Mr. Johnnie Billington taught students much more than music

The Sunflower River Blues Association mourns the passing of celebrated blues musician and master teacher Mr. Johnnie Billington of Lambert, who performed at numerous Sunflower Festivals including the second festival at Martin Luther King Park in 1989.

Mr. Johnnie died Monday, April 1, following an apparent heart attack. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

The recipient of the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and a Master Folk Artist designated by the National Endowment for the Arts, Mr. Johnnie taught most of the professionals performing today in Clarksdale and the Delta.

Among his first students were brothers Harvel (bass) and Deon (drums) Thomas of Quitman County.

He was an early recipient of the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive awards, and was featured in several documentaries.

Photo by Panny Flautt Mayfield

He and former Delta Blues Museum curator John Ruskey organized the Delta Blues Education program when the DBM was located inside Carnegie Public Library. He and his fledgling musicians performed in numerous locations including the White House in 2000 during President Bill Clinton’s administration.

In the early 1990s Mr. Johnnie’s students performed in Memphis before rock stars ZZ Top and also in Clarksdale Station in an exchange with members of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C.

His many admirers emphasize that Mr. Johnnie taught youngsters much more than music, instilling in them a sense of pride in their work, and requiring his students to dress professionally when they performed.

Often he organized after-school activities including lawn mowing services to generate spending money for the students.

Growing up in Quitman County, Mr. Johnnie once commented that he taught himself to play blues listening to music on the radio. He became a mechanic and worked in Chicago for General Motors and other automobile dealers before retiring and moving to Clarksdale.

Later he returned to Quitman County, lived in Lambert, but frequently played in blues clubs and events in Clarksdale and the Delta.