Johnny Dyer was born in 1938 and spent some time growing up on the Stovall Plantation in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, where blues patriarch Muddy Waters was raised by his grandmother. One day when he was seven Johnny found a lost harmonica and fell in love with the instrument. He remembers practicing under his bed at night, thinking that his mother wouldn't be able to hear him. Later he began practicing out in the same fields where Muddy once labored.
Although Dyer tried various other instruments like guitar and drums, nothing consumed him as much as the harmonica. He was influenced by the sounds of harp master Little Walter, whom he heard being played on a Nashville radio station, and blues aristocrats like Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Big Walter Horton. Dyer formed his first band at age 16, in which he played acoustic harmonica. His first experience playing amplified harp came during a club gig in the early 1950's with his friend Smokey Wilson.
Muddy Waters discovered his talent and eventually moved north to find greatness. Johnny Dyer also migrated, but instead of going north to Chicago, he followed his fortune to California, where he fell in with the burgeoning West Coast vanguard typified by Johnny Otis, Jimmy Witherspoon and T-Bone Walker.
In 1958, Dyer moved to Los Angeles after receiving many letters from his uncle telling him about the rapidly growing blues scene. One of the first people Dyer met in L.A. was George "Harmonica" Smith, who had worked with Muddy Waters. Dyer and Smith actually played gigs together as father and son, with the elder statesman of harmonica taking Dyer under his wing. Dyer reflected about that time by saying, "Smith was the hottest thing around and the blues was really swinging! He taught me a lot. Everybody loved George."
Forming his own band, Johnny Dyer & The Blue Notes, the transplanted musician began playing with other well-known bluesmen such as J.B. Hutto, Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Rogers.
During the 1960's, the blues club scene in L.A. began to suffer and Dyer looked outside the music business to make a living. "Motown just stepped in and crushed everything. Blues was good until Motown stepped in," says Johnny. "I told George, 'I don't want to play no more.'" Dyer stayed away from the scene for a number of years. One day he noticed that Muddy Waters was playing that night at the Troubadour club. After seeing the big crowd Muddy had drawn, Dyer thought that perhaps blues wasn't dead after all and was encouraged to return to the stage.
Re-emerging in the early 1980's, Dyer began to meet and perform with the cream of the L.A. harp community, including Shakey Jake, Harmonica Fats, and a very young Rod Piazza. Dyer recorded two singles for Shakey Jake's Good Time label and in 1983 recorded an album on the small Murray Brothers label with his old band, the L.A. Jukes. He was also featured on Hard Times: L.A. Blues Anthology on the Black Magic label from Scandinavia.
In 1989 Dyer linked up with guitarist Rick Holmstrom (from Rod Piazza's band) and the union resulted in two recordings on Black Top Records - Listen Up! and Shake It!
Blind Pig has reissued the Murray Brothers LP, adding four previously unreleased tracks, including one with George "Harmonica" Smith. Entitled Jukin', the album features Dyer's eloquent, polished style of harp, and the music ranges from Dyer's own compositions to classic tunes by Waters, Little Walter and Jimmy Reed. The seasoned veteran has no gimmicks, no special effects - just straight-ahead, comin' from the soul blues guaranteed to put a smile on your face!
Johnny Dyer photograph ©1996, courtesy of Jeff Dunas
Postscript: Johnny passed away at his home in San Dimas, California on November 11, 2014. He was 75.