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Veterans and Youngbloods

King of the Keyboards: Blues and rock great Johnnie Johnson

From Johnnie Johnson to Elmer Lee Thomas, the Fountain Blues Festival runs the generational gamut

THE FOUNTAIN BLUES FESTIVAL, now in its 16th year, takes place Saturday (May 18) on the Tower Lawn in the heart of the San Jose State University campus. The free event, which is co-sponsored by Metro, starts at noon and runs until 6:30pm. Picnicking is encouraged, but leave the glass bottles at home. In addition to Lowell Fulson, the highlighted performers are:

Johnnie Johnson: Like Lowell Fulson, Fountain Blues headliner Johnnie Johnson is an éminence grise of the blues, although he is perhaps most famous as the king of rock & roll piano. For some 38 years, Johnson was Chuck Berry's main man on keyboards. Like his duck-walking boss, however, Johnson wasn't born rockin'. The West Virginian actually got his start playing jazz and blues. Find a copy of Blue Bird, blues maestro Jimmy Rogers' superlative recording of two years ago--that's Johnson on piano. (Nicky Baxter)

Elmer Lee Thomas: Representing the new generation of blues artists at the festival is Elmer Lee Thomas. The Oakland blues singer and guitarist has only a touch of gray in his head but a huge reservoir of the blues impulse. Besides being a black musician in the '90s playing the blues, what makes Thomas an anomaly is the fact that he's resisted the temptation to strap on an a Stratocraster and pump up the volume, preferring instead the sound of beautifully crafted National steel guitar. Like Fred McDowell, Thomas "do not play no rock & roll," going instead to its source: Mississippi Delta Blues. (NB)

Pam Hawkins: Vocalist Pam Hawkins has been a regular on the Bay Area blues scene for the past six years or so, demonstrating her modern-day version of the blues with a number of acts, most notably Stark Nekkid, Red House and Big City Revue. Just over a year ago, Hawkins and husband/bass player Terry Miller formed Back to Life, a blues-based band that also includes rockophile John Wedemeyer on guitar and drummer Bryant Mills. (Due to a previously slated engagement, Wedemeyer will be missing in action for the festival performance. Filling in is Archie Williams, who has nabbed nifty reviews up north.) Hawkins hesitates when asked if she considers herself a blueswoman. "I guess I am. I just think I put a different spin on the blues, a '90s spin." (NB)

Tommy Castro: Guitarist and vocalist Tommy Castro has been leading his present band since 1991, steadily building up a reputation as one of the better breed of West Coast blues outfits and earning Club Band of the Year honors at the 1993 Bay Area Music Awards. Castro, a San Jose product, has toured with the Dynatones and played backup guitar for Carla Thomas and Albert King. (Michael S. Gant)

James Armstrong: Raised in a musical family, guitarist James Armstrong learned to love the blues at an early age and never wavered from his pursuit of the art form. A young (he's only 31) master of the stinging guitar attack in the manner of Buddy Guy, Armstrong is also a strong songwriter who is not afraid to wrestle old structures into fluid new forms. Now based in the Bay Area, Armstrong records for Oakland's Hightone Records; his latest release is Sleeping With a Stranger. (MSG)

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From the May 16-22, 1996 issue of Metro

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