Guitarist/songwriter Jon Lawton, aka Little Jonny talks about the blues as an elemental building block of music

"The blues is an elemental building block of music and, like water, not much else can exist without it. The blues has been (as with many other artists) a method of escape from the difficulties I face."

Jon Lawton: Celebration Shuffles

Jon Lawton was born in 1954, has been playing guitar since 8th grade. That means he has been playing for 43 years as of today (2013). Starting out on acoustic guitar in the '70's meant folkie things like CSNY, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, etc... he has a VERY inspirational cousin who got him into the stones shows of '69, '72, and '75 in LA and the Grateful Dead shows with the wall of sound. Jon began to chase the blues shuffle and really has never stopped. Jon is now an accomplished songwriter and guitarist. He can fingerpick some old-time blues, frail a little banjo, slide some Dobro and lead a blues band like few others.

In the late '50s and early '60s, orange county ca. WAS covered with oranges, avocados, lemons and dirt. It was here he grew up. Jon started playing classical piano when he was 8 years old. The rigid classical music and mandatory practice and recitals were torture, but the technique and dynamics would serve him well in the future. In 1973, Jon went off to live in Omaha, ne... he finished college in 1978 and then began his shuffle-quest. His first band in Omaha was risky shift and in todays parlance, it went viral. It became one of the most popular bands of its time in that town. of course, we ALL know what that meant, but it was still a great gig and Jon learned about sound, band leading, songwriting, travel, guitars, amps and everything else not shown on the menu of being a musician. In 1987, after several busy bands in Omaha, Jon moved to Santa Barbara, Ca. to follow a woman, and to be closer to home. Well, the woman didn't work out, BUT he was immediately introduced to a band called the Pontiax. They hired him virtually on the spot. With that band, Jon proceeded to really take off. Much more travel, recording (a still talked about and recently re-released album - 100 miles to go), and playing with west coast luminaries such as William Clarke, Kim Wilson, James Harman, Red Holloway and many more. After European tours and many gigs, Jon and the Pontiax parted ways. Jon started little jonny and the giants then. That was 1991. Since that time Jon has gone on to record and independently release 5 CDs. he has played with all kinds of people (Kim Wilson, John Hammond, Fenton Robinson, Magic Slim, Anson Funderburgh, to name a few). He had some crazy dream that he opened for Bob Dylan, and it turned out not to be a dream.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

What I have learned about myself from the blues is that I need to relax and trust the feelings that I have and find facility in my technique (thru practice) so that I can express my thoughts and feelings with all due respect to the blues genre. The blues is an elemental building block of music and, like water, not much else can exist without it. The blues has been (as with many other artists) a method of escape from the difficulties I face. There are, of course, so many degrees of difficulty for all people. Mine are so small compared to others. But the release valve of the blues is seen through the artist and not the audience or historian.

How do you describe little jonny sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

The ‘little jonny’ sound is a distillation of all I have heard and loved in my life. I am first and foremost a rhythm guitarist and the first thing that moved me is the ‘E-shuffle’. Don’t know why. Definitely didn’t hear it at home. I am a Rolling Stones freak, so the rhythm that they make is super strong for me. But over the years I have heard many amazing rhythms: Ry Cooder, Johnny Shines, Jimmy Reed, BB King, Albert Collins, Jimmie Vaughan, Little Walter, William Clarke, Johnnie Johnson, to name a few.

My music philosophy is a bit murky. I am not, nor have I ever been, able to make my guitar sound like other guitarists I love. That is a bit of a disability, but also a blessing in disguise. But, it takes a long time to get a voice on this instrument, ESPECIALLY in the blues. All of the above mentioned artists have songs and grooves that I love. My musical philosophy is that I take all the music I love and funnel it through my own limitations and what comes out is good, old-fashioned musical fun, dance, and celebration.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I’m not sure what this has to do with anything, but I did have a great time when I just got out of college in 1978 and was playing in my first band in Omaha, Nebraska. The band became VERY popular and we were playing a lot and writing and arranging. It was a blues/reggae combination, so there was a lot of dancing and partying which is pretty damn fun in one’s late 20s. I’m sure there are interesting things happening in this period, but it was overall just a bunch of good times.

The worst moment of my career is not worth reviving at this time. The best moment of my career comes when there is a great band beside me and we are making a great scene happen wherever we are. No one has ever pulled me aside and said we’re going to make you a star or anything like that as a best moment. John Hammond did watch me do a solo show and he stayed for the whole thing. He was VERY complimentary afterwards. That is a highlight and some strong validation!!

"What I have learned about myself from the blues is that I need to relax and trust the feelings that I have and find facility in my technique (thru practice) so that I can express my thoughts and feelings with all due respect to the blues genre."

Why did you think that the Rhythm and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

The groove and nothing but the groove. If performed with sincerity and authority, there is nothing like the back and forth of that groove.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The best jam does happen frequently in our little band – at least since you’re asking me! I can imagine there are some who would disagree! I have had some memorable moments though. One of my first big league encounters was in Lincoln, Nebraska at the Zoo Bar. I had a regular Monday night gig as a solo and the owner said he would need that night if any big name guy came thru. One night it was Luther Allison. I always got to go to the shows for free since it was my gig, so I (along with a full, crazy house) was there ready for an amazing show. Larry (the owner) introduced me to Luther (enough of an honor for me), and Luther said do you want to sit in? I just shook my head and said nah that’s fine; I just came to see you. He said NO WAY, you have to sit in. As it was there was only a 4-piece band and one guitar amp. Obviously that was Luther’s. I thought OK they’ll set up another amp for me, or not, I was fine not playing. So Luther gets the crowd into a FRENZY – the house is a sweaty mess. I’m a bit tipsy and thinking that I’ll probably not play. Again this is FINE by me as I am just a little white guy with not too many skills. So after some amazing Luther Allison blues, he says – now were going to get up here a fine guitarist/singer who usually plays here on Mondays – Jon Lawton! I am just speechless. His band is a trio of big, experienced black blues people who really have their shit together. Luther was playing that Gibson custom guitar in the shape of the United States – very weird. So I’m still thinking he’ll have another amp set up, but no, he just takes that guitar off and hands it to me and leaves the stage and disappears into the crowd. What is a guy to do? I got up there and played some silly little shuffle or 2. That was a blur. The guys (whose names I should know, but didn’t) were very kind and didn’t have me drawn and quartered for butchering their show. Luther (thankfully) came back and got the audience to cough up some kind of round of sympathetic applause and he finished the show. He was very nice after the show and my heart started to beat normally after I drove the hour home to Omaha. Very memorable. There are many more, but that was one of the first.

"My musical philosophy is that I take all the music I love and funnel it through my own limitations and what comes out is good, old-fashioned musical fun, dance, and celebration."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

I did get some good backstage time with Snooky Pryor. He was very proud of his abstinence of drugs and alcohol. At the time, I was into both and inside scoffed a bit. But now I can see that those things can really shorten one’s productive time. Certainly I say this not to preach to ANYONE ELSE. But it is a point that I have seen some value reflected in my own life. Did a recording session with William Clarke, and he was very creative and spontaneous in the studio. My recent CD had a lot of that and it really reflects in the playback. It’s not easy to be relaxed and improvisational in the studio at first. He was a good example for me.

Are there any memories from studio and recording time with the Giants which you’d like to share with us?

The most recent CD (We Got It Goin’ On) was done at Greaseland studios here in San Jose, CA. Great players in a funky, blues-centric, environment made for a GREAT recording – if I need to say so myself. Having Doug James and Kid Andersen there with all the other guys was a bit of a stressful, but ironically, confidence-inducing situation that brought out the best in me. That doesn’t happen all the time by any means. My first Giants CD was produced in part by James Harman and that was a bit hairy. But we did get some very good takes of some of my songs that I can still listen to without cringing.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Well in the blues this isn’t really true, but in popular music it is – the use of real musicians playing real instruments with the sounds of the rooms, amps and musicians audible on CDs. The blues is never going to make enough money to become transistorized, so I don’t worry about that. But instrumental mastery is often overlooked. It certainly was on some of my early recordings.

I do hope that the blues as I like it becomes hip to the younger generation, before I stop being able to play it I fear it won’t.

"The ‘little jonny’ sound is a distillation of all I have heard and loved in my life. I am first and foremost a rhythm guitarist and the first thing that moved me is the ‘E-shuffle’. Don’t know why. Definitely didn’t hear it at home."

Which memory from Bob Dylan, John Hammond, Fenton Robinson, and Magic Slim, makes you smile?

Dylan – certainly he didn’t hear us, but he walked around in the (very small) backstage area with a towel over his head, and his band was still playing when he got on his bus and was gone before they were done – I guess no encore!!!

John Hammond – certainly the aforementioned concert experience, but he also spent some time at my house before a show where we opened for him and then were his back up band. I am CONFIDENT we were not the best back up he ever had, but he was, and probably still is, a very generous kind guy.

Fenton Robinson – We were the back up band for  him and Mighty Joe Young at this show in San Luis Obispo, Ca. and no one knew where he was and he was about the 4th act on this show. The show was in full swing and nobody knows where Fenton was. Mighty Joe Young got done and the plan was for Fenton to come on right away, but he’s not there. We play a little silly song and then Fenton comes across the dance floor with his guitar case. Comes up to the bandstand takes it out, and doesn’t even look at us. Just starts playing. No key, no tempo, nothing. Never looked at us thru the whole set. We were just floundering. It was kind of a drag, but it WAS Fenton Robinson. At this point in my life, I can see it was a reflection of the difference between what he expected for a person of his history and stature, and what was happening in his life at that moment. He probably didn’t get too much money and had a bunch of white wish-we-could-play-better-for-you guys with no IDEA what to do. He did pass away within that year, so he was probably not feeling too good either.

Magic Slim – just watched him so much in the Midwest – really just spent my time absorbing the shuffle and wishing I could be that much groove.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Folk and Rock n’ Roll music?

I’m not really the guy to answer to that. BUT I do LOVE Gary Clark Jr.!!!!

"I do hope that the blues as I like it becomes hip to the younger generation, before I stop being able to play it I fear it won’t."

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I wouldn’t like to go back for anything to do with myself. But I wouldn’t mind seeing Howling Wolf, the Stones in London, Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, or Robert Johnson. That is probably more than one day, and I’m not sure if the machine could take be back and forth without causing massive internal hemorrhaging!!!!!!

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