Robert “BJ” Johnson — The Blue Ribbon (Rhythm) Bluesman
— A man with a knack for music and a smile that wouldn’t quit, he was automatic friend to every human he ever met!
This is aimed at my longtime great fun friend TJ Wheeler, ace musician and top-notch bluesman. This story tells not only how The Blues Bank Collective, created by TJ, got its name, but it’s also about the amazing bluesman, Robert “BJ” Johnson (1905–1986).
First, some background about the pre-1986 music scene in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, before the passing of BJ Johnson and before the cloud of gentrification had settled widely over the city.
Back during those days I was BJ Johnson’s best friend — and he had hundreds if not thousands of them! So many were the all-night kitchen scenes where we sat around and played music. Often we’d travel throughout New England in my VW microbus. We’d visit poets and musicians, always searching for music or something new. We even managed sometimes to get the boot from many of Portsmouth’s bars.
This, of course, was before BJ became popular.
Indeed, when BJ and I first began kicking around the streets, parks and bar rooms of Portsmouth, the city was a scene where lots of greasy-haired people were becoming accustomed to long-haired people. I was driving a cab at the time and I had very long hair. I was then teaching myself how to play guitar and I often kept my ’63 Gibson J-50 in the trunk of my cab. On slow nights, BJ would come along and play it. This is how we became really close friends.
BJ, of course, was an elderly black man. One way or another, this always meant for an unsaid extra something. Although prejudice was present, thankfully it was more subtle than blatant. BJ, who never stopped smiling, earned his living as a dishwasher at the famous Yoken’s Restaurant.
He began working there shortly after his arrival from the South in the late-’40s. This would become the source for his future Social Security income which gave him lots of time to finally play music. I often wondered what his life would have been like had he been more of a musician than a dishwasher.
In downtown Portsmouth during those days there was The New World Coffee House which morphed into a dive topless bar called The Cave. There was also The Ox-Cart (also topless), Rosa’s Italian Restaurant & Bar, The Starlight Lounge, The State Street Saloon and The China Empress located next to Gil’s Pawn Shop. Not many of the new folk in town went into the Chinese restaurant even though it offered live music. Also, there were private clubs like The Legion, VFW, and the always rough and ready Ranger Club, a rock n’ roll house.
Then came some nice new folksy places like The Common Crossing, The Press Room, the Puddle Dock Pub and others. On a good day, BJ and I would hit as many of these pubs as we could. We’d make the rounds. Although I always preferred high-end beer, BJ mostly preferred Schlitz. So the two of us, over the years, drank lots of Schlitz.
If there was no Schlitz and only a draft available, BJ would put salt into the draft and claim the resultant foam at the top would make it appear a better beer. Many were the tricks of BJ Johnson. Always up to the wee morning hours, he told me he’d always keep his alarm clock set for 8 am, so he’d always know where the morning was. He also knew the location of all of the bars where he could play music and drink for free.
A historical shipyard community long renown for its tavern nightlife, in the mid-’70s the club that evolved to personify the very best Portsmouth music scene was The Press Room. Originally, the folks there viewed BJ more with bemusement than with appreciation for his musical abilities. I think they saw him as only a guy wanting only a beer. But they were wrong. Music was his game!
In those days, even though BJ played nearly all instruments and he was original blues as original blues could possibly be, musically BJ was very much under-appreciated. It always angered me to note how some people viewed him more as a pest than as a musician, and this included some pretty good finger-picking musicians. In my view, they may have been well-rounded solid and good pickers, but their noses were way too far British upright!
Although he never got a gig at the club, they could not deny him the stage whenever Rocky featured the regular Tuesday Night Open Mics. On these nights it went either really great, or something really bad would happen. Always an adventure, it was often hard to predict which way the night would go.
In the life and music of BJ Johnson very seldom was there any middle ground: You either wanted and loved all of him; or sometimes you hardly wanted any of him at all. Me? I was his friend, his true sidekick … always the fair witness. When he told me to get on stage and play some E, A and B? I got on stage and played some E, A and B even though I really didn’t then know how to play the E, A and B chords on guitar. So it went!
It turned out that was one of the beautiful attributes of BJ Johnson. He’d link anyone he could into his music, including me.
Interestingly, where BJ was loved the most was not so much the bar scene, but at the all-night Gilley’s hot dog wagon where everyone would go after the bars closed. In an intensely packed small room — the envy to any Covid-19 bug (thank God it wasn’t around back then!) — BJ would pull out his harmonica and begin hitting the high notes above the crowd. His first song was always, My Sweet Lil’ Angel. Often BJ wouldn’t even get to the lyrics because the folks in the diner began singing ‘em before he could.
BJ certainly wasn’t in Gilley’s for the food. He was there because he loved people and he loved playing music for them. Indeed, the Gilley’s scene was where BJ, and his music, was loved and appreciated the most!
Everybody loved him at Gilley’s. It was mostly a working class scene and at that time of night all bar room egos had been stripped away. Nobody had their guard up. It was all raw and real! Many were the nights this small hot dog shack would shake, rattle and roll to the sound of BJ’s music. When another harp player or a guitar picker would show up, an already great scene would become extraordinary!
Also interesting is the fact that old man Gilley would call BJ “Billy,” just like he did each and every one of his customers. There never was any prejudice at Gilley’s! Of course, both Gilley and BJ back then were more famous than the mayor of Portsmouth! Neither needed votes because they had ’em all!
Other places where you’d find yourself best appreciating BJ’s music was when you found him during the day with a musical instrument on a park bench in Prescott Park or in Market Square. Not only would you find yourself singing and dancing along in the presence of a very few, but these moments were precious because they were filled with conversations with BJ. You’d hear stories that went along with his songs.
Like any old-time bluesmen, he had unending stories to tell.
One tale I recall is his description of his relation with the famous Robert Johnson, who historically is accredited with having invented the blues. According to BJ, the Robert Johnson was actually his nephew. I remember when I first heard this story I’d look at BJ in front of me, and then I’d think about Robert Johnson’s age, image and history. I’d begin scratching my head thinking, “How does this fit? Uncle? Nephew?” Well, my thought line always ended with: “Well, yeah, they look alike!”
Then there was the story of when he left the Deep South. Born in Arkansas and a member of the Baháʼí Faith, BJ said he was promised he could go and live at Green Acres, a Baháʼí religious community. As he told the story, he originally thought he was heading to California. But he wound up getting off the bus in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It turned out the Baháʼí Green Acres religious community was located in nearby Eliot, Maine.
Somewhat dazed, he found Harry Jones, a Black person, walking down the street of the small city. BJ approached him, introduced himself, explained his reality and asked, “Do any Black people live around here?” Harry said something like, “Welcome! Good to see you. Look around!” The rest became history for a lot of people, especially for those who loved and adored BJ Johnson.
Were the stories true? Who knows. But, to me, a fair witness, they were very true. After all, who would doubt the tale of an Ole’ Black Bluesman? Certainly, not me — his longtime friend!
I first met BJ fresh out of my high school years somewhere in the late-’60s. I remember a friend saying they knew of a live music party in Dover, New Hampshire. To get to it, we had to pick up the connection at Yoken’s. That’s when I first laid eyes on Robert “BJ” Johnson. Hanging by the dish washing machines, he was wearing a smile, black and white small-checkered pants and a white shirt. He said he’d be off soon, “Hold on. Wait outside. I’ll find yers!”
He came out of work and he led our caravan of cars to the party. Interestingly, the party turned out being at the farmhouse my aunt and uncle formerly owned on Garrison Hill. But the problem was the folks running the music wouldn’t let BJ perform. After an argument that was clearly prejudicial, we left in protest and ended up hanging out at Hampton Beach that night.
By the time the 1980s rolled around BJ had a stroke and ended up a resident at the Edgewood Manor Nursing Home. By this time, TJ had already moved into town and he immediately began giving BJ the respect he deserved as a musician.
No matter at what club, TJ would always bring BJ on stage and perform a few tunes with him. As time went on, more and more people began respecting BJ’s music. The three of us became very great friends and when BJ ended up living in the nursing home we’d often organize collectives of musicians to visit the home to play music with BJ, and for the folks.
I’ve always been a pretty good ball player. Some of us from the Press Room softball team wanted to form a team good enough to play in the very well-organized and well-respected Portsmouth City League. I came up with the idea of playing for the nursing home and bringing the old folks down to the ball park so they could eat hamburgers, hot dogs and French fries, yell up to the scorekeeper and at the umpires … and root the team on.
It worked. We were accepted into the hard-to-get-into league. We raised money for the team by sponsoring an annual St. Patrick’s Day Dance that featured TJ’s band, a few others and a special performance from Robert “BJ” Johnson. We held a concert-party event at the nursing home where the residents named our team The Hurricanes. The team was so relieved as their other options were The Eagles or The Pioneers. We all liked The Hurricanes!
We weren’t a bad team. Half of us were hippy-types and the other half were comprised of Pease AFB security personnel. We came in 2nd in the state ASA Tournament and won a huge trophy for the folks, and went on to perform in the New England Tournament where we didn’t fare as well. But we tried!
Then there was the time we — a team of Little Leaguers, a few nerdy odd balls and some nursing home residents — challenged the Boston Bruins hockey team to a softball game. We called it All Ages Day, and what a time that became — read all about it!
Hail to The Chief: Johnny Bucyk
— The Day The Mighty Bruins faced off against The All-Agers
Finally, and importantly, TJ got together with some movie producers and put a very nice film together about BJ. It tells the beautiful story. I forget what was going on with me back then. Maybe I had moved back to Cambridge or perhaps I was then a state representative running for Congress calling for drug legalization. But somehow, unfortunately, I got only a very small snippet included in the production. It’s sorta too bad, as there were so many stories I could have contributed into the film. But, all in all? They didn’t need me. TJ did an excellent Triple-A-Plus job!
Yes, Robert “BJ” Johnson celebrated life. I am very proud to say I celebrated his life with him, especially much of the second part of his life. When BJ passed away multiple musicians had a New Orleans-style funeral where everyone performed on the back of two flatbed trucks that drove through downtown Portsmouth on to The Harmony Grove Graveyard where BJ is buried at the Baha’i plot. Please do visit his grave!
The Edgewood Manor Hurricanes softball team, in full uniform, buried his bones into the ground. A harmonica placed by TJ Wheeler still remains a part of BJ’s gravestone.