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Johnny B. Moore - Born Johnny Belle Moore on January 24, 1950, in Clarksdale, MS; son of Floyd Moore (a Baptist minister).
Life's Work Blues music has both urban and rural aspects: born in the plantations and sharecroppers' fields of Mississippi, the music moved north to Chicago and other northern cities. In the music of some of its greatest practitioners, the blues have seemed to tell a tale of migration, of a displaced people coming to terms with a hard life in a new place. The music of Johnny B. Moore, a contemporary Chicago blues player, maintains strong links to the first-generation Chicago music of Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and their contemporaries, who came north from the Mississippi River Delta. When Moore performs, blues fans flock to Chicago clubs to hear music that sounds much like what might have been played in the 1960s in a blues bar on the South or West sides of the city.
On January 24, 1950, Johnny Belle Moore was, as the title of one of his album releases proclaimed, born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which is located squarely in the middle of the Mississippi Delta region. Moore's musical talent began to be noticed shortly after his Baptist minister father, Floyd Moore, began teaching him to play the guitar at age seven. The first piece he learned to play was John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen," and as a youngster he also admired and was influenced by the style of guitarist Magic Sam. Another early influence was gospel music: Moore performed in Clarksdale with the Spiritual Harmonism and Soul Revival gospel groups, and even after moving to Chicago he continued to perform church music with a group called the Gospel Keys.
Transformed From Factory Worker to Musician
Moore followed his father north to Chicago in 1964, bringing the blues sounds of the Delta with him. He learned to read music while attending high school in Chicago. Another aspect of his musical education was a series of record-listening sessions with Letha Jones, the widow of blues pianist Johnny Jones. In the late 1960s Moore found work in a lamp factory, but he continued to play the blues after working hours. Sometimes he performed with Jimmy Reed, whom he had met in Clarksdale when he was eight years old, and he played with the Charles Spiers band and other groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Moore's transformation from factory worker to full-time blues musician became complete in 1975 when he became lead guitarist of the Blues Machine, the band of rough-voiced singer Koko Taylor. The job gave him the credibility to work smaller clubs as the headliner of a trio, but in the rough-and-tumble world of the blues, that wasn't always a good thing. Moore told Metromix.com writer Kevin McKeough that he had once played "in a place called the Domino Lounge over on Roosevelt and Western. It was owned by a man called Iron Joe, he got killed in that place the same night we was working there." Things brightened a bit when Moore began to record with Taylor, and his lead guitar style can be heard on her 1978 album The Earthshaker.
Touring with Taylor and later with guitarist Willie Dixon, Moore began to play in safer environments. He went on three European tours with Taylor and two with Dixon, in whose band he served until Dixon's death in 1992. Back in Chicago, Moore welcomed the more sedate atmosphere he found in the city's blues clubs. "It's much better, the people appreciate you more," he told McKeough. "Back then, they didn't have any respect for you, they'd get to fighting and knock your stuff over. Just to get those few dollars, that's what I'd have to do."
Recorded Unusual Mississippi Repertoire
As an increasingly identifiable fixture on the Chicago blues scene, Moore appeared on his own more and more often. His first album, Hard Times, appeared in 1987 on the B.L.U.E.S. label marketed by a local nightclub; it was praised by the Down Home Guide to the Blues as a "fine debut album featuring some good originals along with some impressive updatings of a couple of songs from the 30s." Both on recordings and in his live performances, Moore drew on a songbag filled during his early years with unusual and fascinating items from the pre-Chicago years of the blues.
In the 1990s Moore recorded five more albums of his own and appeared on several compilations including: Johnny B. Moore (1996), Live at Blue Chicago (1996), and Troubled World (1997) for Chicago's Delmark label, and 911 Blues (1997) and Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi (2001) for the Wolf label in Austria. Reviewers praised Moore's stylistic versatility and his ability to evoke the Delta sound in an electric context. "Moore clearly knows what the blues is about," wrote Guitar Player of Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, "and he could easily teach upcoming blues wunderkinds a lesson or two about feel."
European blues historian Gérard Herzhaft concurred, noting that "[Moore's] albums reflect a strong Delta flavor that is refreshing in the present blues scene, dominated by rock or funk overtones." Some critics have found Moore's live performances wooden in comparison with those of flashy musicians such as Buddy Guy. The website Lycos.com complained that Moore "conducts himself with undue restraint," and the Chicago Reader, while praising Moore's "dexterity, imagination, and taste" on the guitar, commented that "his singing ... is stiff, and so is his stage presence, which explains why he's never transcended journeyman status despite his stellar chops."
Live Album Recorded in Basement
The Live at Blue Chicago album, recorded in a club basement, featured Moore in largely acoustic or lightly amplified arrangements of classic blues pieces and Moore originals, but even in a fully electric setting the Delta flavor of Moore's playing was clearly evident. He often used a bottleneck in his guitar improvisations, and his guitar playing was filled with evocations of Mississippi and Chicago blues masters such as Dixon, Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, and others.
Moore's solo activities in the early 2000s included an appearance at the Chicago Bluesfest in 2002 and numerous appearances on albums by other blues artists. "If Johnny B. Moore isn't a star in the making," argued the All Music Guide's Bill Dahl, "there's no justice in the world." Moore's progress to the top levels of the blues world has been gradual, but aficionados already know that by listening closely to his performances and recordings they can peel back and examine many of the layers that the blues have accumulated since the music was born.