Back Alley John

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Back Alley John
Back Alley John and Drew Nelson 1983 3.JPG
Back Alley John (right) and Drew Nelson, Byward Market, Ottawa, 1983
Background information
Birth name John Carl David Wilson
Born (1955-02-10)February 10, 1955
Origin Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Died June 22, 2006(2006-06-22) (aged 51)
Genres Blues
Occupations Blues singer, songwriter, harmonica player
Instruments Harmonica
Years active 1969–2006
Associated acts Back Alley John Revue
Sue Foley
Drew Nelson

Back Alley John (born John Carl David Wilson),[1] (February 10, 1955 – June 22, 2006) was a Canadian blues singer, songwriter and harmonica player.

Beginnings, 1969-1971: Ottawa to Venice, California[edit]

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."[2]

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

Deported back to Canada, Back Alley John continued to develop his harmonica and singing skills in the Ottawa area. In 1980 together with guitarist Drew Nelson and drummer Sandy Smith a.k.a. "SandyBone", the Back Alley John Revue was formed.[3] They initially played in clubs in Ottawa and nearby towns and often busked on the streets of Ottawa during the early 1980s, particularly on Saturday afternoons in Ottawa's Byward Market, playing blues for passersby in front of the historic Chateau Lafayette House tavern[4] sometimes gathering crowds numbering in the hundreds. Back Alley John's early reputation was enhanced in 1982 when he won the harmonica competition at the Ottawa Bluesfest, where the jury included Kim Wilson and John Hammond. He later performed with Kim Wilson and Hammond at Ottawa's National Arts Centre[5] and joined Albert Collins on stage during a live performance. 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 Back Alley John.[3] John identified his influences as including Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Carrie Bell, Johnny Winter, John Hammond, Norm Clark and Dutch Mason.[5]

The popularity of The Back Alley John Revue grew beyond Ottawa. The group toured Canada on several occasions, but did not release an album.[6] In 1987 the band reformed under the name "The Blue Lights" including Sandy Smith back on drums with Drew Nelson and Sue Foley on guitars landing a house gig in Hull, Quebec that was highly frequented by local musicians and many who were on tour. The likes of Jeff Healey, Tom Lavin and "The Maestro" of Koko Taylor's band were among those who showed up to play. It was at this time that The Blue Lights recorded a 45rpm with Greg Labelle's "Lowertown Records" featuring Back Alley's song "Mr. Postman" on the A side and Sue Foley Singing "All By Myself" (credited to Big Bill Broonzy) on the B side.

1988-2006: Calgary[edit]

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.[7]

It was in Calgary that Back Alley John developed his recording career, releasing four independently-distributed albums, at one time distributed by Festival Distribution, though apparently no longer, based on search of site on September 27, 2008. Back Alley John's records were generally produced or co-produced by Tim Williams, who is both a producer and performer, well known in blues and folk music circles.[8] 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.[9] In 1999, he was a "Canadian Real Blues Award" winner, cited by Real Blues Magazine[10] as the Best Canadian Unsigned Talent.[11] 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.[12]

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.

Illness and death[edit]

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,[13] Back Alley John literally played the blues until his last breath. He continued to record and to contribute to the recordings of others.[14] Two months before his death, having "flatlined in an ambulance, he somehow made his way to (Calgary's) Ambassador Motor Inn,[15] where he got onstage for a final performance.[16] '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.'"[7] As the late[17] 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."[13]

He died in Calgary, Alberta in June 2006.

Tributes: 2006 and 2008[edit]

On Canada Day, 2006, a memorial concert was held in Calgary in honour of Back Alley John.[7]

In February, 2008, Back Alley John was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame of the Calgary Blues Music Association.[18]


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.[19]



  1. ^ [1][dead link]
  2. ^ Heath McCoy, Blues scene remembers 'real deal' Back Alley John. Calgary Herald, June 28, 2006. Predecessor Canadian blues singer and harmonica player, King Biscuit Boy was similarly named by others - in his case, by Ronnie Hawkins. Back Alley John recounted that he did not run away from home, as his brother recalls; he was thrown out, at the age of thirteen. See Rick Overwater, Back Alley John - A blues legend remembered (though Wilson is referred to as "Williams"). BeatRoute Magazine, July, 2006.
  3. ^ a b [2][dead link]
  4. ^ [3][dead link]
  5. ^ a b [4][dead link]
  6. ^ [5][dead link]
  7. ^ a b c "Blues scene remembers 'real deal' Back Alley John". 2006-06-28. Retrieved 2014-06-14. 
  8. ^ [6][dead link]
  9. ^ "Back-Alley John". Retrieved 2014-06-14. 
  10. ^ "Real Blues Magazine". Retrieved 2014-06-14. 
  11. ^ [7][dead link]
  12. ^ "Reviews". Retrieved 2014-06-14. 
  13. ^ a b [8][dead link]
  14. ^ [9][dead link]
  15. ^
  16. ^ On April 22, 2006. Fan comment ("Canadian Rawker") posted on Back Alley John MySpace site, June 28, 2006.
  17. ^ "RootsWeb: CAN-BC-OBITS-L [CAN-BC-OBITS] Vancouver Sun & The Province; August 25, 2007". Retrieved 2014-06-14. 
  18. ^ "» Calgary Midwinter Bluesfest Celebrates Blues Guitar Jazz Elements: jazz & blues music blog with news, reviews, concerts & more, with a Canadian focus". 2008-02-13. Retrieved 2014-06-14. 
  19. ^ [10][dead link]
  20. ^ Based on year of initial chart position (number 5 of top 10 folk/roots/blues records, week of November 15, 2005) at campus radio CJSW, Calgary;

External links[edit]