Music | Woodlawn

Johnny Twist

"You don’t think they call me the Elusive Johnny Twist for nothing, do you?" SHARON LURYE, courtesy of JOHNNY TWIST.

“You don’t think they call me the Elusive Johnny Twist for nothing, do you?” SHARON LURYE, courtesy of JOHNNY TWIST.

On a storefront in Woodlawn there’s a faded, almost illegible green sign that reads “Old Dusty’s Records.” Inside that store, there are probably records. Somewhere. But when you knock on the door, and the owner lets you in, what you’ll step into is not so much a record store as another dimension. There are racks of CDs and videotapes, toy cars, children’s shows, necklaces, African art, Afrocentric books, a rice cooker, body oils and soap, an iron, and an organ piano. And there are rows and rows of framed, black-and-white photographs depicting blues legends like Ma Rainey, Ike and Tina Turner, Elmore James, and Hound Dog Taylor.  Visitors are greeted by a colorful sign: “Hotep, welcome to JT’s old dusty, Mississippi/Chicago Museum and Culture Center of Afro-centric/heritage and rhythmic urban, delta, rocka boogie blues!”

Taped to the wall are yellowed newspaper clippings and a dozen photographs of  a man with a 1958 Flying V Gibson guitar. In some he’s simply playing the guitar wildly, while in others he throws it behind his head, or poses with the guitar and a suitcase that says “Thunder and Lightning.” A poster proclaims: “Live at the Check(er?)board / great guitarist Johnny Twist with Thunder and Lightning V/S Buddy Guy with HURRICAN(E?) / A blues show you don’t want to miss.”

The man in the photograph stands in the store: Johnny Twist himself. He is much older now—how old, who knows—and wears Pan-African clothing, with a cap on his head and thick wooden necklaces dangling on his exposed chest. He greets his visitors with a “Hotep!” and a fist bump. He is, in his own words, a “living legend.”

But it’s unlikely many outside of his neighborhood  know he’s still around. There is almost no mention of this museum anywhere on the Internet; he refuses to have pictures of himself or the museum taken, or to give out a phone number; he has no Wikipedia page, and on YouTube there is just one video that shows his face, a clip from an eighties German TV show with the title “Elusive Chicago bluesman Johnny Twist.” Some might be skeptical about his status as a “legend.”

Still, if you’re doubtful about his claims to fame, he’ll whip out a binder full of papers, with a print-out of every website or newspaper that’s ever mentioned his name, however briefly.

“Anywhere Johnny Twist goes, the cameras go, because of my legendary career,” he says, snapping out a yellowed newspaper. “Now, they don’t give you a two-page write-up in the Chicago Defender if you’re a nobody.”

Nothing is quite chronological in his museum-slash-culture-center-slash-art gallery-slash-yard sale. Johnny Twist can’t quite tell you when he was born, when his first album came out, or when he opened his record store, which has always been a museum as well. But, if you ask, he’ll give you a tour—starting, of course, with himself.

“Well let’s face it, I’m a great guitarist, and most of your great guitarists came out of Mississippi,” he says, when asked where he was born. “That’s not a bias, but it’s a fact. That’s why this is a Mississippi Blues and Chicago Delta Blues Museum.”

He was born on Highway 61, the main artery of the Mississippi Delta and the major drive of the circuit for that Delta Blues sound. He laughs when asked about his birth year.

“Nobody knows that,” he says. “Y’all don’t even have that information. You don’t think they call me ‘Elusive Johnny Twist’  for nothing, do you?”

He started playing piano at age eight or nine, then moved on to the bass guitar and the lead guitar, “so when you hear me playing guitar you hear me playing three instruments at once.” His music career took off sometime in the fifties, at the same time that artists like Little Walter and Ike and Tina Turner were shaking up the music scene. He recalls the segregation he faced when he was playing in clubs in East St. Louis:

“When I went to St. Louis, let me tell you, St. Louis was a segregated town,” he says. “You couldn’t go into theaters. It wasn’t no such a thing as blacks playing in clubs, you had to go into the back room and sit down, till you come back out on the stage.”

“Now, it’s no way you could go to St. Louis and they wouldn’t tell you about Johnny Twist Williams, ‘cause I am Johnny Twist Williams,” he adds “I’m the one knocked all the doors down in St. Louis and let other black people come to play in those clubs, ‘cause I refused to go back into the back room. I say if my fans love me”— he slaps his chest—“which they proved that they did, I say I’m going out and sit amongst them. And they said you can’t do that, so I said to my drummers, take that high hat down.”

Around the late fifties or early sixties he made his way to Chicago, where he performed with his wife Alzelda and recorded for labels like Checker and Weis. He continues to recount the clubs he played, and the artists that he met.

“I know more entertainers than anybody living,” he insists. “You know who’s in the cotton patch with all these peoples? When I came from St. Louis and came to Pepper’s Lounge, on 43rd and Vincennes, Muddy Waters heard me and called me his son. ‘Cause I was going down on the bandstand, hear what I’m saying? I was dancing and singing and playing guitar at the same time.”

Walking down the cramped path between his merchandise, he reaches a section of the store devoted to the street that was synonymous with Chicago Blues: Maxwell. His tone is bittersweet and nostalgic as he looks over the decades-old photographs of musicians on the street: “This is Maxwell Street,” he says. “All my friends, they’re dead.”

He points to a black-and-white picture of a man seated with his guitar. Most of the photographs, including this one, show the musicians staring at the camera and their wrinkled, black-and-white faces have a world-weariness that seems to encapsulate the blues.

“This little guy is L.B. Banks,” says Johnny. “He came out of Leland, Mississippi, from 61 Highway. He’s playing in what we call J-Town, which is Jewtown, down on Maxwell. All these people played Maxwell Street. They’re here. This is your blues.”

Another photograph shows a musician standing on his toes, clutching his guitar, almost lifted from the ground in the throes of his performance. “This is Pat Rushing,” says Johnny. “That’s him, that’s his glory. As far as he got.”

Other photographs are anonymous. In one, an old woman in a simple country dress and bonnet gazes at the camera, her acoustic guitar taking up more space in the photo than she does.

“A lot of these people ain’t got what you call names,” explains Johnny. “This goes back a ways. But you can see she’s playing a folk guitar, and my guess is that’s gospel, because most of the time the ladies down there would be singing gospel. Blues and gospel are sisters and brothers.”

He hopes that anyone visiting his museum, he says, “would learn that black peoples have done some wonderful things to the music world here in the United States of America. To tell you the truth, we are the only ones that have a truly rooted American music.”

Johnny spots the obituary notice of his friend Jack Meyers taped to the wall,  and takes a different trip down memory lane. Jack Meyers, he says, was “one of the best baritone players in Chicago,”  and was a collaborator on one of his major contributions to the world of blues: his arrangement of “Wang Dang Doodle” for Koko Taylor in 1965. The single features Taylor’s inimitable voice, howling out: “We gonna romp and tromp till midnight / we gonna fuss and fight till daylight / we gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long.” The song’s all-star lineup included Meyers on bass, Fred Below on Drums, Willie Dixon and Taylor on vocals, and Buddy Guy and Johnny on guitar.

“I want to you know that phenomenal record we did, and I say phenomenal, that I arranged along with Willie Dixon,” says Johnny. “It’s one of the best blues arrangements, excuse me, in the world. Now somebody had nerve enough to say, some new version of ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ was the best….How you gonna outdo a phenomenon like that? Do you know who else was on ‘Wang Dang Doodle’? Buddy Guy.” He laughs out loud. “So I’m going to ask you, who can come up with a better ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ than that? You let me know.”

Beyond the Maxwell Street section there are two more rooms, stuffed full of more minutiae and memorabilia for when the museum expands. There’s also a recording studio somewhere in there, if you can reach it.

“These are two rooms that I can’t take you into right now,” he says. “There’s tons of entertainers in there, you can see. Here’s a room full, right there is a room full. Right now that’s a recording studio. It’s kind of my private studio. I’m sure we’re going to help other blues people to record.”

Johnny has no plans to retire. He’s trying out new songs on the organ at the front of his museum, and moonlights as a spiritual “Star Teacher,” putting out lectures on DVD under the name “Brother Ba Ba Bekitembatu.”

“There’s no such thing as officially retired because once you’re a legend like that, you don’t retire, what you do is have other avenues in life,” he says. “You know how blessed I am to be standing here talking to you when all my comrades are dead? Or walking around on a stick, or cane, or dialysis machine?”

As the aging photographs attest, this place is a monument to a past that’s fast being forgotten. Musicians no longer gather on Maxwell Street to sing the blues, or praise the Lord with gospel; the University of Illinois has taken over most of that area. Checker, a subsidiary of the great Chess label, shut down in the seventies. The great music stars born in the Mississippi Delta are quickly aging out. But Johnny Twist’s strange museum brings that history back to the spotlight.

“Now I tell you this,” he says, pointing to the front door. “You see when people walk through this door here? They are out of the Matrix. When you go back out there, you are in the Matrix. And when you go back in here, spirituality is in here, very great, and we are not going to be sitting here and be lying to you. We are gonna tell you the truth.”

But when you leave Dusty’s, rightly or not, it does feel like you’re stepping back into reality. It’s hard to know if everything you just heard was really true. What is undoubtedly true is that, right under your nose, in an overlooked storefront at 64th and Cottage, there stands an utterly unique testament to one of the greatest eras of music in American history.

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Thoughts on “Johnny Twist”

  1. I met Johnny when i was a young boy and he still tells stories i have not heard.I pray for the day we recognize a national treasure right here in our city

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