Willie Johnson (guitarist)

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For other people named Willie Johnson, see Willie Johnson (disambiguation).
Willie Johnson
Born (1923-03-04)March 4, 1923
Senatobia, Mississippi, United States
Died February 26, 1995(1995-02-26) (aged 71)
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Genres Electric blues, Memphis blues, rock and roll, proto-heavy rock[1]
Occupation(s) Guitarist
Instruments Guitar, electric guitar
Years active 1940s–1950s
Labels Sun Records
Associated acts Howlin' Wolf

Willie Johnson (March 4, 1923 – February 26, 1995)[2] was an American electric blues guitarist. He is best known as the principal guitarist in Howlin' Wolf's band from 1948 to 1953.[3] His raucous, distorted guitar playing features on Howlin' Wolf's Memphis recordings of 1951–3, including the hit song "How Many More Years" (recorded May 1951).[4] His early use of distortion marks him out as one of the pioneers of the electric guitar.[5] Robert Palmer has also cited him as the originator of the power chord, in reference to his guitar playing on "How Many More Years".[6] His guitar work is considered a distant ancestor of heavy metal music.[1]


Willie Lee Johnson was born in Senatobia, Mississippi.[2]

As the guitarist in the first band led by Howlin' Wolf, Johnson appeared on most of Wolf's recordings between 1951 and 1953, providing the slightly jazzy yet raucous guitar sound that was the signature of all of Wolf's Memphis recordings. Johnson also performed and recorded with other blues artists in the Memphis area, including pianist Willie Love, Willie Nix, Junior Parker, Roscoe Gordon, Bobby "Blue" Bland and others.

Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years" (1951) is considered the first record to feature a distorted power chord, played by Willie Johnson on the electric guitar.

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When Wolf moved to Chicago in around 1953, he could not convince Johnson to join him. Johnson stayed on in Memphis for several years, playing on a number of sessions for Sun Records, including a 1955 collaboration with vocalist Sammy Lewis, "I Feel So Worried", released under the name Sammy Lewis with Willie Johnson. By the time Johnson relocated to Chicago, Wolf had already hired guitarist Hubert Sumlin as a permanent replacement. James Cotton later recalled that Wolf replaced Johnson because of his heavy drinking.[7]

Johnson occasionally performed and recorded with Howlin' Wolf after settling in Chicago, and also played briefly in the band of Muddy Waters, as well as a number of other local Chicago blues musicians, including J. T. Brown, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He made his living mainly outside of music for the rest of his life, only occasionally sitting in with the bands of his old friends around Chicago.

His final recordings were made for Earwig Music in Chicago in the early 1990s.

Willie Johnson died in Chicago on February 26, 1995.[8]


Willie Johnson the guitarist should not be confused with Willie Johnson (a member of the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet until joining the Jubilaires in 1948), or with Blind Willie Johnson, an earlier gospel artist.


  1. ^ a b Miller, Jim (1980). The Rolling Stone illustrated history of rock & roll. New York: Rolling Stone. ISBN 0394513223. Retrieved July 5, 2012. Black country bluesmen made raw, heavily amplified boogie records of their own, especially in Memphis, where guitarists like Joe Hill Louis, Willie Johnson (with the early Howlin' Wolf band) and Pat Hare (with Little Junior Parker) played driving rhythms and scorching, distorted solos that might be counted the distant ancestors of heavy metal. 
  2. ^ a b Thedeadrockstarsclub.com – accessed July 2010
  3. ^ David Dicaire, Blues singers, McFarland, 1999, p. 94.
  4. ^ Edward M. Komara, Encyclopedia of the Blues, Routledge, 2006, p. 387
  5. ^ Robert Palmer, "Church of the Sonic Guitar", pp. 13–38 in Anthony DeCurtis, Present Tense, Duke University Press, 1992, p. 24.
  6. ^ Robert Palmer, "Church of the Sonic Guitar", pp. 13–38 in Anthony DeCurtis, Present Tense, Duke University Press, 1992, pp. 24–27. ISBN 0-8223-1265-4.
  7. ^ Will Romano, Incurable blues: the troubles & triumph of blues legend Hubert Sumlin, Backbeat Books, 2005, p. 25.
  8. ^ "Bman's Blues Report: Gettin Old and Grey – Howlin' Wolf w/ Willie Johnson.". Bmansbluesreport.com. February 26, 2012. Retrieved 2012-02-26.