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The Press Register

Big Jack Johnson, the last of the “Jelly Roll Kings” and a native of Lambert, died early Monday morning in Memphis from kidney failure.

Johnson, 70, was the last living member of the “Jelly Roll Kings” that included the late Sam Carr and Frank Frost.

Red Paden, owner of Red’s on Sunflower Avenue, Johnson’s home club, numbered Johnson among his closest friends.

“We were friends for a long, long time,” Paden said Monday. “Big Jack was a friendly guy. He loved people and they loved him.”

Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, reflected on Johnson’s passing.

"There were many nights that I walked away from Big Jack shows at Red's telling whoever I was with that, 'Big Jack is an absolute monster on guitar,’” Stolle said. “He was a master of not only what notes to play, but what notes not to play. On top of that, he was a triple threat - deep blues guitar, heartfelt vocals and real-life songwriting.

“He was not only one of Mississippi's greatest blues musicians but also one of the worlds. There will never be another man or musician like Big Jack Johnson.”

Johnson was scheduled to perform at Red's for Juke Joint Festival on April 16th. The festival will now be dedicated in part to him, Stolle said.

Bubba Sullivan, the emcee for the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in downtown Helena, Ark., was saddened Monday by Johnson’s death.

“Big Jack Johnson’s death marks the end of an era for Delta Blues,” Sullivan said. “He was known worldwide and meant so much to the Delta blues.”

Sullivan, historian for the Sonny Boy Blues Society, was one of the originators of the KBBF before its first October festival was held in 1986. Last October marked the festival’s 25th year highlighted by B.B. King’s performance.

Sullivan recalled that Johnson had performed at the KBBF on numerous occasions.

“He was scheduled to perform last October before he got sick,” Sullivan said. “He was scheduled to play our festival this year.”

Born in 1940 in Lambert, Johnson was inspired by his father, Ellis Johnson, a fiddler, banjoist and guitarist who played blues, breakdown and country music. He received his first break in 1962 when he sat with Frost, known for his guitar and harmonica talent, and Carr on drums at Clarksdale’s old Savoy Theater.

They formed a trio and recorded a hit album, “Hey Boss Man!” under the name Frank Frost and His Night Hawks on Sam Phillips’ Memphis-based international label.

Johnson was featured on the instrumental song, “Jack’s Jump” along with “Jelly Roll King” that later became the band’s name. They became widely known as Little Sam Carr and His Blues Kings.

During the 1960s and 1970s Johnson worked full-time driving an oil truck while continuing his association with Frost and Carr. He operated several clubs.

In 1979, Frost started the Earwig label to issue the Jelly Roll Kings album “the Juke Down”, featuring four vocals by Johnson including the traditional “Catfish Blues” and the bawdy “Slop Jar Blues”.

In 1987, Earwig released Johnson’s debut LP “The Oil Man,” which featured Frost on Piano, Ernest Roy Jr. on drums and Ernest Roy, Jr.’s brother Walter on bass. The album featured a country instrumental standard “Steel Guitar Rag.”

Johnson’s second album, “Daddy, When Is Mama Comin’ Home,” featured Carr and Frost. The album condemned domestic violence.

Johnson began to venture beyond Clarksdale in the mid ‘90s and his acclaim spread internationally. He received numerous Handy Award nominations for his guitar playing and songwriting culminating with the Handy Award in 2003 for the best acoustic album “The Memphis Barbecue Sessions.