Donald Ray Johnson is perhaps the coolest man to ever come to Whitehorse.
His award-winning voice, steeped in the blues and dripping with the richness of experience, slides over the phone line: “Hey man, how you doin’?”
Born in Texas, Johnson and his community discovered their own blues from the cotton fields he worked during summers and the centre of their social life: church.
“Call and response,” he says. “From the field holler, from someone way down in the cotton field who starts a chant.”
At 14, he and his drums went pro playing with blues piano legend Nat Dove.
After serving in the navy, he relocated to San Diego and played with the blues legends from Los Angeles and everyone else who visited.
But it was with A Taste of Honey that he won his Grammy. They were the first “Afro-American” band to win Best New Artist for Boogie Oogie Oogie.
“I like that song,” he says with a laugh, when asked if his disco years embarrass him.
“I can make fun of the way people dressed then, but you go to Europe today and it is ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ and you go to a club today here and it is ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!'”
After following a woman to Calgary, he decided to stay after the relationship ended and is now helping to develop a blues community.
When he plays at Coasters April 11 and 12, starting around 10 p.m., he promises a fun evening: “We try to get the audience involved with singalongs and, I am assuming, there is a dance floor.
“It is just a night of fun.
Yes, he does understand that there will be students of rhythm and blues in the audience who will be studying his sounds and his moves. He gets that. “But it will be hard for them.”
And to those students of the blues, he wants to say that you don’t have to suffer to be good. Although, “everybody suffers. Your woman leaves you, your dog dies; it’s all blues, man.
“Last fall, in Memphis, I heard a group who were aged 7 to 15, and they can sing blues. Home Made Jam they were called; and they can sing the blues.
“They did their show and they ran out to run and play like children and just be who they are. I never got a chance to tell them I liked them.”
Johnson is bringing up his guitarist, Yugi Ihara. Joining him will be Yukoners Dave Haddock on bass, Brandon Isaak and Ed White on drums.
But isn’t Johnson 1997’s Best Blues Drummer?
“I’m a vocalist,” he says of those two nights at Coasters. “I’m the guy who stands up there in nice suits.”