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Interview with...
Johnny "Yard Dog" Jones
@ Famous Dave's, 8/11/98

Johnny "Yard Dog" Jones
Bayfront Blues Festival, 8/15/98
Photo © 1998 by Tom Asp
All rights reserved
Jones, a multi-instrumentalist (guitar and harmonica) has been a vital force in the Detroit music scene since he moved there from Chicago in 1971. His voice is expressive and soulful and he has a versatile instrumental technique that can range from suave uptown blues to backstreet grit.

Born John Junior Jones on June 21, 1941 on a cotton plantation in Crawfordsville, Arkansas, his family soon moved to East St. Louis where he grew up listening to the records of Robert Johnson, T. Bone Walker and Sonny Boy Williamson. It was the stirring sounds of gospel vocalists however, who inspired him the most. Jones heard O.V. Wright, Johnnie Taylor and The Spirit Of Memphis when he was only 6 years old and remembers the impact their music had on him. He moved to Chicago in his late teens where he spent the next 12 years as a guitarist with various gospel groups.

About 17 years ago he adopted the name "Yard Dog" to gain more exposure as a blues musician. Jones is a delightful entertainer with an engaging grin, a twinkle in his eye and some very funky dance steps. He sings with raw emotion, plays a mean harmonica and when he picks up his Gibson, watch out because he can play some gritty, straight to the alley, blues licks. Jones calls himself a blues/soul vocalist whose main objective is to put on a good show. His current Earwig release, "Ain't' Gonna Worry," features a deep, rootsy blues sound and his appearance at the 1997 Chicago Blues Festival has helped Jones gain the international recognition he deserves. He also won the 1998 W.C. Handy Award for best new blues performer.

Ray: You moved to Detroit in the early 1970's What prompted that move

Yard Dog: I had a failed relationship and had family that had moved there from Chicago, Mother and sister. I came here to get away from Chicago, get some R&R in and get away, so I got a job there welding and it pretty much stuck on me then.

Ray: You were still playing music at that time?

Yard Dog: Well when I came to Detroit from Chicago I was playing guitar, doing gospel.

Ray: What groups?

Yard Dog: We had a family group, Little Flowers Gospel Singers. Then later I formed another group with some in-laws called the Gospel Comforters. And that group is still singing today I understand, but they got a lot of new members.

Ray: You were playing guitar not singing then?

Yard Dog: I wasn't singing, no. I sung when I was a kid in churches with my sisters, three sisters and me. My mother would take us around in East St. Louis. See my mother went to church and my dad went to juke joints. So that's how I got caught between the two.

Ray: So you had the church and the blues pulling you in two different directions.

Yard Dog: Yeah, it was like a strange thing, I only could practice guitar when I went over to my uncles house on the weekend or something. And I got a guitar, you could buy harmonicas cheep. I had to practice in coal sheds and walk up and down the streets, my mother didn't allow it in the house because she was a Christian. So I couldn’t play it in the house. So I'd walk up and down the street and practice and sit out in front of the joints and listen at the blues artists that's coming through. See East St. Louis was like a pit stop on the way to Chicago, when they crossed the bridge from Tennessee they went to Carroll then they come to East St. Louis then go up around Peoria and Joliet and then to Chicago.

Ray: Was Chuck Berry playing then?

Johnny "Yard Dog" Jones
Famous Dave's, 8/11/98
Photo © 1998 by Steve Felling
All rights reserved
Yard Dog: He lived in St. Louis, I remember when he went to jail there for bringing a girl across the boarder.

Ray: Where were you born?

Yard Dog: I was born in Crawfordsville, Arkansas in 1941 and I moved to East St. Louis in 1945 where I grew up. My dad went to work at the stockyard.

Ray: How old were you when you went to Chicago?

Yard Dog: It was around 1959, I was about 18 or 19.

Ray: Had you been playing guitar then?

Yard Dog: Well my uncles used to own guitars. I got uncles that can really play and it runs in the family. My grandfather played guitar, mandolin, fiddles. I guess its an inheritance.

Ray: Did your uncles do any recording,?

Yard Dog: No I was just telling the band coming here today, Chris Johnson, he does all Koko Taylor's studio work for Alligator, he's one of my uncle’s sons, he's my first cousin. His father is such (a good player), oh man he could go back there and play that stuff just like it was recorded. And he never ever played a club, he didn't never like doing clubs, he knew all of that Robert Johnson, all of that old Petey Wheatstraw, he knows all of it. He can hear any song back from the 20's on up till now and he can tell you what they was.

Ray: Who did you listen to when growing up?

Yard Dog: O.V. Wright, The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi with Archie Brownley, he was my favorite, and Spencer Taylor, Johnnie Taylor, The Soul Stirrers, they was awesome. I grew up listening to those people. Gospel is one of my most favorite (types of) music. I sung in church as a kid.

Ray: When did you start playing the harmonica?

Yard Dog: Well as a kid I just picked them up and played ‘em you know, practiced them. I would go around when my daddy played checkers, swap lies with his buddies, I'd put on the old 78's (and play to them). I was like the little DJ, the music stuck to me.

Ray: What harmonica players did you like?

Johnny "Yard Dog" Jones
Bayfront Blues Festival, 8/15/98
Photo © 1998 by Tom Asp
All rights reserved
Yard Dog: I loved Little Walter, Big Walter I loved, I liked them all, they all had different styles, you know if everybody sounded the same then (it wouldn’t be any fun). I liked them all. I try not to over play and add too many fancy notes. You can over play ‘em, I like to keep them traditional, original, as the way they were done. I used to stand out in front of those joints in East St. Louis listening to (all the players who would come through town). Albert King was down there. Matter of fact I introduced him to an aunt of mine. I used to stand out and listen to all of them play in front of those clubs down in East St. Louis. Little Milton was there, Albert King was there, Ike and Tina Turner (were there). We lived right across the street from were Ike and Tina used to play on weekends at the Frivolous Club. On 22nd and St. Louis Ave. And Ike would get jealous of Tina and take it out on her and take it out on the guys (in the band). I'd get on my bike and ride and check out all the clubs and artists that was coming through.

Ray: You moved to Chicago as a teenager, was that when you started playing with the gospel groups?

Yard Dog: Yeah because I had family there.

Ray: Were you part of the blues scene there?

Yard Dog: No, no I would go once in a while and check out the clubs, but I was playing gospel in churches. Matter of fact, there was a church, can't remember the street, (but) Howlin' Wolf would be out front, (he) played at a club near there on Deerfield and 16th or 14th, somewhere up in there, but I'd seen Junior Wells getting out of the car one day and Wolf was standing out front and he said all right now Junior I don’t want no shit out of you. I don't want to have to whip your ass. And Junior would go its gonna take more than a big old bad #@#% like you. They (would) just shoot the shit, it was fun. I used to walk past Muddy Waters’ house when he lived on Lake Park Ave. in the 50's and it was something.

Ray: How about the blues scene in Detroit when you moved there?

Yard Dog: It was like Motown happening. (The) blues scene in the early 70's was kind of slow. Everybody was into Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, they was in to the Motown (sound). So Motown put a back seat to blues, blues was never really that big in Detroit at that time, but now its beginning to pick up more. Had they left Hastings Street (alone), (it) was a street that stretched probably longer than Bourbon Street did. But they tore all of those clubs down, and there was a lot of clubs right across the street from each other. Lot of history got bulldozed.

Ray: When did you start playing the blues then?

Yard Dog: When I went to Detroit I played guitar in churches for awhile, but then I laid the guitar down and started working with the harp.

Ray: Do you know the Butler Twins?

Yard Dog: Yeah, we was neighbors for about 6 years, we lived right across the hall from each other, I was over there just last week. [He said they often get together at a club called the Attic in Detroit]

Ray: They have that nice traditional sound too. How about Robert Jones?

Yard Dog: Yeah he’s a DJ there, plays acoustic guitar, he's got (the ) Blues From The Lowlands (show), come on Saturday from 10 to 12.

Ray: How did the name Yard Dog come about?

Yard Dog: (Laughs) I was waiting for that. You know I think I'm going to do a movie that's just called the Yard Dog. I wanted a name that people would never forget, was easy to think of. And I had a neighbor who had a dog called Butch, one of those dogs called a "whama ramma" something, oh don't get me to spell it. (The dog) couldn’t get out of his fence when he was fenced in. Other dogs would run up and down the alley, Butch never could get out to do nothing. I said, well I want to get out with my blues. And I looked at Butch and darn’et I said to Butch, I'm a fenced in dog just like you. And so finally Butch started climbing that fence one day and he jumped that fence and he got out and "wupted" this old dog that was teasing him. And I said now Butch you just gave me encouragement. I got to work my way out of this yard too that I'm in.

Ray: You won this year's Handy award for best new blues artist?

Yard Dog: Yeah, new on the circuit, that's my first CD ("Ain't' Gonna Worry"). People think when they say that (Best New Blues Artist), oh he just started last week.

Ray: But you've been playing for...

Yard Dog: ... years, but it was my first solo CD. I did a little back up (playing) now and then for different people. I worked with Bobo Jenkins, Baby Boy Warren, but I finally put out my first solo CD on Earwig.

[Johnny "Yard Dog" Jones played at Famous Dave’s prior to his appearance at the Bayfront Blues Festival in August. He was accompanied by a group of young, solid musicians from Detroit who had a nice swing and Texas sound. The lead guitar player did some very tasteful T-Bone Walker and Junior Parker material as well as some really jumping swing prior to bringing Johnny on stage. They would then switch gears and get down in the alley, with some gritty Chicago blues when it was time for Jones to come on.]

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