The Kentucky Headhunters and Johnnie Johnson became friends in the ’90s, and in 2003, the band asked Johnson to come to Kentucky to play piano for their album, Soul. He was happy to do that, but when they got in the studio, according to the Meet Me in Bluesland booklet, the vibe was so strong that the tape just kept rolling. They ended up with some spontaneous, loose, unplanned and completely awesome renditions of songs that were mostly written by the group, sometimes with Johnson assisting, although they sound so authentic that you may be fooled into thinking they are old standards.
The tapes were never intended to be an album, and so no plans were made to release them right away. Then Johnson died in 2005, and the tapes remained shelved until 2015. Thank goodness they have finally been released, because the album is a sheer delight from start to finish, with Johnson’s amazing piano playing pushing the Headhunters to their absolute best.
Johnson was Chuck Berry’s piano player for years – from the very beginning of Berry’s career. Thus, it is appropriate that the album includes the riveting version of “Little Queenie,” on which Johnson and the band just rock hard.
The other songs here are all so much fun and all allow us to hear Johnson playing superbly and obviously having a good time, as do The Kentucky Headhunters, who were performing superb roots music before the term was in general use. “Stumblin'” is so much fun with its highly singable lyrics: “[S]tumblin’, cause you know we can’t dance.” It is followed by the searing tribute to Howlin’ Wolf, “Walkin’ with the Wolf,” pure thundering blues.
“She’s Got to Have It” features gravelly vocals and is a real rock and roll rave-up. “Party in Heaven” follows in the tradition of songs like “Rock and Roll Heaven” (Climax), and ends its rollicking performance with a short a cappella rendering of the beginning of “When We All Get to Heaven” (Eliza Hewitt) in perfect harmony.
“Meet Me in Bluesland” gives everyone a chance to shine, and “King Rooster” sounds like it could have been done by Lightnin’ Hopkins or Muddy Waters. “Shufflin’ Back to Memphis” is another sing-along favorite that is pure joy for the listener, and “Fast Train,” the only instrumental, is simply a gift to Johnson’s fans and the fans that this album will create for him. “Sometime” and “Superman Blues” round out this rip-roaring delight of an album.
The Kentucky Headhunters have long been favorites of mine, but with Johnnie Johnson, they reached a whole new level and we are privileged to share it.
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