The Queen of Chicago Blues Rock
Article and photos by Bob Gersztyn
Joanna Connor was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1962. When she was a toddler her mother moved to Worchester, Massachusetts, where she grew up. Joanna's mother intuitively gave Joanna a guitar when she was only seven, even though she never asked for one. It became love at first sight, since she was already infatuated with music and even recalled singing to the flowered wallpaper on her bedroom wall when she was only two years old. By the time that she entered junior high she was dead serious about pursuing music and formed a band as she followed her dream.
After Joanna graduated from high school she and her band went on a Jack Kerouac-style On the Road journey across America. One of their stops along the way was in Chicago, because they were familiar with "Windy City" artists, since many of them passed through Massachusetts, which was on their circuit. Joanna and her band ended up on Halstead Street, where many of the blues clubs were located, and Joanna was impressed by what she saw. All the major Chicago blues stars were playing every night, and it was almost too good to be true. After the trip was over, Connor couldn't get Chicago out of her mind. She felt so drawn to it that a few years later, in 1984, at the age of twenty-two, she relocated to the Windy City permanently.
Within a short time after arriving she connected with local blues artists and became a member of Dion Peyton and the 43rd Street Blues Band. They were the house band and played three days a week on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday for multiple sets. The last set of the night would always be a jam session, and if there were any visiting musicians passing through they would join in. One night during the break Dion told Joanna that some English guy would be playing with them for the finale. When she returned to the stage sitting at a table next to it was Jimmy Page and his entourage. Page, who was friendly and gracious, jammed with the band using Dion's guitar.
Connor is a slide guitar virtuoso who began using that technique when she was fourteen years old, back in Massachusetts, by taking lessons from an amazing teacher. Playing slide guitar is an art by itself that can be difficult to master for someone unfamiliar with the proper technique. Artists like Lowell George from Little Feat, Duane Allman, David Lindley, and Bonnie Raitt have made it look easy, but there is a learning curve involved. It's a matter of choice whether to use the third finger or the pinky, but Joanna's teacher was a traditionalist. He explained that in order to do intricate finger picking like Robert Johnson, using the pinky was more utilitarian.
When Connor plays her guitar using her pinky she anchors the slide against the ring finger with the middle finger bending downward. The middle finger dampens the strings that it touches as she keeps a loose grip with her thumb holding loosely on the back of the neck. It's important to have an extremely light touch while keeping the slide straight and right on the fret. Everything has to be precisely coordinated and exact in a delicate sort of way. Because you don't have to exert any excessive pressure it frees you up once you master the technique.
Connor explained, "Really it's the weight of the slide, because you don't want it too light, and some glass that you buy at stores is too light, so I ended up using metal slides." The weight is the most important factor, and although glass gives a "smoother tone" it's the weight that allows more control, and that's what ultimately creates the sound you want. It's imperative to find the zone of control that allows you to manipulate the strings with maximum efficiency.
Over the past thirty two years Connor has released fourteen studio albums, including her latest release, 4801 South Indiana Avenue. The album was named after the address of the Chicago blues landmark Theresa's Lounge, which operated from the early 1950's until the mid-1980's, when Theresa lost her lease. Joanna actually played at the venue a few times in its last days when she first arrived in the Windy City. It was a primary meeting place for Chicago blues musicians, with Junior Wells leading the house band. Wells was from the Mississippi Delta, so when friends like B. B. King, Muddy Waters, or Howlin' Wolf came to town that's where you found them.
Contemporary blues guitar legend Joe Bonamassa coproduced the album and initially came up with the idea to name it after a famous landmark blues club. The idea of the album was to simulate what it is like to walk in the front door of a blues club with the band playing. Josh Smith was the other half of the production team at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. Smith and Bonamassa contributed guitar parts on the album after Joe "banned all electronic equipment and pedals to get a purer sound." The album exudes raw power and is anything but polite in its approach and "it hits you right between the eyes."
A video that Connor made in 2014 went viral and piqued the interest of musicians as varied as Vernon Reid, Tracii Guns of L.A. Guns and Guns N' Roses, and Joe Bonamassa. They all praised her in their messages to her, but Bonamassa actually told Joanna that he wanted to assist her. Bonamassa already knew about Connor because she had been playing on Monday nights at the House of Blues for a number of years, and in 2002 Bonamassa opened for her when he was beginning his solo career.
Bonamassa told Connor in 2019 while he was on tour that he would stop in Chicago to see her and explain his vision for the album. He wanted to do a "live session" just like in the old days when a band would come in the studio and play as a unit in a live session. The goal was to capture live energy, so takes were limited to three. It took only three days to finish all ten tracks, and nothing was overdubbed except for Connor's vocals, with the horn section and background singers being added later. Connor has been known primarily as a live performer, but with the Covid-19 lockdown and no gigs the studio provided a welcome outlet.
4801 South Indiana Avenue showcases Connor's guitar and vocal virtuosity. The album was released by Bonamassa's new independent Keeping the Blues Alive record label on February 26, 2021. The musicians included keyboardist Reese Wynans and bassist Calvin Turner, who also coordinated the horn arrangements. Lemar Carter was on drums. Josh Smith played rhythm guitar, and Bonamassa provided licks on all the cuts, including two solos. The album opens with "Destination," originally written and performed by Jimmy Thackeray and the Assassins. It's driving and frantically paced, with the band reaching for the moon. "Come Back Home" features slide guitar played in the old-school style. "Bad News" is a bell-ringing tribute to Luther Allison. Joanna honed her skills while she toured with Allison in Europe for nearly a decade. She executes some great slide guitar playing on this track, which also features amazing keyboard action by Reese Wynans. "I Feel So Good" is a rip-snorting full-speed-ahead driving boogie carried by Lemar Carter's frantic drumming, accompanied by Connor's ear-burning vocals and frenetic guitar.
"For the Love of a Man" is the feminization of an Albert King tune from 1971 that explosively rocks as Connor wails "for the love of a man a woman will do most anything" and then dives into another sonic excursion on her six-string. "Trouble Trouble" features Josh Smith on guitar, accompanied by "slinky horns" and Joanna's emotion-drenched vocals. "Please Help" is a tribute to Hound Dog Taylor and is performed in his frantic style. "Cut You Loose" opens with a numbing bass segueing into guitar feedback that transforms into a throbbing hypnotic melody as Connor bursts into raggedly singing in her rawest blues-drenched voice.
Bonamassa performs guitar solos on the last two of the ten cuts. "Part Time Love" is a Chicago blues standard that the horn section blows sky high, accompanying Bonamassa's licks. "It's My Time" is a Josh Smith composition that employs Connor's enticing voice talking about her life. "Forty years is a long time but I just wanted what was mine," she says, then sings repeatedly, "It's my time," before diving into a tandem slide guitar solo with Bonamassa to conclude the album.
"The Blues Rock Show": Interview with Joanna Connor - Beginnings, Slide, 4801 South Indiana Avenue.
Joanna Connor's Official Website
Mullens, Terry. Blues Blast Magazine, 21 November 2015. Featured interview with Joanna Connor.
"Sunday Cup of Joe Presents," Episode 4, 2021: The Making of 4801 South Indiana Avenue. Interviews with Joanna Connor and Joe Bonamassa (Joe Bonamassa website)
Witten, Willie. "4801 South Indiana Avenue Review," Blues Rock Review, February 10, 2021
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