Luther “Houserocker” Johnson, Blind Willie’s Mainstay, Has Died

Luther “Houserocker” Johnson, a longtime fixture at Blind Willie’s and a bluesman who consistently lived up to his nickname, has died.

Born in 1939 in Hogansville, about an hour southwest of Atlanta, Johnson began performing in the city during the late 1950s with a trio called The Famous Rockers, who’d play a mix of R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and soul covers up and down the clubs on Auburn Avenue. “I wasn’t playin’ any blues then,” he told me in a 1990 interview for Creative Loafing, “we had to play the Top 10, or what was on the chart at the time.”

The electric guitarist and singer, who’d come to employ such showstoppin’ tricks as playing the strings with his teeth, had been inspired to take up the instrument by his pop, as he revealed in that same interview: “My father used to play an old acoustic guitar around the house, and that’s how I really got involved with it… My father…would play for drinks of liquor, people would buy you a half pint or something. And we had a lot of moonshine back in those days, white corn liquor stuff, and what’s where he used to hang out, mostly, in the alleys a lot, and just play.

“Maybe every now and then somebody would stick a dollar inside…the hole in the side of the guitar. He used to come home, and he’d have his guitar upside down, just a-shakin’ it, you know, and a clothes hanger tryin’ to reach up in there and get bills. So I just got interested in that. And at that time, bein’ a kid, I thought that was an interesting way to make money.

“When I was about 16 my mom bought me a little hollow-box guitar…”

In the 1970s, Johnson joined Doctor Dixon & the Operators, a prominent local blues band during that time. He was a solo act by the time Blind Willie’s opened its doors on N. Highland Avenue in 1986, but soon afterwards the core of local players he’d jam onstage with coalesced into The Houserockers, with whom he played in various lineups for several years. By the early ’90s, it was Blind Willie’s “house band,” The Shadows, that doubled as Luther’s dependable backing group. During that decade they’d tour the U.S. and perform selected gigs and festivals in Europe, in addition to regularly packin’ ‘em in at Blind Willie’s.

Johnson didn’t release his debut album until 1990’s Takin’ a Bite Outta the Blues, followed a year later by Houserockin’ Daddy, both on then-Atlanta-based label Ichiban Records. Each featured a handful of originals surrounded by covers of material by the likes of B.B. King, Ray Charles, Guitar Slim, Fats Domino and – always – Chicago’s Jimmy Reed, the latter a clear favorite of and influence on Johnson. Selected tracks from the two CDs were compiled on Ichiban’s 1998 release Retrospectives.

Luther and the Shadows continued playing Blind Willie’s recurrently well into the 2000s, but he suffered a stroke in late 2018 and his health deteriorated. He passed on Friday, July 5, age 80. We offer our condolences to his family members and his many friends throughout Atlanta’s blues scene. To be sure, our house won’t be rockin’ quite as strongly anymore.