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Jon Atkinson

Big Blues from Big Jon Atkinson
By T.E. Mattox

ig Jon Atkinson is a bad man. Not in the demented, hockey mask and chainsaw kind-of-way. No, Mr. Atkinson is bad in a seriously mean old, low-down and nasty, bottle-neck slide guitar blues... type of way. Oh sure, he appears innocent enough, with his harp rack and fistful of capos. But when he sits down to play, you better keep your hands up and your elbows in because he's taking you with him when he goes. Don't let the lumberjack shirt and cuffed jeans fool you, he'll come right at your head with a few quick slide riffs and then break you down with sustained, well-placed body blows. This will be your only warning. So, put in your mouthpiece and make a few plans on your way to the canvas, you're about to take a dive courtesy of Big Jon Atkinson.

Atkinson says he's packed a lot of living into a very short span of time but honestly believes it's been music that has "kept me alive and pushing forward." Jon recalls, "From the time I was born I was always heavy into music no matter what it was. My whole family at some point in their lives played music, from banjo to saxophone and drums. My father was into blues and I got my first guitar at age 14. I quickly dove deep into the instrument and loved it."

Jon Atkinson on the harmonica performing with Marty Dodson, Kim Wilson and Nathan James
Big Jon with Marty Dodson, Kim Wilson and Nathan James. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

Jon remembers exactly when the blues called his name. "The first time the music really got me, I was listening to Freddie King and B.B. one day," he says. "I stumbled into a record store and pick out three CD's from the blues pile. I was lucky enough to get Lightnin' Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf 'the Sun Years' and Little Walter's 'Hate to See You Go.'

I remember playing Little Walter first and thinking, 'Wow, this is weird music!'" You can probably hear Jon laughing when he adds, "There was so much going on in the songs that I think it scared me a little bit. Then I put in the Wolf stuff and heard Willie Johnson. That was it for me. Once I heard that tone and heard how dramatic the music was; I was hooked." Jon says he immediately..." went home and for months and months learned all three of those CD's."

Time well spent.

Jon Atkinson performing with James Harman and Nathan James
Big Jon sits in with James Harman and Nathan James. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

Atkinson in a few short years has become a very well-rounded and versatile bluesman. Others have taken notice. "People always ask me how or why I play multiple instruments and I simply say that I do it because I needed to." Jon says, "I started playing harmonica two years ago because nobody in Knoxville at the time could play harp the way I heard it in my head or on the records. It was much easier for me to teach a guitarist how to play the way I wanted, than the harmonica. So I learned it and am still very much learning it. It's the same for the drums. I would just fiddle with them here and there, but out of nowhere I just started doing them on gigs. I listen to this music so much every single day that it is just so natural for someone who does this (plays music) to have a feel and a head start on all the instruments. When I committed to play harp, I could already hum you every Little Walter and Big Walter solo on any tune, so it was just putting it to the actual instrument."

Turns out not everything that happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Jon fell in with a couple of seasoned musicians that had a profound impact on both his playing and his music. One of those band mates was a man named Junior Brantley. "Well, Junior I met when I was about 18 or so," Jon remembers. "I was going down all the wrong paths and making all the wrong choices as a young man but Junior helped me a lot with singing and the traditional blues. I used to play with him all the time and he would always give me great advice. He helped me in any way he could. Al Ek did the same for me. They would bust my ass every night and they really were a huge part in how I sound today. I used to never sing or open my mouth on stage and Junior used to tell me that I could do it and that I had what it took. Al Ek used to always tell me too, that I wouldn't get any gigs just playing guitar, you had to sing and front a band. He was right. Both of those guys were a God-send to me. We used to play at the Sand Dollar every week and those were some of my learning grounds. It molded my mind to the way it is now. I am very lucky to have met those guys and I owe them a lot."

Jon Atkinson on vocals
Big Jon howlin' the blues. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

You mentioned the early Howlin' Wolf stuff that featured Willie Johnson. What were your thoughts about the other long-time Wolf sideman, guitarist Hubert Sumlin? "As far as Willie and Hubert, they were huge to me." Atkinson admits. "I was always really into Wolf but nobody sang or did any of his songs. That's why I started singing in some fashion because then I could do these songs. But the first time I heard Willie it blew my mind…so raw and so real. There's nothing like it, besides Pat Hare. (Author's note: Similarities and comparisons in guitarists Willie Johnson, Pat Hare and Hubert Sumlin, other than the obvious Wolf connection probably arise from the fact that at one point Pat Hare was a guitarist with James Cotton. Having grown up with Cotton, one of Hubert's very first playing jobs would be touring with Cotton and Hare through Arkansas and Mississippi. In one of a hundred small roadhouse venues during that period, the Wolf came out to see the Cotton band and when Hubert eventually left Cotton, it would be to play guitar for the Howlin' Wolf.) Hubert was huge too. He taught me to turn your amp up and play soft, real soft until you want it to be heard then you pop through. He was a master at dynamic playing and he had such a wonderful and unique style."

Talk a little about putting together your band, Big Jon and the Nationals? "Well the band has just been what I call my group where ever I end up," says Jon. "I mean it is a simple name and quite a simple band. We play everything from J.B. Hutto to Robert Nighthawk to Junior Parker and Muddy Waters. Also I have plenty of retro era sounding originals too, that we play. The band is great and there is always something new happening, either recording or gigs or whatever."

Although still relatively new to Southern California via Tennessee, Big Jon has definitely made some new friends... new and hugely, talented friends. "Well the first experience I had was playing with Mark Mumea and the Silver Kings." It brings up good memories for Jon, "That was a great chapter for me as it got me thinking the old way again, as if I had gotten off track at some point. Everyone needs a little push sometimes. Then, Nathan James and I started talking on Facebook and he invited me to sit in with him. I went down and met the guys and played with him and Marty Dodson and Troy Sandow, who now are great friends." And as if that wasn't enough, "That day I got to play with James Harman.

Then Karl (Cabbage) from Red Lotus (Red Lotus Review) and I did some gigs together when I moved from San Pedro to San Diego. All these guys were so good to me and still are to this day. They have helped me more than anyone in the world. I am a blessed man to have run into these cats. Nathan has really done a lot for me, from my CD, to gigs… He is a great man."

Since you mentioned it, let's talk a little about your CD and working with Nathan James and recording at Sacred Cat Studio's. "The record 'Boogie with You Baby' was a pretty incredible thing." Jon says, "We basically decided to record it in three back to back days at Nathan's in Oceanside. Raw as you could get it. Half the songs were just ideas from Nathan and we did them on the spot, never having played them before. And the originals on the record were written on the spot, also. It was a blast and we recorded on tape and did the whole thing the right way. Just like the old days. The result is an intense, fat sounding blues record. There needs to be more records made like this nowadays. Fred Kaplan played some great piano on the record and Troy Sandow played great bass and played harmonica on a number of the songs. Marty Dodson played great drums with lots of feeling and emotion. And Nathan played incredible guitar on the whole thing. I really could not have made a bad record if I tried."

I've seen you play a number of times in the last year, but one show in Carlsbad recently just blew me away. It was you, Nathan, Marty Dodson and the incredible Kim Wilson. How did that relationship come to be? "I got involved with Kim at a venue that Cadillac Zack had me play on. I was backing up young harp master, Jacob Huffman who now plays with the 44's. Halfway through the show I noticed Kim and he was watching me play. I didn't even know he was on the gig. Anyway, before Kim got up to play he asked me if I wanted to stay on stage with him. I, of course, said yes! After the gig we talked for a bit and became fast friends. Now we are good friends and we play, record and trade amplifiers all the time. He is a great guy and the man has given me more advice and opportunities than anyone. Not to mention, I get to steal some of his harp chops every time I see him." (laughing)

Beside his proclivity for kleptomania (I warned you he was bad) Big Jon's talents are ever expanding and they appear now to include concert and event promotion. But he emphasizes, "As far as promoting goes, I would say I am just trying to get the music out there. San Diego has very, very few shows where like, five or ten of the best blues players get into the same room and play. I am trying to get more big events down here for the blues. January 10th I am putting on a huge show at Proud Mary's, this great Southern-style joint that is in the old Ramada hotel. I am going to try and slowly build this place for big events. The January show will have Kim Wilson, James Harman, Al Blake, Billy Watson, Troy Sandow, Bubba McCoy, Bob Corritore and myself. It is going to be a great show."

Not that you need anything more to do... what does the future have in store for Big Jon Atkinson? "Next for me is just to keep doing what I'm doing. I got another record coming out next year that is going to be huge. I am taking my time with it and really getting what I want out of the sound. Kim and I hope to open a cool music shop, hopefully... and I hope to branch out and get to play with some more people in the area that I have yet to play with."

Mark your calendars and I can't emphasis this enough, get your tickets early for Big Jon's Harmonica Blues Blast and jump start your 2015. Its set for Saturday, January 10th at Proud Mary's in San Diego. It features some of the nation's most incredible harp players as well as San Diego's own, Nathan James and the Rhythm Scratchers. It is guaranteed to be an event you won't soon forget.

Related Articles:
Nathan James: Southern California Roots Run Delta Deep; Ode to Little Walter; B.B. King: The Blues is Like a Family; Hubert Sumlin; San Diego's Mr. Natural... Billy Watson; 2013 San Diego Blues Festival

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Let Tim know what you think about his traveling adventure.

I was there at the Shrine to see Bob come in riding on a baby elephant. He says in the interview it was either '68 or 69: it was both – it was New Year's Eve (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Debbie Hollier, Nevada City, CA

* * * *

Who else played with Canned Heat and Deep Purple at the Shrine in '68?

Bill, LA

I think the Shrine show on New Years in '68, where Bob Hite rode out on the elephant, also featured Poco, Lee Michaels, Black Pearl, Love Army and Sweetwater. Don't know that Deep Purple was booked on that evening.

Bill, maybe you're thinking about the International Pop Fest in San Francisco a few months earlier that featured these fine folks... Procol Harum, Iron Butterfly, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Rivers, Eric Burdon And The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grass Roots, The Chambers Brothers, Deep Purple, Fraternity of Man & Canned Heat or possibly the following year in Jan of 1970 when Deep Purple appeared with Canned Heat and Renaissance on a triple-bill in London at the Royal Albert Hall.

One final note: The current Johnny Otis piece didn't mention it, but it was Mr. Otis that took Canned Heat into the studio the very first time to record in 1966. Small world, ain't it?


* * * *

Thank u for posting it! Bob is still boogin' around!! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Stefano Di Leonardo, Fisciano (Salerno, Italy)

* * * *

Great Read! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite) I will post it on Bob "THE BEAR" Hite Official Facebook Page,

Dave Tohill, Brandon, UK

* * * *

Hello Tim, thank you so much for letting a huge Canned Heat fan check out this
interview with the Bear. I really enjoyed it.

Best regards,

Rick Caldwell, Fairfield, Ohio

* * * *

I knew Bob Hite in the 60's. Canned Heat played at our high school prom 1966 Rexford High. The Family Dog, Chet Helms, Skip Taylor.

Max Kalik, Los Angeles, CA

Dear Tim,

I just discovered you from an email I received from Preston Smith disclosing his next event. I wanted to tap into his website Prestonsmithmusic but it would not link from your site for some reason. I have to say Preston really is a genius and I met him in Glendale at a jazz club about three years ago, after a fatal accident. By chance, I was invited to spend time hanging out with Preston and some friends after his gig. He is everything you say and I will never forget his amazing creativity and his positive influence in my life.

Janelle, Palm Springs, CA

Love the article! (on Lowell George) Lowell was my father.

Forrest George, Warren, Vermont

This Bob Hite interview is the most interesting thing I have read concerning Canned Heat. I have Fito's book, but I always was interested in learning more about Bob Hite. You did it here my friend...great interview!!!!!

Tony Musto - Pittston, PA

Hey Tim, Great article on Preston! I really enjoyed it and you did your homework. I'll probably catch PS this weekend.


Dave - Northridge, CA

* * * *

Hello, what a great article on Preston Smith! I actually met Preston one evening after an Acoustic set of my own at the Prestigeous Carlton Hotel here in Atascadero, Ca. We were loading up and he happened to be walking down the sidewalk and stop to say hello. I must say that he is a truly interesting and talented man that NEVER forgets to let me know when he is playing around the Central Coast where I live. It was so fun to read about who he truly is...(as if you don't know him the first time you meet him)! My adventures have only just begun as I recently returned from Nashville recording my self titled debut EP. I can only hope that my adventures down the road are as enlightening as Preston's and that I have the honor of a great writer such as yourself to share them with the world. Thank you for doing just that, sharing "Preston Smith" with the world.


Amy Estrada - Atascadero, CA

Hi Tim,

My name is Bert, I'm from Italy and I'm a blues harmonica player...I read your article and it reminded me of the two trips I made in the Delta, in 2008 and 2009. I love Frank's music and I think it's a shame people don't really know his work. It's important that people like you write about him. Thank you! In the Delta I was only a "stupid" tourist, but it was a great, unique experience I consider one of the most important in my life: driving on the highways, Listening to the blues everywhere, jamming in places like Red's and ground Zero in Clarksdale or the Blues Bar in Greenville... are priceless things, something I will keep in my heart for the rest of my life. I met a beautiful, lovely woman there too (named Hope), but I behaved like a stupid kid and I lost her... Alas! I will never forget that days and the chance I had to find happiness...Well, I also wrote something about Frank on a website, but it's in Italian... I give you the link of the first part (the second will be published in the next weeks) anyway if you know some Italian or somebody who can understand it... Even if I'm thinking of making a translation


Bert - Pavia, Italy

I wanna be Tim!

Brent, Seattle, WA

* * *

Those pictures give you an idea of what the Rockin' Pneumonia actually looks like and it looks BAD! But the man can still play! Enjoyed the article - give us more TRAVELING BLUES BOY!

Steve Thomas - NA, INDIANA

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Good Stuff, Tim. Having been a Johnny Winter fan since the first time I heard Rock n Roll Hoochie Koo, it was great hearing his take on some his highlight moments that defined his blues career. His affiliation with Muddy Waters was particularly interesting. Kudos for bringing that out. Thanks to your dedication to covering the blues scene, this "one of a kind" music still lives for servicemen & women around the world. Keep it Up!

Brandon Williams, Moreno Valley, CA

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Impressive! What a legend and how cool that you got so much time with him, Tim.

Don, Louisville, KY

Tim - Great article, enjoyed Little Feat/Lowell George story, really brought me back in time. Did not know he was a fishin' man! Wonder what surfaces out of the abyss of your memory next?

Steve Thomas, New Albany, IN

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I really liked your travel back in time with Lowell and Little Feat. As a long time Feat fan (mostly the stuff with Lowell) it was cool to read. I learned several of their songs back in the day and they still stand up today when played live. Another singer I really liked from back then is TimBuckley. Thanks for the article.

Chet Hogoboom, Arroyo Grande, CA

Loved your last issue of TB, especially the Mayall piece. I want that guy's job!

Brent, Seattle, WA


This is a great write up. Has it been printed in any magazines? It's better than a lot of things I read in my guitar magazines, so props for that.

Caejar, Moreno Valley, CA


I can tell that you have this passion for jazz. I wonder if you yourself play any instrument. Or are you just a groupie like most of us?

I talked with a mid-aged flute jazz artist a few weeks ago and he lamented that despite his talents (and he is extremely talented) he says that the industry hasn't been kind to him. He said jobs are few and far between. He said the music industry is combating piracy and competition due to technology being readily available to private homes and that they are not as profitable as before. So they are replacing live talent for synthesized or digital instruments.

Do you see the same trend in your relationships with your music network?

Bob, Pasadena, CA

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