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Whatever Happened to Little John Chrisley?

[whitespace] John Chrisley
Blue Yonder: The former child prodigy took his place in the spotlight on New Year's Eve at JJ's blues club in San Jose, and proved that nothing has really changed. (Inset: Little John Chrisley, in earlier days, on stage with Bo Diddley.)

As a teenager, blues prodigy Little John Chrisley was strutting the stage with Huey Lewis, Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker and signing a major recording contract. But then something went wrong. The story of Little John Chrisley, a man caught between the right place and the wrong time.

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

A WOMAN IN HER 30s walks into JJ's Lounge in San Jose on a Thursday evening in late December to pick up tickets for Friday night's concert. Ever the promoter, JJ's owner June Stanley pushes a leaflet across the bar to her. "Don't forget our New Year's Eve show," she reminds. "Little John Chrisley's playing." The woman stares for a moment at the picture of a thin, solemn-looking, blue-jeaned young man, dark-blond hair falling carelessly over his shoulders. Except for the harmonica in his hand, he would be the modern image of a young biblical prophet. Slowly, a smile of recognition and then pleasure spreads over the woman's face. "Little John Chrisley! Oh, geez, I remember him. Where's he been?" She takes the leaflet with her.

"Who is Little John Chrisley?" I ask Stanley.

She beams in a way she only reserves for the best of blues artists. "You weren't around here when he was big," she says. "That was about 10 or 15 years ago, when he first started playing here.... He was just a little boy playing blues harmonica. That's the true blues instrument. A lot of people play the guitar, but it's very hard to play a good blues harmonica. Little John, he's one of the best. He sings, too."

Chrisley began playing at JJ's when he was about 14. "He was so young, he used to come in here before a show and say, 'June, I'm hungry,' and I'd fix him some milk and a bowl of chili and he'd sit down with his little legs dangling over the chair and eat it right up here at the bar." But Stanley says that despite his tender age, Chrisley was an accomplished musician and performer who would pack her small club and who played a part in the growth of the South Bay's blues scene during the second half of the 1980s. "One of the first times he played here, his father said that we needed to have a dollar cover charge," she says. "We'd never had a cover before, and I thought, 'Oh, gosh, my people aren't going to go for that.' But John's father insisted, and he was right. The people flocked in. They didn't care. They knew him from all the festivals." She points down the bar in fond memory. "One time he was playing on the stage, and he just came over here and jumped on the bar and started walking down the bar while he played. Drinks were going everywhere! And he was ducking up under the lights, and when he got to the end of the bar he just jumped down again and kept on going through the crowd, all the way into the back, playing that harmonica. He was big, really big. He was on television; they were going to make a movie about him; he had a record contract and everything."

I repeat the young woman's question. "Where's he been?"

"In Oregon, I think," Stanley says. "He went up there with his parents."

"What happened to him? How come he didn't make it?"

"Oh, I don't know, he just started changing," Stanley says, frowning. "He stopped wanting to play the blues; he wanted to play rock & roll and heavy metal. People were disappointed. And then he started going down in appearance. One time he came in here with mismatched shoes. That's just not how we do it at JJ's. And then he just went away, and I didn't see him for a while." She breaks into a smile again. "But he's back now. Come on out New Year's Eve. You'll see. You like harmonica, don't you?"

I confess to her that this is probably my favorite instrument, whether it's country, folk or blues. But I keep to myself my thought that perhaps this is just a lot of local-boy hype. But given June Stanley's bubbling-over enthusiasm, I am intrigued.

A BRAD KAVA San Jose Mercury News column last summer gives some insight on the recent history of Little John Chrisley. "[Chrisley] dropped out of the music business, spent years living on friends' couches and, most recently, became a chef and maintenance man at the Lupin Naturist Club." But the columnist makes no mention of why Chrisley dropped out.

A jump to 12 years back shows Chrisley in his heyday: a Metro cover story on "The Blues Brats" by Craig Carter. It is a profile of South Bay blues teenagers Chrisley and John Wedemeyer. In the cover photo of Chrisley, the gauntness has not yet taken hold. His fresh face is surrounded by dark ringlets of hair, and his look is sultry and inquisitive, like a teenage sex symbol. Next to him, buddy John Wedemeyer attacks a guitar with studious, youthful intensity.

The article tells glowingly of a 1986 Chrisley/Wedemeyer performance at JJ's: "[Standing outside gave] a good peek at Little John Chrisley's rear end. It's fitted snugly into a pair of 501s, grinding back and forth, slowly drenching with sweat. The drummer, guitarist and bass player crowded around him bounce and swing, slapping and strumming hard-edged blues-heavy rock.... The sound packs a much neater, cleaner and meaner wallop inside. The club is cramped, but it's not as smoky or stuffy as it will be (some day) in the movie version of The Little John Chrisley Story."

Little John Chrisley was 17.

Local coverage of Chrisley continues extensively until about 1989. Then, suddenly, coverage dwindles and dies altogether. It is as if the high-flying comet encountered a black hole and simply vanished from public view.

June Stanley has given me a videotape of JJ's Second Annual Blues Festival and Barbecue, circa 1988. Just two years after his appearance on the cover of Metro, Chrisley has dropped his little-boy looks and gotten decidedly mannish in appearance. His voice is throaty and wailingly sexual. He uses the crowd as a duet partner, dropping on his knees to sing with a young woman at the edge of the stage, leaping to the ground and stalking through the dancers with his harmonica sounding like a hunting call. His body seems to take off almost on its own, with no clear goal in mind: He jumps up and executes a roundhouse martial arts kick, or suddenly squiggles up a pole holding up the stage. He drives his harmonica before him with a whip, rolling notes back on each other until they snap and scatter in his wake. His brain synapses work so hard you can almost hear them popping and exploding. He plays so fast that he is three notes ahead before your own brain can even hear, much less appreciate, the first.

I am impressed. Modern blues players get unfairly compared to original blues artists--those musicians who created in the period from the end of slavery until about World War II. That was a golden time whose genius no modern musician can match, black or white. But I see that Little John Chrisley can hold his own with the best of the post-World War II blues musicians. Or at least he could in 1988. Still, for all its energy, his Blues Festival performance captured on video has something of a rudderless air to it. His harmonica solo is unfocused, not designed to further a musical end but only to call attention to its own genius. It is genius, certainly, but for what cause? I can only think of Charles Brown's refrain: "Well I'm drifting and drifting, like a ship out on the sea." Was this the period when Little John Chrisley began to lose his way?

"The Blues Brats" cover story gives a hint of a possible source of discord. The story turns to the role of John Chrisley's father in his music career. "Papa Chrisley may not know son John's every move, but he is the mastermind and omnipresent figure behind the business of making Little John Chrisley a star. In the last year, promoting young John has become a full-time job.... John Sr. hovers near the stage at all of John Jr.'s performances. He schedules the interviews and coordinates the publicity. He picks John's backup musicians. He negotiated John's record contract and he writes many of the songs he plays. Talk to both of them at the same time, and John Sr. does most of the talking. It is a relationship that has rubbed some people the wrong way."

And in an article published a year earlier, then-Metro music critic Sammy Cohen wrote of "the temptation to throw stones at the smoothly efficient family corporation that guides [Little John Chrisley's] career."

CHRISLEY has been living with the Rick and Vicki Cole family in Los Gatos for the past several months. I reach Jennifer Cole by telephone. She's 24, a friend of Chrisley's (they're not in a relationship but more like brother and sister, she explains), and she helped "rescue" him from Lupin Naturist Club in the Los Gatos Hills.

"I used to go up to Lupin, and I met him up there about two years ago through a mutual friend," Cole says. "He was living up there, doing landscaping and gardening. I didn't know anything about him being a star or anything when I first met him; I hadn't heard of him before. But we just started hanging out a lot."

Cole says that Chrisley got into some sort of ugly dispute with the Lupin management, of which she knows few details but which resulted in Chrisley's leaving the resort. A spokesperson for Lupin Naturist Club declined to answer questions on any aspect of Chrisley's employment.

Chrisley went to Cole's father with the intention of asking for a job with the elder Cole's real estate company. Instead, Rick Cole put Chrisley up in a room above their garage and told him to go back to doing full time what he loved best--making music. Jennifer Cole says that almost immediately Chrisley became a part of the family.

"A lot of people think that musicians are really weird, which is true," she says. "They're not like normal people. When they've got their instrument in their hand, they can just be right in front of you and tune you out. But I've had boyfriends who were musicians, so I understand how they think. John's a very private person; I don't know a lot about his personal life. But I do know that he's very eccentric. He's like a little kid--a hyper kid--but really sweet. You ought to hear him in the morning, walking around the house singing. But really, we like him because we know he'd do anything for us; he's very protective of my family."

Cole says that Chrisley has also done something that no one else in the family has been able to get her parents to do: go out on a date together. They have begun following him around to his local appearances.

I MEET LITTLE JOHN Chrisley himself at the Cole house on a private street off Los Gatos Boulevard. In person, he does not look as gaunt as he does in his publicity photo. Now 29, he has a man's growth of unshaven beard but a shy, little boy's smile. His eyes manage to be both childlike and bright and restlessly wandering at the same time. He cannot sit still. He is rarely on the couch for more than a minute or two, bounding up to his room above the garage to grab CDs or photos, into the kitchen to pour sodas, or out the door to catch Russia, his part Rottweiler, part Australian shepherd dog. "She's an excellent studio dog," Chrisley says, explaining that means she "steps over guitars and doesn't bite cords." She's not a very good interview dog, though, galloping in and out of the room, barking at outside things that only she can see, nudging the interviewer from time to time to remind him, I suppose, of the consequences of a less than flattering article. I am properly respectful. Russia is built like she could go several rounds with Evander Holyfield without even having to bite.

In the background, Rick Cole has begun to bang around a huge set of pots, starting dinner for the band, which is coming by to rehearse later that night. The interview is chaotically fun.

"My Daddy got me playing the blues," Chrisley says in a high-pitched enthusiastic voice, in complete contrast to his hoarse and sultry singing voice. "He had a whole closet full of blues tapes and albums. I used to go in my room and play one tape over and over, and practice and practice on my harmonica. And as soon as I could play one tape just right, my father would open the door and hand me another tape." But he says that it was bluesman Muddy Waters who gave Chrisley a love for the music. "I was a Kiss fan when I was a kid," he says. "But one time when I was 11, I saw Muddy Waters in concert. I went back home and went in my room and played frisbee with my Kiss records." He means it literally. "I'm sorry about that now," he says ruefully. About throwing away the records, that is, not about becoming a bluesman.

Chrisley has also had to toss out many harmonicas. He says he has an "uncounted number of harmonicas. Hundreds. But when I hurt them, they're gone. You bend a note too hard, you break the reed." He says he uses six or seven harmonicas in one night's performance, all of them in different keys.

Chrisley is philosophical about his fall from stardom at the end of the '80s. He signed a recording contract with CBS at the height of his stardom but says it fell through "because they didn't know what to do with me. They thought I was something of a freak, a white boy playing the harmonica." He left CBS to write songs for A&M Records but says they couldn't figure out what to do with him, either. "It was an ugly process," he says, "but it evolved into a beautiful thing. I worked with a lot of good songwriters, and I learned how to write for just about every instrument except a flute. Anyhow, I'm a blues musician, so it all gives me something else to whine about. All that bullshit builds character."

About the time Chrisley was 18 (pinning him down on dates or even years is nearly impossible), his family moved to Hollister. "I didn't like it down there," he says. "Too much room between there and San Jose. I got too many speeding tickets." (He confesses that this is one of the many benefits of having moved in with the Coles; Rick Cole now drives him to shows.) It was sometime around the Hollister period, it seems, that Chrisley's father stopped managing his career. His parents moved to Oregon, and Chrisley followed, not to live with his parents but to live with his girlfriend in Corvallis. He got the first non-music job in his life: a short-order-cook position. "I had to," he says, almost apologetically. "I was with my girlfriend."

But Corvallis didn't suit Chrisley any better than Hollister did. It was too far from Portland, where most of the state's blues clubs are located. Chrisley was soon back in the South Bay "doing the couch tour; a couple of friends put me up for a while."

His music career also took a turn for the better about 1993. Chrisley met Mike Varney, manager of the small Novato-based Shrapnel Records. Shrapnel had recently developed a blues label, Blues Bureau International, which featured several veteran artists who had once been headliners with larger companies. Through BBI Chrisley released two CDs: The Howling Iguanas in 1994 and Little John Chrisley in 1995. Sales have been slow, but Chrisley is pleased merely to have something recorded finally. "That's what I always wanted to do," he says. "I want to make four more CDs before I go into the ground." He's already compiled a collection of songs in preparation for the next one.

About the time the Little John Chrisley CD was being released, Chrisley began his two years in the live-in job at Lupin. Chrisley confesses that he was miserable most of the time. "There wasn't any phone, so I couldn't contact anybody for music gigs," he says. "And I didn't have a car."

Chrisley talks little about why his father is no longer his manager.

"I signed with a new record company, so there really wasn't anything for him to do," he says, which is not really a response. He adds, without being asked, that "there was no conflict with my dad." Chrisley says his parents are still in Oregon, but declines to name the city "out of respect." He does not explain.

Mostly he wants to talk about the New Year's Eve gig at JJ's. He's playing with local Cajun- and country-style blues guitarist Terry Hiatt. I ask if I can stay for the evening rehearsal, but Chrisley turns me down. "I don't really let anybody come to my rehearsals."

Later, Rick Cole tells me why.

"I always wanted to see how musicians practice; I couldn't believe it," Cole says. "It's like they're not doing anything. They never practice anything through. Mostly, they just talk a lot. Or Little John talks, stops them and tells them, no, he wants it played this way. And Terry Hiatt just nods. It's like they've known each other for years. And the rest of the band, they're watching cartoons on television while they play."

Cole is a big man, with a jolly, smiling face and long hair under a bald crown. His own father once owned an Oakland grocery called King Cole's, and it is as if the son decided to grow into the part. Cole grew up in Fremont and developed a love of blues music in the '60s by sneaking over to San Francisco ("I would tell my mother we were going to the drive-in") and taking in Bill Graham concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium. There, like a whole generation of white audiences, he was first introduced to African American blues artists like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howling Wolf. He says he heard of Little John Chrisley in his early days of fame, but never heard Chrisley until the harp player came to live with him. He, too, is impressed.

Cole, who has worked in the liquor business for 30 years and currently works for a South Bay real estate firm helping businesses obtain liquor licenses, shrugs when asked if has plans to manage Chrisley's career. "No, I'm just a friend," he says. "To tell the truth, I'm just having a ball being around him. I'm just in it for the fun. He's a little eccentric, but so is my daughter, so I'm used to it. They're just alike, just like brother and sister."

John Chrisley
Eye to Eye: In the early days of his career, blues child Chrisley was managed by his father,
John Chrisley Sr. who thought of himself as a "compassionate pit bull."

JOHN CHRISLEY SR. is in Bend, Ore., where I track him down by telephone. Chrisley Sr. is 57, but he doesn't sound like it over the phone. He fizzes overenthusiastically like a shaken-up soda when asked about his son's career. It is a continuing source of fatherly pride.

He can recall the first time Little John saw somebody playing a harmonica onstage--"He thought the fellow was eating a sandwich"--and early on, what made the father think the son could make it as a blues musician. "What struck me first about John was that he always performed like a bluesman.... He always had a lot of restraint," Chrisley Sr. says. "Porky Cohen--he used to play trombone for the Duke Ellington band--he told me one time about John that 'it's what he doesn't do that makes him so good.' The restraint, he taught himself to do that. He was like a sponge; he absorbed everything."

He reels off endless tales of Little John's early career. "One time we went to a Canned Heat concert; I think the Fabulous Thunderbirds were there, too. John and I were trying to get backstage, but there was this big, burly guard who told us not to even think about it. So I told him that my son had to use the bathroom real, real bad, and the guard let him go down to the bathroom behind the stage so long as I stayed behind the barrier. John got down there and leaned against the wall and started playing his harmonica, and pretty soon this big, hairy arm came out and pulled him into a room. And after a while they brought him out onstage, and he played with the band. You should have seen the guard's eyes!" I imagine Chrisley Sr.'s eyes lighting up as he tells the story. If the son wasn't having a ball, the father certainly was.

Chrisley Sr. says that the problems with the CBS record contract had nothing to do with Little John's musical abilities but were simply a matter of bad, bad timing. "Three weeks after we signed with CBS, they got bought out by Sony," Chrisley Sr. says. "The whole creative team that had signed him and had a vision for his work, they just started disappearing. Heads were rolling everywhere. The new man in charge of Little John's music called me and said he just didn't know what to do with John. They couldn't find the right niche for his music. It scared the hell out of me. If he'd stayed with CBS, with all that chaos going on, I honestly don't believe it would have been any good for him."

So Chrisley Sr. did the unthinkable. After sweating blood to get Little John signed to a record deal with CBS, he asked that his son be released from his seven-year contract. The request was granted. He says the deal with A&M Records was never a contract; Little John just worked from record to record, flying around the country, with A&M simply footing the bill.

I tell Chrisley Sr. that I'd heard a number of criticisms about his work as Little John's manager.

He laughs, sincerely. "Who told you that? Come on! Some of the band members, right?" He says he ran Little John's bands with a tight rein, something that was always a cause for grumbling. "I never believed in democracy in a band," he says. "I believed you should talk everything out, but then the manager has to make the decisions. And I think there's a sacrifice you have to make if you want to be good. All musicians want to make it, but a lot of them don't want to pay the price. I made them pay the price and some of them didn't want to do it. I'd say, 'Fine, you can leave now.' And some of them did." Chrisley Sr. says his drive for perfection led him, one night, to pull Little John's band off the stage at JJ's in the middle of a set. "They thought they were so good, they were screwing around, messing up. So I pulled the plug on them. I got them in the back and told them they had no idea who might be out in the audience watching them. An agent or somebody. When they got back out on the stage, they did a lot better.

"You gotta be a compassionate pit bull as a manager," Chrisley Sr. says. "You've got to know what musicians need and then kick them in the butt to get it, without breaking their spirit. That's the key."

I think I am beginning to understand. It is easy to see why a bright, energetic teenager might have trouble getting along with a compassionate pit bull of a father, even one who is trying hard not to break spirits.

But Chrisley Sr. avoids the topic of generational conflict just as well as his son had. He says he stopped managing Little John not because there was any problem between them (I recall Little John's statement, "There was no conflict") but because of changes in his business. "When I was managing John, I was in a business that allowed me a lot of free time," Chrisley Sr. says. "But then we got hit with the [Loma Prieta] earthquake, and everything had to be straightened out, and my wife and I just decided we needed to get out of the fast lane." He and Chrisley's mother took over an adult foster care home in Bend, Ore., and he says it just made sense that Little John didn't stay with them up there. "It would be different if we were in Portland," he says. "Portland's like the Chicago of the West Coast; they've got plenty of blues clubs there. But there's nothing in Bend. There's a lot more of a creative atmosphere in California. It was just a good move for John to go back there."

JOHN WEDEMEYER believes that the only thing that happened between Little John Chrisley and his father was normal teenage rebellion.

"Look, it had to be tough for Little John to have his father around all the time," he says. "I love my parents, and I want them to come to my performances. That's nice. But I don't want them staying after the show and seeing who I'm hanging out with."

I am meeting Wedemeyer for the first time, so he describes himself for me: a tall, blonde fellow "who doesn't look like a guitar player; that's what everybody says." I'm not sure what a guitar player is supposed to look like, but I can see what Wedemeyer must be talking about when we sit down at a Cupertino coffee shop. He looks more like the grown-up kid next door who you ask to watch the property for you while you're away on vacation. It seems a shame that one fellow gets to have good looks and a nice personality and talent. Though I've never heard him play, Wedemeyer has a reputation as an excellent guitarist.

He also has good insight on the subject of John Chrisley Sr.'s management. Wedemeyer and the two other members of his current band, W.H.A.T., were three of the original members of Chrisley's first band, Hair of the Dog. Chrisley Sr. not only managed them but wrote most of their songs.

"I used to hear all that talk about how John's father was messing things up as manager," Wedemeyer says. "And I was on the inside, and I used to think, 'What's the problem?' John's father was a great manager. He took care of everything for us.... All we had to do was show up and play. He was really good with the club owners because everybody liked him; he wasn't the type of person who ticked people off." He describes Chrisley Sr. as a man who seemed to rarely sleep, staying up all night after his day job to make up promotional packets or write songs or do other work for the group.

"Really, I think the only thing wrong with John's father was that he was John's father," Wedemeyer says. "If he were anybody else, I think everybody would have said that he was a great manager. Do you think all those cover stories and television shows and that record contract came by accident? What would a 16-year-old know about all that?"

Wedemeyer thinks that Chrisley's career took a downturn not because his musicianship went down, but because after he and his father split up, Chrisley suddenly had to take care of all of those little things that his father had always done for him. "It's a pain, hassling with money and calling up clubs and booking gigs," Wedemeyer says. "I think it was a shock when Little John had to do all of those things himself. He needs a manager."

That sentiment is echoed by Shrapnel Records president Mike Varney, who produced Chrisley's two CDs. Varney tells me he has "nothing bad to say about Little John. At heart, he's a really good kid," and says he will gladly work with him on a third CD. Varney says that overmanagement by the big record companies may have led to the dip in Chrisley's career. "He's a natural talent, a child prodigy, but it seemed like everybody was wanting him to do things with his music that he didn't want to do," Varney says. "By the time I met him, some of the people at the big labels had messed him around so much that he really wasn't open to anybody interfering with his music. He's an artist. It's hard to get artists to make compromises." But mostly, Chrisley is missing two main ingredients in his career. "He really needs a good guitar counterpart," Varney says. "You need someone you can work with together intuitively with your music. It's not just how good you are. It's compatability."

"And," he adds, almost as an afterthought, "he needs a manager."

JJ'S IS PACKED for New Year's Eve. Many have come to see guitarist Terry Hiatt, who has his own loyal following in the South Bay. But many have come because they once saw a teenage wonder in a shining, golden moment onstage, and they want to see if Little John Chrisley can still rock it.

He can.

Someone has told me that Terry Hiatt is the perfect guitarist for Chrisley, and I see it. Hiatt is like a grizzled Oklahoma cowboy riding Chrisley's wild-stallion spirit. He reins Chrisley in just enough so that when they run together they run wild, dropping in perfectly synced duo to their knees to bounce guitar and harmonica licks off each other's chests. They bounce back and forth between Chrisley's own compositions and driving blues favorites. "I've Got My Mojo Working." "Caldonia." "Mustang Sally." Chrisley has matured from the little boy bouncing across the stage at the 1988 Blues Festival. The difference between his playing in his young days and his playing now is the difference between being made love to by a 17-year-old and a 30-year-old. What little has been lost in energy has been more than made up for in direction and technique.

It is clear that regardless of the ups and downs of his life, Chrisley has been hard at work on his music in the 10 years since he was under contract at CBS records. Here is the restraint his father talked about; he is allowing his music to breathe, slowing it down just enough so that you can catch up and appreciate it. I can even understand the words. On "Born in Rochester," one of his own compositions from his second CD, he sings: "The blues is in my Daddy's soul. He passed it on to me. Now I'm here to set it free. That's my goal." As midnight approaches, I think of my own father and his goals for me, and I wonder what John Chrisley Sr. is doing up in Oregon, and whether he is thinking about his son. Probably.

Among the dancers, I notice the young woman who picked up the leaflet from June Stanley a couple of weeks before. She is sweat-dancing with a young man, eyes closed, body rocking, singing along with the music. Whatever pleasure Little John Chrisley gave her 10 years ago, he seems to have more than matched it tonight.

Midnight comes, and the silly hats go on people's heads, and the ribbons get tossed on the floor, and the champagne pours, and couples kiss each other madly, and no one's arguing, and the music is excellent, and everyone's having a damn good time, and I'm thinking that after all is said and done, it doesn't really matter where Little John Chrisley has been. All that's important is that he's back.

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From the January 22-28, 1998 issue of Metro.

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