Special To The Mississippi Link
JACKSON – Otis Spann and Little Johnnie Jones were the latest musicians honored with a marker on Mississippi Blues Trail. The marker unveiling was at 547 South Roach Street in Jackson.
Otis Spann and Little Johnnie Jones, two of the acknowledged masters of Chicago blues piano, were cousins who lived in Jackson in the 1930s and ’40s. On the vibrant post-World War II Chicago scene they both played with blues king Muddy Waters and other luminaries and were hailed for their stellar work both as accompanists and as featured recording artists. Spann and his family lived on this block of Roach Street.
Otis Spann and Little Johnnie Jones grew up playing in church in Jackson before they focused their highly touted talents on the blues. Piano legend Little Brother Montgomery, who was based in Jackson in the 1930s and ’40s, claimed Spann and Jones as protégés, and both were also influenced later by Big Maceo in Chicago.
Spann, a longtime member of the Muddy Waters band famed for his rippling piano style and stirring vocals, recorded prolifically in his final years and was the first pianist inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980. Spann had a fondness for tall tales that resulted in a confusing biography and uncorroborated stories of certain exploits. Some records cite a birth date of March 21, 1930, in Jackson, although other documents and many musicians suggested he was older. Spann told author Paul Oliver that he came from Belzoni, where he learned from pianist Friday Ford.
His mother, Josephine Ervin Spann, played blues guitar, and his father, Frank Houston Spann, was a carpenter and pianist. (Montgomery asserted that Spann was the son of Friday Ford, however.) The Spanns lived in Jackson and Pelahatchie, and Otis was in Plain when he was first married in 1945. Spann’s claim to fame in Jackson was winning a talent contest at the Alamo Theater.
In Chicago Spann played on records by Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and others. His own records in the U.S. and England featured accompaniments from Muddy, B. B. King, Eric Clapton, and Fleetwood Mac, among others. His last wife, Lucille (1938-1994), a Bolton native, also sang and recorded with him.
Spann died in Chicago on April 24, 1970.
Little Johnnie (also spelled Johnie and Johnny) Jones was, like Spann, a well-liked, in-demand pianist in the Chicago clubs and studios. “I wind up teaching him,” Spann once said, “but he beat me at my own game.” Jones was born Johnie McPherson in Inverness on Oct. or Nov. 1, 1924. By the late 1930s he was living in Jackson with his mother, Mary, a church pianist, and his stepfather, George Jones, a truck driver and amateur guitarist. In Chicago, Jones played for several years with Tampa Red and recorded with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, and others, but was best known for his tenure with Elmore James. Jones, recalled as a fun-loving entertainer with a flair for the risque as well as deep blues, died in Chicago on Nov. 19, 1964. His widow Letha’s West Side home remained a gathering spot for musicians and their wives for decades afterwards.
Chicago was a destination point for many other blues and R&B performers who left Jackson, including Cicero Blake, brothers Hip and Jug Linkchain, Melvin Taylor, William “Dead Eye” Norris (aka Sonny Mack), Andrew Brown, the Black Lone Ranger (James Ramsey), and Buddy Scott.
Others who migrated north and west included Emmit Slay (to Detroit), Mississippi Johnny Waters (Sandifer), King Solomon, and Zac Harmon (to California), Millage Gilbert (to Kansas City), and Mel Brown (to Canada after several other stops).