While Johnny Jenkins's name never reached the heights of his contemporaries, his flamboyant guitar style backed the earliest recordings of Otis Redding and influenced Jimi Hendrix's technical flourish. Jenkins fronted the Pinetoppers in the late 1950s, had brief chart success with "Love Twist" in 1961, and recorded Ton-Ton Macoute! with members of the All-man Brothers Band in 1970 (released 1972). After 1970 Jenkins, bitter over what he considered ill-treatment by his manager, retired from the music business for the next 25 years. In 1996, however, he returned with Blessed Blues, another winning album featuring his heartfelt blues style. "I thought my entire world rotated around Johnny Jenkins' guitar," Phil Walden told the London Independent in 1996. "I was convinced he could have been the greatest thing in rock 'n' roll."
Jenkins was born in Macon, Georgia, on March 5, 1939, and grew up in rural Swift Creek. He listened to R&B, hillbilly, and blues on a small battery-powered radio, and built his first guitar by combining a cigar box and rubber bands when he was nine. Left handed, he played the guitar upside down, a method he stuck with after his sister bought him a real guitar. Jenkins absorbed the music of his day, from Bill Doggett to Chuck Berry, and played at a local gas station for tips.
Jenkins formed the Pinetoppers in the late 1950s, a band that eventually included rhythm guitarist Samuel Davis, drummer Willie Bowden, saxophonist Ish Mosley, and singer Otis Redding. When Phil Walden heard the Pinetoppers on a local radio show, he began working as the band's agent, booking the group at fraternity and high school parties. In 1961 the Pinetoppers had a regional hit with "Love Twist" on Tifco Records, selling 25,000 copies. The recording was eventually distributed by Atlantic Records.
When Jenkins and the Pinetoppers returned to the studio for a follow-up session in 1962, nothing went well. The band recorded two tracks, "Spunky" and "Bashful Guitar," but still had 40 minutes of studio time to fill ("Spunky" and "Bashful Guitar" were released by Vox in 1964). During that 40 minutes, Otis Redding recorded "These Arms of Mine," with Jenkins on guitar and Steve Cropper on piano. This single helped launch Redding's career, and he received a recording contract. Jenkins, left out of the deal, was asked to form part of Redding's backing band, but he refused, primarily because of his fear of flying, but also because he believed the plane they planned to use was unsafe. His fears would later seem like a powerful portent when Redding's plane crashed, killing the singer, on December 10, 1967.
After parting with Redding, Jenkins returned home and worked a number of jobs to support his family, restricting his music to local venues. In 1969 Jenkins was invited to play with Jimi Hendrix at The Scene, a New York club owned by Steve Paul. Hendrix had seen Jenkins play while visiting relatives in Macon, and many commentators later noted the influence. "Jimi Hendrix admitted to having sat at his feet, copying everything he played," Phil Walden told Fred Shuster in the Los Angeles Daily News. "They both played the same way: upside down and left-handed. Johnny was playing the guitar behind his head and with his teeth back in 1958."
Walden asked Jenkins to record an album in 1970 to be issued on his fledgling Capricorn Records. Jenkins received the backing of several members of the Allman Brothers Band, including slide guitarist Duane Allman. Ton-Ton Macoute! was well received, and many cited Jenkins's exemplary version of Dr. John's "I Walk on Guilded Splinters" (also cited as the template for Beck's "Loser"). "What a fine bowl of Southern gumbo this Johnny Jenkins disc is," noted James Chrispell in All Music Guide. Other standout tracks included "Sick and Tired" and "Voodoo in You." But the album was held back until 1972 and did little to advance Jenkins's career, and he later complained that Walden, distracted by his work with the Allman Brothers, failed to promote the album. Ultimately, Jenkins' experience with the recording left him bitter. Jenkins told Shuster, "I was so hurt because of what happened to me during and after that album. There were a lot of bad feelings. They kept me in the dark about a lot of things. I was just a poor country boy with no education."
Other misunderstandings also marred Jenkins and Walden's relationship. In 1970 Jenkins was scheduled to play the Atlantic Pop Festival before 200,000 people. "We rehearsed for weeks," Walden told Shuster, "and then Johnny got up there and abandoned everything we had worked on and began to play songs. I was a little startled and confused to say the least."
Following the recording, Jenkins dropped out of the music business for the next 25 years. He stayed at home with his wife and children, and while he was frequently invited to perform, he refused. Jenkins strongly disapproved of drug use, and avoided old musician friends who were involved with them.
When Jenkins returned to recording in the mid-1990s, it surprised many that he was working, once again, with Walden. "I was always willing to forgive and forget because holding grudges never paid off for anyone," he told Shuster. After reaching an agreement concerning money, Jenkins felt confident about going forward with the project. Walden gave the green light for Jenkins to choose his own players and own material, allowing him full artistic control. The results, Blessed Blues, revealed the singer-guitarist still at the top of his form, delivering rough and ready renditions of "Statesboro Blues," "Don't Start Me Talkin'," and a new version of his own "Miss Thing."
Following his 1996 comeback album, Jenkins recorded Handle With Care in 2001 and All in Good Time in 2005, both on Mean Old World Records and featuring many originals. He died of a stroke on June 26, 2006. "Guitarist, singer and songwriter Johnny Jenkins may have had a long pause between records," noted Richard Skelly in All Music Guide, "but his heart, ears and mind were always close to blues music."
Ton Ton Macoute!, Capricorn, 1972.
Blessed Blues, Capricorn, 1996.
Handle With Care, Mean Old World, 2001.
All in Good Time, Mean Old World, 2005.
For the Record …
Born Johnny Jenkins on March 5, 1939, in Macon, GA; died on June 26, 2006.
Formed the Pinetoppers, late 1950s; Pinetoppers' "Love Twist" became a regional hit, 1961; backed Otis Redding on "These Arms of Mine," 1962; performed with Jimi Hendrix at The Scene in New York City, 1969; issued Ton Ton Macoute!, 1972; released Blessed Blues, 1996, Handle With Care, 2001, and All in Good Time, 2005.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), August 28, 1996.
Independent (London, England), July 1, 2006.
"Johnny Jenkins," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (June 9, 2006).
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