It's a blessing and a curse.

 

What was the last record you bought?
Heritage Blues Orchestra “And Still I Rise”..

 

Who are some of your favourite blues musician of today?
I've always been drawn to songwriters. Lately I've been digging Danielia Cotton, and the Heritage Blues Orchestra, I like Peter Harper's lyric content and arrangements, and think Scott Holt has written some very good songs. But usually I listen to artists like Gurf Morlix, James McMurtry, Blaze Foley, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Tony Joe White, Willis Alan Ramsey, Townes Van Zant, Dave Van Ronk, Guy Clark, and a wide variety of north american music from the 1920s to present day.

 

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started?
The term "music business" is an oxymoron, and it hasn't changed really. Artistic merit and creativity have nothing to do with business. They are worlds apart, which is why there are way too many stories of artists who were cheated out of their royalties by people in the "music business"...

 

What was the most interesting periods in the Canadian blues scene for you and why?
Canada is a big country, and I grew up in Toronto in a cultural scene that was vibrant and diverse. In the 60s there were music scenes emerging in Canadian cities coast to coast, but for a young teenager it was difficult to find out about the local bands unless you lived in the region, or met someone who had been there. Toronto commercial AM radio stations seem to favour Top 40 bands from the United States, and the British Pop bands, but did very little to promote Canadian artists until the ‘70s when they were forced to broadcast Canadian content, or have their licence terminated. Most Toronto newspapers did even less, and any entertainment news from far away regions was virtually nonexistent unless you tune into WUFO, or WBLK radio from the United States, or picked up a copy of underground newspapers like the Georgia Straight (Vancouver), and occasionally underground US publications like The Berkeley Barb, The Great Speckled Bird, Ramparts, and a few others. That was how I found out what was happening outside the Toronto bubble. The main record stores in Toronto were “Sam The Record Man”, and “A&A’s” both stores had good selections, but if you wanted the real deal, it involved riding a Greyhound to record stores in Buffalo, or Niagara Falls, NY.
From 1964 - 1971 Toronto's music scene was a big melting pot of styles, and I was like a sponge soaking in everything I could hanging around clubs like The Colonial, Club Blue Note, The Purple Onion, The Penny Farthiing, The Riverboat, Grossman’s Tavern, The Groaning Board, Chez Monique, Club El Macombo, the Devil’s Den, The Concorde, Café el Patio, The Hawk’s Nest, The Village Corner, Le Coq d’Or Tavern, the Brown Derby, the Zanzibar, Charlie Brown's, The Holiday, The Drake, the Flick, The Elm Grove, Gates of Cleve, The Avenue Road Club, and many more. I heard bands like “he Five Rogues, they were the house band at Club Blue Note, who eventually morphed into “Mandala” (both bands featured guitarist Domenic Troiano, and the great voice of George Olliver), Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks (The Hawks left Ronnie, moved to New York, and joined forces with Bob Dylan as The Band), Shawne and Jay Jackson and the Majestics, Mouse Johnson, The Paupers, Curley Bridges, The Sparrow” (who morphed into  Steppenwolf), Luke & The Apostles, Whiskey Howl, Kensington Market, The Ugly Ducklings, R.K. and the Associates (featured singer Roy Kenner) , Eddie Spencer and the Power, The Shays (featuring David Clayton-Thomas before Blood, Sweat & Tears), The Mynah Birds (featured  Rick James), Jon and Lee & The Checkmates, McKenna Mendelson Mainline, King Biscuit Boy with Crowbar, etc, The folk scene was blossoming too, I saw Gordon Lightfoot, Eric Andersen, Zal Yanovsky, Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia, Neil Young, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Ritchie Havens, Junior Wells & Buddy Guy, John Prine, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Kris Kristofferson, Doc Watson, Tim Hardin, Jerry Jeff Walker, Odetta and so many more playing at clubs like the Riverboat. Toronto’s Centre Island hosted The Mariposa Folk Festival. Then there was the Horseshoe Tavern (AKA “Country and Western Headquarters”).

The bigger concert halls like Massey Hall, The O’Keefe Centre, Maple Leaf Gardens, The Coliseum (CNE grounds), and festival venues like Varsity Stadium, and The Grand Stand (CNE) all presented bigger acts. I was fortunate to see Cream, B.B King, and Miles Davis at Massey Hall. The Rock Pile (formally Club 888), was one on my favourite spots, they brought in bands like Led Zeppelin for their first north american show, The Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart), The Who, John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers (with Mick Taylor), Savoy Brown, The Mothers of Invention, Paul Butterfield, Spirit, and they also presented Blues on Sundays, and I got to see Howlin Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and B.B. King for a second time, along with many more. I saw “Jimi Hendrix” in ’68 at The Coliseum (CNE), and a year later when he played Maple Leaf Gardens, I also saw Johnny Winter, James Gang (with Joe Walsh), Sly & The Family Stone, Dr. John The Night Tripper, Blind Faith, The Plastic Ono Band, Alice Cooper’s Band (before anyone knew who they were), this list could go on, and on, but you get the idea, For me the Toronto music scene during that period was fantastic, Yorkville, Younge Street, and certain areas in the west and east ends of the city is where I perused, and gleaned as a young musician. The sad part is these clubs disappeared almost overnight in the 70s leaving a huge void in the cultural heritage of Canada.
Speaking for myself the other great period in Canada started in 1984  when a blues resurgence happened. It seemed like overnight there were plenty of gigs and blues clubs right across the country. That lasted about 20 years before clubs started closing, or changing formats.

 

From a musical point of view is there any difference between US and Canada?
Both countries are very big, the difference is the USA has 300 million people, and Canada has 30 million people. Canadian musicians didn't have the same opportunities, and it was a common practice for Canadian bands to relocate to the United States in order to get noticed. Things have changed for the better in the last 15 years through the internet. Independent artists now have a way of connecting with fans throughout the global music community in order to develop new markets for their music.

 

Who is considered the "godfather" of the blues in Canada?
I consider Richard Newell (AKA King Biscuit Boy) the Godfather of the Blues in Canada. Some may not agree with that, but you can't deny the historical facts.

 

What kind of a guy was King Biscuit Boy?
As an artist, he was one of the most brilliant I’ve had the pleasure to record, and share a stage with. He had a wealth of knowledge to share with anyone who cared enough to pay attention. As a friend he was like the brother I never had. His sense of humour kept me laughing until my body ached. I miss him..

 

How is your relationship with Eddy Clearwater?
I will always be indebted to Eddy, for his help, guidance, and belief in my ability as an artist. 

 

Three words to describe your sound & your progress?
Intrinsic, Original and Evolving

 

Are there any songs that you've written where the lyrics are very personal for you?
There’s a piece of me in all my songs, here are some titles, you pick...
The Return Of Richard's Biscuit, Terra Firma Boogie, Open Book, Suicide Bomber Blues, Outside Looking In, Ain't Gonna Dust My Broom Again, Got To Get Back To My Squeeze, Is This The Game To Play, I'm Cryin', Deborah Lynne, The Bottle's Gone, One Night Stand, Missin The Flu, I Ain’t Lyin’, Mail My Letter,

 

What are some of your favourite blues standards?
I listen to a lot of music, here's some songs and artists I’ve been diggin’ lately. Singles: Burn the Crack House Down (Jerry McCain), Working Man Blues (Sleepy John Estes), Rollin' and Tumblin' Part 1 & 2 (Baby Face Leroy). Albums: Alabama Blues (1965 J.B. Lenoir), Down In Mississippi (1966 J.B. Lenoir), Bluebird Recordings 1941 - 1947 (Big Maceo)

 

How do you describe your connection with people when you are on stage?
I hope the music moves them the same way it moves me.

 

What would you use for a slide?
Depends on the venue I'm performing in...  sometimes brass, sometimes stainless, and sometimes glass

 

Do you prefer playing acoustic or electric guitar?
I love playing guitar... It doesn't matter what kind, just as long as all the strings are on it, and it’s playable.

 

What characteristics of your personality made you a bluesman?
I'm a musician and a songwriter, someone said I played blues and it stuck.

 

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Same advise my dad gave me... Decide early if you're going to be an artist, or a craftsman. An artist creates the original work, the craftsman copies it...

 

What do you feel is the key to your success as a musician?
Hard work, and plenty of luck....

 

What things do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Fishing with my wife, growing herbs & vegetables, trying to cook, playing music, and teaching guitar.

 

Do you believe MUSIC takes it’s subject from LIFE?
Of course it does...but don’t forget death, the two create the balance..

 

What is the "thing" you miss most about the '60s?
The creative synergy…

 

You have travelled all around the world. What are your conclusions?
What I’ve concluded is people are similar almost everywhere I’ve been. Basically they want to live in peace, and make a good life for their families. I think the lyrics in “Suicide Bomber Blues” speak about the problems achieving these goals. It’s on the “Agnostically Eclectic” album I put out in 2005.

 

Why are Europeans so enamoured with the blues?
I don't know for sure, but think the music affected them the same way it affected me. It’s tribal, very real, and almost hypnotic at times.

 

What's been your experience touring in Greece?
I found the Greek culture, history, and people fascinating. I wish the trips could have been longer in order to learn more.

 

Do you have a message for the Greek fans?
I miss hanging out in the Plaka enjoying Meze and Tsipouro with friends. Playing music for the people, and going to Telis on Evripidou Street after the gig for Pork Chops, Retsina, and lots of laughs. You guys in Greece are having a hard time, and I set the price so the person buying the album decides how much they can pay johnnyvband.bandcamp.com

 

and one last question I would like you to put a song next to each name.
Ammos Garrett: I Ain't Lyin', or Lost Love,
Eddy Clearwater: I Wouldn't Lay My Guitar Down
King Biscuit Boy: Biscuit's Boogie, or Now I'm Good,
Johnny V: Missin' The Flu


Johnny V’s official website

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