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Johnny Rawls was born into the blues

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Johnny Rawls performs at 8 p.m. Friday at Haddad Riverfront Park as part of the free Charlie West Blues Fest and again in a $10 show at 7 p.m. Sunday at Woodrow's Place, 244 1/2 Seventh Ave., South Charleston. There, he's joined by Inspiration. Call 304-349-1439 for Friday or 304-400-4814 for Sunday.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some blues musicians are made. They discover the blues and make a choice to help keep the music alive.

Others, like Johnny Rawls, are born into it. It's practically in their DNA. The soul/blues singer performs Friday at the Charlie West Blues Fest and again on Sunday at Woodrow's Place in South Charleston.

Rawls was born in the Deep South. He discovered his voice singing gospel music in the Mississippi church of his boyhood. He learned his first licks on the guitar from his blind grandfather. Before he could even drive a car, he was on the road, singing and playing with different blues and soul artists, including soul blues legend O.V. Wright.

"It was no trouble getting into clubs," the 60-year-old recalled. "It was no trouble at all. Back then if you behaved yourself, if you was with an adult, you were good. You made your own rules."

Playing is very different today.

"It's easier [to make a living]," Rawls acknowledged. "But it's still hard. You have a lot of blues lovers, but blues is more of a crossover music. Back then, it was real small markets, predominately black, on the Chitlin' Circuit."

The Chitlin' Circuit was a string of clubs and theaters, mostly in the South, where it was safe and acceptable for black entertainers to perform during segregation.

These days, Rawls plays the blues all over the world.

"They really love my kind of blues in Japan," he said. "They love that soul blues."

Still, he wouldn't trade those early experiences on the road. 

"I got to do man things at an early age," he laughed.

Rawls joined Wright full-time in the 1970s and stayed with him until the elder bluesman's death in 1980. After Wright's death, the band continued for another decade. Rawls stayed with it but also began performing and recording on his own. It's been different since he began calling his own shots.

"I'm more of a songwriter and an entertainer," he explained, then added, "I play. Now, I can play, but I concentrate on giving a great song to the public. I want to be known for putting out a great song -- not 86 guitar solos."

Rawls pointed out there are plenty of other guys who do that. He joked, "Their names I won't mention, but they know who they are."

Rawls grew up with blues and soul music, nudged along the path by his grandfather and people around him. It's probably not surprising that some of his children have followed him into the genre.

"My daughter, she's Destini Rawls, the blues child. Sometimes she sings with me at some of the bigger shows and festivals."

He also has twin grandchildren. Rawls said they just started walking, and this summer, they'll make their blues festival debut on the 4th of July.

"They were born into it," he said.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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