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, California
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,
Waters, Little Walter,
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.
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
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.
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.