Back Alley John
|Back Alley John|
|Birth name||John Carl David Wilson|
|Born||February 10, 1955|
|Origin||Ottawa, Ontario, Canada|
|Died||June 22, 2006(aged 51)|
|Occupations||Blues singer, songwriter, harmonica player|
|Associated acts||Back Alley John Revue
The Blue Lights
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. In 1980 together with guitarist Drew Nelson and drummer Sandy Smith, also professionally known as "Sandy Bone", the Back Alley John Revue was formed. 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, 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 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. 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.
The popularity of The Back Alley John Revue grew beyond Ottawa. The group toured Canada on several occasions, but did not release an album.
In 1987 the band reformed under the name "The Blue Lights", including Sandy Smith on drums, plus Drew Nelson and Sue Foley on guitars. The group became the house band of an establishment in Hull, Quebec that was regularly frequented by local musicians and many who were on tour.(citation required) Jeff Healey, Tom Lavin and Emmett "Maestro" Sanders 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 John's song "Mr. Postman" on the A side and Sue Foley singing Big Bill Broonzy's "All By Myself" on the B side.(citation required)
- 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.
In 1988, Back Alley John fell seriously ill and decided to relocate to Calgary, Alberta, to be near his brother Peter. 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. 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. Former Ottawa bandmate Sandy Smith joined Back Alley John in Calgary, playing and recording with him regularly.
Back Alley John's 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. Johnson had been housemates with Back Alley John and Billy Cowsill, the latter who had also produced 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.
Illness and death
- Music is life. Anything less would be uncivilized.
- Frequently-expressed sentiment of Back Alley John
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."
Back Alley John died in Calgary, Alberta on June 22, 2006.
Tributes: 2006 and 2008
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. Drew Nelson included "Please Come Home", a song co-written in the 1980s with Back Alley John, on Nelson's 2014 album, The Other Side.
- Sampler, Volume 1 (2007) Killfloor Records
- Live at the Duke (2005) Back Alley John and The Tra La Las
- One-Way Ticket to Palookaville (1997)
- More A Feeling Than A Living (1995)
- Out On The Highway (1993)
- "Mr. Postman" (1987) Single, with The Blue Lights
- Share CHEZ 83 (1983) CHEZ-FM : A compilation album containing one Back Alley John song, "Nothing to Show".
- Nicole Wilson, Profile of Back Alley John; www.calgarybluesfest.com. Profile in relation to receipt of Calgary Blues Music Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award, 2008. Nicole Wilson is identified as Back Alley John's niece. Retrieved 2014-08-18.
- 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. Beatroute.ca.
- G. Burke, Q & A with Sandybone, The G Zine, January 23, 2013. Retrieved 2014-08-05. Smith would later co-found The Twisters, in Vancouver.
- Biography of Drew Nelson; www.drewnelson.ottawamusicscene.com. Retrieved 2014-08-19.
- Chateau Lafayette House website; www.thelaff.ca. Retrieved 2014-08-19.
- Danielle Hatch Peoria blues guitarist spent life playing music he loved. Peoria Journal Star, May 16, 2013. Retrieved 2014-08-19.
- Beat Route Magazine, June, 2010; www.beatroute.ca.[dead link]
- "Blues scene remembers 'real deal' Back Alley John". Canada.com. 2006-06-28. Retrieved 2014-06-14.
- Profile of Tim Williams; www.cayusemusic.com. Retrieved 2014-08-18.
- See, for example, Credits to One Way Ticket to Palookaville; www.backalleyjohn.com. Retrieved 2014-08-05.
- "Back-Alley John". Members.tripod.com. Retrieved 2014-06-14.
- "Real Blues Magazine". realbluesmagazine.com. Retrieved 2014-06-14.
- Canadian Real Blues Awards Winners, Loose Blues News, 1999; www.torontobluessociety.com. (dead link)
- Ralph Boyd Johnson website; www.moose-meadow.com. Retrieved 2014-08-24.
- "Reviews". Moose-meadow.com. Retrieved 2014-06-14.
- Amy Nakaska, Ralph Boyd Johnson sings about home, The Three Hills Capital, June 15, 2011. Retrieved 2014-08-21. At the time, Johnson had released his second album, 1723 9th Street SW, which was the address of the house where he, Back Alley John and Billy Cowsill lived, along with Mick Joy, who played bass regularly with Back Alley John, and drummer Duris Maxwell.
- 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 being a major influence and mentor. Calgary blues harmonica player Dylan MacDonald also cites Back Alley John as a mentor.
- Rick Overwater, Back Alley John - A blues legend remembered. BeatRoute Magazine, July, 2006. www.beatroute.ca.(dead link)
- Some of Back Alley John's last recordings may be found on "Sampler, Volume 1" from Calgary-based Killfloor Records, which appears to be inactive as of 2014.
- On April 22, 2006. Fan comment ("Canadian Rawker") posted on Back Alley John MySpace site, June 28, 2006.
- "RootsWeb: CAN-BC-OBITS-L [CAN-BC-OBITS] Vancouver Sun & The Province; August 25, 2007". Archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com. Retrieved 2014-06-14.
- "» Calgary Midwinter Bluesfest Celebrates Blues Guitar Jazz Elements: jazz & blues music blog with news, reviews, concerts & more, with a Canadian focus". Jazzelements.com. 2008-02-13. Retrieved 2014-06-14.
- Lynn Saxberg,Ottawa musician Drew Nelson releases first new album in eight years. Ottawa Citizen, July 25, 2014. Retrieved 2014-08-04.
- 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; Earshot-online.com.