Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival
08/15/14: Big Jack Johnson tribute rockets into history

CLARKSDALE – The Sunflower River Blues Festival’s tribute to Big Jack Johnson rocketed into history with a Blues Trail marker affirming his importance among legends to the Saturday finale packed with musical talent rarely assembled together on one stage.

     “It was truly awesome,” commented Norwegian festival leader Jostein Forsberg, who participated in the celebration that required two drum sets on stage.

Anthony Sherrod, front man for the Big Jack Johnson Band holds high Big Jack's personal guitar.

Among the musicians honoring Big Jack were his core band, the Cornlickers from Pennsylvania led by Anthony Sherrod; Jack’s grandson Elvis Williams from California playing keyboard with members of his own group; vocalist/guitarist Carlos Elliott from Columbia, South America; poet/sax player Dick Lourie of Boston; Jostein Forsberg playing harmonica; Terry “Big T” Williams, Lee Williams, and Otis Taylor, all of Clarksdale.


Kicking off the "Remembering Big Jack Johnson" program with colorful stories and remembrances  Saturday afternoon  is a core group including (from left) Anthony Sherrod, Red Paden, Dale Wise, Angenette Johnson, Pocow Johnson, his granddaughter; Mark Carpentieri, president of M. C. Records; and Elvis Williams, grandson of Big Jack.


  Wearing Big Jack t-shirts, an army of Johnsons including his 10 children, 32 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren plus scores of friends filled the VIP tent for storytelling and remembrances of the Oilman.

Kicking off the "Remembering Big Jack Johnson" program with colorful stories and remembrances  Saturday afternoon  is a core group including (from left) Anthony Sherrod, Red Paden, Dale Wise, Angenette Johnson, Pocow Johnson, his granddaughter; Mark Carpentieri, president of M. C. Records; and Elvis Williams, grandson of Big Jack.

“The acoustic stage was one of the best we’ve ever had,” commented Maie Smith, Sunflower booking chairman.

   Opening Saturday morning was revered guitarist Eddie Cusic followed by Pat Thomas celebrating his upcoming birthday and the explosive bluesman Lucious Spiller earning standing ovations and pleas for overtime.

Explosive bluesman Lucious Spiller reigns over the Saturday morning acoustic stage.

When it appeared certain Spiller was man of the hour, 81-year-old Leo “Bud” Welch challenged favored status with his “laying down his burden” gospel combined with dancing and a blues yearning for his neighbor’s wife.

Leo "Bud" Welch, 81, may have unseated Spiller as king of the acoustic stage.

 Jimmy “Duck” Holmes showcased a lesson in the Bentonia style of blues, and Shardee Turner and her Rising Star Fife and Drum band continued her grandfather’s tradition of closing out the Sunflower acoustic stage.

Blues Music Award winner Johnny Rawls invites Clarksdale's music prodigy Kingfish on stage with him Friday night.

    Starring on Friday night’s main stage was Kingfish, the phenomenal 15-year-old guitarist, who appeared later with Johnny Rawls, Blues Singer of the Year award recipient named by Living Blues magazine.

  The reunited Stone Gas Band, formed originally by the late Arthneice Jones, performed with Deon and Harvell Thomas, Howard Stovall, and harp virtuoso Billy Gipson of Memphis, and soul giant Latimore closed out the show with “Let’s Straighten it Out.”

Playing his harmonica, Norwegian festival leader and leader of the Spoonful of Blues Band Josteiein Forsberg (leff) joins Super Chikan Johnson on stage Saturday night.

  Super Saturday night performers included Dave Dunavant, Kenny Brown, Heather Crosse, Super Chikan and his dynamite ladies just back from a successful gig at the Notodden International Festival in Norway plus Jostein Forsberg playing again with him in Clarksdale; Jimbo Mathus who featured Cedell Davis and “Bud” Welch with his band; and Home Made Jamz Blues Band of Tupelo, all grown up now since their debut as children on national television.

Dodging rain and blessed with cool temperatures, the Sunday Gospel Festival showcased a variety of styles from the W. A. Higgins Academy of Arts Choir to the Chapel Hill Male Chorus and the Myles Family.

Receiving the prestigious Julius Guy Gospel Heritage Award are members of the Sons of Wonder Group from Friars Point.

  The Sons of Wonder from Friars Point won the prestigious Julius Guy Gospel Heritage Award, and the Gospel Four from Memphis gave an electrifying headlining performance to close down the stage.

Big Jack Johnson Band members - the Cornlickerks - of Harrisburg, Pa., performing at the Sunflower Festival finale - and Red Paden, owner of Red's Blues Club, share memories of the Oilman before Friday's unveiling of the Blues Trail Marker, The marker is Clarksdale and  Coahoma County's 14th and Mississippi's largest number in one location, according to Kappi Allen, Coahoma Tourism director,  and Mary Margaret White, state tourism official.

More than 200 including Angenette Johnson, wife of Big Jack, and Red Paden, his best friend, plus many other Johnson family members, friends, and blues fans witness the dramatic unveiling of the Big Jack Johnson Marker heralding the Oilman the most "original bluesman alive" by music critic Robert Palmer

On stage Saturday, Angenette Johnson, wife of Big Jack, speaks during an emotionally charged tribute to her husband by super talented musicians.

Electrifying the gospel festival with a high-energy finale Sunday  are members of The Gospel Four from Memphis.

Martin Marsh of HPI-LLP of Houston, Tex., accepts the Sunflower Festival's most prestigious award, the Early Wright Blues Heritage Award, for his boss, Harold Ponte, one of the country's top energy officials, longtime supporter of the festival, and great friend of the late Melville Tillis, festival co-chairman. Presenting the award is Maie Smith, festival booking chairman.

Review and photos by Panny Flautt Mayfield

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