Joanna Connor is a blues guitarist and bandleader of her own Joanna Connor Band. Her style is solid slide guitar, played in vigorous grooves. She is a singer-songwriter, and most of her repertoire are her own compositions, blended with songs of legendary soul- and blues artists.
She was born in New York, grew up in Massachusetts, and finally settled down in Chicago, the city of her dreams. Encouraged by her mother, she started to play saxophone in school bands, and later in her own band. But the love of electric blues guitar, performed by touring Chicago blues artists, touring in her hometown Worcester, made her switch to guitars. Eventually in the 90s, she matured into a lead guitar star and begun touring all over Europe. She returned to Chicago with the decision to raise her two children, as her top priority. She accepted an offer of a steady engagement at Kingston Mines, to play every Tuesday, plus several weekends a month. Her latest recording, Six String Stories, was her 11th release, and her first in 14 years. Yours Truly met Joanna at the Kingston Mines, where she gave this interview, in one of Chicago’s smallest dressing room.
I kind of imagine that you were a schoolgirl who wanted to speed up the guitar lessons.
- Yes, I was! The teacher told me all the time; “slow down, slow down”, ha, ha ha!
Was it rock’n’roll that hit you first?
- You know, it’s funny. My mother was a big influence on me musically. She was really into music, and she played blues and jazz, from the time I can remember being on the earth. Her big favourite was jazz, her second favourite was blues, and she liked rock too. I was born in 1962, so I heard all the stuff from the 60’s. She loved The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. The first album that I really loved was Taj Mahal’s Take A Giant Step. Yeah, though I’m a rocker in my heart, I love the blues and jazz. And it’s really deep, because of my mom.
When about were you ready to play yourself?
- Well I started playing saxophone first. And I played it in like all the school bands growing up. But then I picked up the guitar when I was 14. And I took home guitar lessons from a guy in Massachusetts. He showed me how to play acoustic guitar. A lot of ragtime, like Blind Blake. And he showed me the slide, like Robert Johnson. But I was also a singer, and I had my first professional band was when I was 17. I played in clubs, with guys older than me. I was still singing and kind of playing rhythm guitar. We did like Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, and stuff like that.
But then I got into my first blues band, with a guy from New York named Danny Russo. He was a harmonica player who came up to Massachusetts, and my band backed him up. That’s when people started showing me the electric blues stuff. Like Fathers and Sons by Muddy Waters. A lot of Howlin’ Wolf, and other Chicago electric blues. I just played rhythm guitar, I didn’t play any lead yet. But it was a good training, so I didn’t start to play any lead guitar until I was like 23. I could not figure it out yet. I really focused a lot on rhythm guitar and backing up people. Then I got into Stax artists like Ann Peebles stuff, and Al Green recordings. Then I got into another band, which was more blues than r&b. That was when I was like 19. So, since then it is what it’s been.
Was it strange to switch to electric guitar?
- Electric guitar was different. It was easier to play than acoustic, but it was a whole different approach. Like I said, I didn’t really play lead first, but when I did play lead I couldn’t stop.
The reason I moved to Chicago was because I loved Blues. And I started to see a lot of Chicago blues bands coming to Boston. Like James Cotton, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks. All of those touring stars. And I used to follow them, though I wasn’t old enough to be there at the concerts. I just said; “I want to move to Chicago”! I had a pretty successful band back home, but I decided that I wanted to learn how to really play guitar. And I wanted to find a guy in Chicago that I really liked, and be in his band! I kept watching people and there were tons of great players back then. The main reason that I moved to Chicago, was that I started to figure out, that I had to put things together more. So I went out every single night, just to watch people. It was like a school.
It was around 1985 that I found Dion Payton and the 43rd Street Blues Band. I wanted to play with that guy, and I kept haunting him. He was like; “Leave me alone girl, who are you”? But anyway, he let me sit in when he played with Lonnie Brooks back then. Lonnie would let me sit in, and Dion was kind of okay with that.
So I played in Dion Paytons band at the Checkerboard Lounge every weekend. Buddy Guy owned it back then. Then we played at Kingston Mines every Thursday. Like in around 1988, the owner of the Kingston Mines, “Doc” Pellegrino, offered me to play my own all night on Tuesdays. I didn’t think I was ready, but I took it. That’s what kind of started my own band.
Was it unusual that a girl would be the leader of a blues band?
- Yes it was. I mean, Bonnie Raitt was out there. But she was more known for her singing, though her slide playing is great. And there was also Debbie Davies, who played with Albert Collins. We played gigs together, when my band opened up for Albert for about a year. We travelled together and she was the first other woman I had seen on lead guitar. Sue Foley came along, and there was just like the three of us, that I knew of. And yeah, that was unusual to decide to become a bandleader
Was it difficult to pick musicians here around Chicago?
- There were so many good musicians here. But some of the guys I wanted didn’t want to do it. Or some guys would just come in and then quit. But as I started to get more work, and started to go out on the road. And Blind Pig Records came along and signed me. Then I could have really good musicians. The thing in my life was that I always looked for people to play with, that I thought were better than me. Because I felt like that’s how I would be better, to have better people around me.
Was Blind Pig the first record company that signed you?
- With Blind Pig I did Believe It, in 1989. Then I switched when I met Thomas Ruf in Europe He has Ruf Records now. We recorded Fight in 1992. It was just called Joanna Connor Band in Europe, and we licensed it to Blind Pig. Then we did a live CD in 1995 that we recorded in Germany, called Living on the Road. And that was on one German label named In-Akustik.
When Thomas started his own label, I was the second artist that he recorded. I did Rock’n’Roll Gypsy in Germany, in 1993. They also released Big Girl Blues in 1996. Then I did Slide Time with Blind Pig in 1998. My next one was another live CD in Europe, called Nothing but the Blues, on In-Akustik. That was in 2001, I’m trying to remember all this. One was Mercury Blues on CD Baby in 2003. But I did a record with MC Records in 2002, just called The Joanna Connor Band, which was also released on MCR Records. My latest release, in 2016, is on MC Records and called Six Strings Stories.
How do you like the situation playing in a studio?
- I’m still not used to it, because I don’t do it enough. So, I think when I get into the studio, it’s sort of a weird atmosphere to me. Because I’m used to the audience, go for good or for bad. And I’m used to the sound on the stage. When I’m in the studio, it feels a little sterile to me. The headphones, and the whole thing. But I just made my new record with my bassist, Marion Lance Lewis, who also was my drummer for years. He put together the record, and I went in with him. We wrote the songs together, it was just the two of us. That was the most relaxed production that I ever experienced. And the first record in a long time, 14 years.
You must have a solid touring experience?
- My first out of town gig was in Michigan. Then I got an agency out of Boston, called Concerted Efforts. We went all over the country, everywhere. And then I played a lot of festivals, like The Chicago Blues Festival. Then came that call from Thomas Ruf. He had a woman named Kanika Kress, who was also from Chicago. She left him in the middle of a tour. But he wanted another woman guitarist, so he decided to bring me. That was the beginning of all through the 90’s. I played in Europe many, many times, when I begun my association with Thomas Ruf. That meant touring a lot with Luther Allison and his son Bernard Allison. I must have been in Europe like 40 times in the 90’s. Playing a lot of major festivals and clubs. We travelled with everything possible. Cars, ferry-boats, buses and a lot of trains. Luther Allison had a van. And I played with Screaming Jay Hawkins on a tour with him, before I got back to USA. I finally made up my mind about staying in Chicago and quit the road.
Don’t you still tour some in the states?
- For the last 10 years I’ve been playing here at Kingston Mines. In 2005 they gave me one night a week. Then I worked up to three nights a week. So now, I’ve been really blessed, playing here 3 nights a week. I got like one weekend off a month. And I play at the House of Blues every Monday. So I have 4 nights a week of steady gigs. And I’ve been doing some international travelling in between.
I have two children. My son is 28, he’s grown. My daughter is 19. When she came along I grabbed the gig here at Kingston Mines. You know, I had to get out of the road. For one, the road kind of shrunk, the tours in the states got harder. And when 9/11 happened, all the economy went down. The water hole clubs closed down. Those were one factor why I stopped touring. But the other thing is that I wanted to be home with my daughter. She’s actually a very competitive basketball player. That took up a lot of my time, and her time too. It paid off, because she signed a scholarship for basketball pro college at Indiana State University. So, I’m free! I have a job here, I’m very lucky for that!
Didn’t you ever have any ambitions of becoming a superstar?
- I used to! Yes I did, of course. I think everybody who picks up a guitar has dreams of it. I mean, I was really focused on making it. But now I don’t care. I just want to play music, and be happy with living a simple life. I don’t have those aspirations anymore. I admit that if it happens, it would be great. If it doesn’t, I don’t care. I feel like it’s not the key to my happiness. I did a lot of things. I travelled amounts of places, all over the world. And I feel that’s enough.
I kind of feel like, not retirement, but kind of feel like I’m free to do what I want to. Because I don’t have to worry about my two kids so much. I mean I really love them. But I had to work, and work, and work before. Just to stay alive. Now it’s like to pick and to chose more of what I want to do. So I’ll see, I’m kind of leaving it out there. And see where the universe takes me, he, he
Please tell me about your guitars, amps and equipments.
- I only have two electrical guitars and two acoustics. I have a Les Paul, which I have been playing since 1990, pretty much exclusively. And I have an SG and a couple of acoustics. And that’s it. I don’t have a lot of guitars. I use just one for sliding that I play in standard tuning. But sometimes I D-tune it also. I like Peavey amps. And I have a Supro Amp, when I got endorsed by them. It’s a nice little tube-amp. And I use that on the road more. Yeah, I keep that one here, so I don’t have to be moving amps too much.
To take it home with, is there anything in your career that would be a highlight?
- Oh gosh, that’s a big question. I would say the first time I was at The Checkerboard Lounge. I had only been in Chicago a few months. I was playing with Dion Payton and we backed up Buddy Guy. I saw Buddy Guy for the first time when I was 10 years old. And he was always a big influence on me. He came to me and he said; “I want that girl back there to come out and play with me”! And we had a guitar battle. I thought I was going to faint. I think it was so thrilling and such an honour. That is probably one of my highlights. But it’s been a lot, you know. I’d played with B.B. King, I played with Luther Allison, James Cotton, Junior Wells. And I played with Screaming Jay Hawkins. I opened up for ZZ Top and I opened up for Joe Cocker. I played with Jimmy Page here one night. So it’s been a lot of really nice things. But I think the best thing is that I live in a town like this. Where I can have guys like Lurrie Bell would come and sit in. Which is just tremendous!