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A vital piece of Nashville's R&B history fell silent yesterday with the death of legendary blues guitarist Johnny Jones. The longtime frontman, sideman and guitar slinger was found dead at his apartment yesterday morning by exterminators. He was 73.
Jones was an integral part of the Music City R&B scene chronicled in the Country Music Hall of Fame's 2004 Night Train to Nashville
exhibit. That project's Grammy-winning CD compilation and its sequel introduced a new audience to Jones' historic recordings, made with famed Nashville producer/songwriter/label owner Ted Jarrett in the 1960s.
It was Jarrett who pulled Jones out of a house band in Clarksville, Tenn., where he was then backing female impersonators, and gave him gigs backing Nashville R&B hitmakers Gene Allison and Earl Gaines. In an interview earlier this year with the Scene
, Jones credited Jarrett with exposing him to a whole world beyond 12-bar blues.
"He had enough insight to see my potential," Jones said. "I'm a blues man, had a blues foundation. But Nashville was country, jazz and gospel, and Ted was behind all the local stuff. During this process, man, Ted taught me how to read music and showed me all this other music. Most blues artists my age don't have that kind of background."
Much music lore surrounds Jones' early mentorship of Jimi Hendrix while the young guitar hot-shot was prowling Nashville R&B clubs after his discharge from Fort Campbell. The two faced off in a famous head-cutting match at Nashville's Club Baron in the early '60s heyday of the Jefferson Street club scene, and Jones replaced Hendrix in the King Casuals combo, which also featured Hendrix's future Band of Gypsies bassist Billy Cox (now a Nashville businessman). They both appeared on the locally produced 1960s TV series Night Train
, where Jones played in the house band.
In the mid-1990s, a series of Music City soul reissues reignited interest in Jones' career, especially in Europe. He became active again as a bandleader, recording artist and touring attraction, and the Night Train
exhibit cemented his standing as a cornerstone of the city's R&B heritage. But he maintained right up to his death that he never knew those early recordings would stand the test of time.
"That's the irony of American history," Jones said. "When you're making it, you don't really see it."
He made those comments to the Scene
last March, on the sad occasion of Ted Jarrett's death at age 83. At the time, he said that the last time he'd seen his friend and mentor was a few months earlier, "and he was lookin' kind of puny." But he said he didn't see Jarrett's death as a loss. "He lives in me," Jones said, "and everybody he came into contact with."
He ended his comments with what sounded like an offhand remark at the time, but now sounds sadly like foresight.
"You never know how sick a man really is," Johnny Jones said.