Back Alley John

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Back Alley John (born John Carl David Wilson), (February 10, 1955 June 22, 2006) was a Canadian blues singer, songwriter and harmonica player.

Beginnings, 1969-1971: Ottawa to Venice, CaliforniaBack Alley John

Born into a strict military family in Ottawa, Ontario, the young John Wilson rebelled and ran away from home, travelling to Venice Beach, California at the age of 14 in a stolen truck. He stayed in Venice for approximately two years, making a living as a busking harmonica player, and it was in Venice that he acquired the name 'Back Alley John'. As his brother, Peter Wilson, recalls, 'When he got (to Venice), he needed money and he had been playing harmonica since he was little, so he started busking. The street people there kind of took him under their wing and they said 'Listen John, you can't busk on the street 'cause you'll get arrested. You've gotta busk in the back alleys.' So he busked in the back alleys of Venice for a couple of years and that's how he was named Back Alley John.'

1971-1988: Venice to Ottawa and The Back Alley John Revue

Deported back to Canada, Back Alley John continued to develop his harmonica and singing skills in the Ottawa area. Back Alley John's early reputation was enhanced when he won the harmonica competition at the Ottawa Bluesfest, where the jury included Muddy Waters and John Hammond. He later performed with Waters and Hammond at Ottawa's National Arts Centre. He identified his influences as including Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Carey  Bell, Johnny Winter, John Hammond, Norm Clark and Dutch Mason.

In 1980, with guitarist Drew Nelson, he co-founded the Back Alley John Revue. They initially played in Ottawa clubs and busked on the streets of Ottawa during the early 1980s, particularly in Ottawa's Byward Market, playing blues for passersby in front of the historic Chateau Lafayette House tavern. During this period, both Back Alley John and Drew Nelson were particularly supportive of the commencement of the blues career of Sue Foley who, in 1984 at the age of sixteen, was singing and playing guitar with the Back Alley John Revue.

The popularity of The Back Alley John Revue grew beyond Ottawa. The group toured Canada on several occasions, but did not release an album.

1988-2006: Calgary

The Back Alley John Revue ended when Back Alley John fell seriously ill and in 1988 decided to relocate to Calgary, Alberta, to be near his brother Peter.

It was in Calgary that Back Alley John developed his recording career, releasing four independently-distributed albums, and where he continued to develop his reputation as a blues performance artist. His recordings were subject to significant critical acclaim. By 1998, he was considered to have become one of the finest blues recording artists in North America. In 1999, he was a 'Canadian Real Blues Award' winner, cited by Real Blues Magazine as the Best Canadian Unsigned Talent. In 2002, Calgary country and blues singer Ralph Boyd Johnson included the original song '(Hard Act to Follow) Back Alley John', referencing rougher elements of Back Alley John's life, on Johnson's debut album, Dyin' to Go.

Back Alley John remained based in Calgary for nearly twenty years, until his death. During this period, Back Alley John was noted for his generosity in sharing his talent with others. For example, blues harmonica player and vocalist Black Cherry Perry credits Back Alley John with helping Perry develop his own musical career, subsequent to the Perry's 2004 arrival in Calgary, through sharing information on harmonica playing and encouraging Black Cherry Perry to sit in at Back Alley John performances. When Back Alley John became too ill to continue as host of a weekly performance jam in Calgary, Black Cherry Perry was asked to take it over. Another Calgary musician, Sideshow Bob, credits Back Alley John as follows: 'I broke into the Calgary music scene 'a few years' ago, performing with the legendary Blues artist Back Alley John. Now can you imagine a better start to a musician's career? Not me. I learned more from Back Alley than anyone else. He is a true musician and a true friend.' Calgary blues harmonica player Dylan MacDonald cites Back Alley John as his 'harmonica mentor': 'He was a wealth of knowledge on the history of the blues, from the experience he gained by hanging and playing with the masters. I felt he was playing the real blues, not show or pop-styled blues, but the old stuff. Musically, what set John apart was his passion for the country blues style, and not glossing over the in-depth melodies and rhythms of this period of music.'

Illness and death

Back Alley John's career was cut short by respiratory disease, which resulted in him being in continuous third party care for the last two years of his life. Notwithstanding his physical challenges, which included hepatitis and severe oxygen deprivation, necessitating a wheelchair and constant use of an oxygen tank, Back Alley John literally played the blues until his last breath. He continued to record and to contribute to the recordings of others. Two months before his death, having 'flatlined in an ambulance, he somehow made his way to (Calgary's) Ambassador Motor Inn, where he got onstage for a final performance. 'He was so close to the end, really bad off, and I couldn't believe he could play,' (his brother) Peter said. 'It wasn't the John I knew, but he still sounded good. It was impressive, but it was heartwrenching, too.'' As the late Mick Joy, John's last steady bass player, close friend and roommate for seven years recalled, 'In the final days, he wasn't getting enough oxygen, but it was amazing. He could barely breathe, but he could always pick up harp and blow the harp fine. It was like a mini-miracle every time.'

He died in Calgary, Alberta in June 2006.

Tributes: 2006 and 2008

On Canada Day, 2006, a memorial concert was held in Calgary in honour of Back Alley John.

In February, 2008, Back Alley John was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame of the Calgary Blues Music Association.

Postscripts

Back Alley John's music continues to receive national radio play. Holger Petersen, founder and owner of Stony Plain Records, has been particularly supportive, through his Saturday Night Blues program on CBC Radio.

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