Bruce’s blues planet
Former marine Bruce Mississippi Johnson reveals his musical odyssey and the inspiration for his new album, The Deal Baby
09 November, 2017 — By Róisín Gadelrab
Bruce Mississippi Johnson will play Blues Kitchen on November 21
“I SAW the first KKK cross burn on a marine base in the ’70s. I grew up in Mississippi but I didn’t see a lot of racism. When I joined the marines I met a guy who was 18. He’d never spoken to black man in his life.”
Bruce Mississippi Johnson’s life was made for the blues. That isn’t to say that it has been particularly dark, although there have been some hard times, more that the 6ft 4in ex-marine-turned-musician has a lyrical turn of phrase and a life rich of songwriting material.
From being surrounded by gospel, to being sent away aged 12 to live with his father, a relative stranger, to being enticed into the marines by the prospect of travelling and becoming part of a family, before seeing the harsh reality of endemic racism in the forces, Bruce’s life reached a turning point when he was stationed in Zaire, which was to propel him to a 20-year singing career in France, becoming an actor, starring on The Voice and forming part of a French ratpack with a triple-platinum-selling album.
“One night, I was in a nightclub,” he says. “I was dancing with a lady and singing in her ear and she said ‘you have a nice voice’. She introduced me to a group. I started singing Gil Scott Heron covers. I discovered maybe this would be a way to get out of the marines.”
He began moonlighting in clubs and writing lyrics while stationed in Paris. When he left the marines in 1984, he seized his chance.
Bruce says: “I went home to see my dad for a quick minute and then I caught the first thing smoking, as they say back in Paris. I went back with my girlfriend at the time and I started my life as a Parisian.”
Bruce, who plays Camden High Street’s Blues Kitchen with his band on November 21 and Pizza Express, Holborn, on December 1, to support his debut contemporary soul-blues album, The Deal Baby, flirted with performing when he was young. Brought up by his great-grandmother and grandfather in Mississippi in the absence of his parents, his memories are filled with church choirs and soul – he is related to American soul singer Jackie Wilson.
“My grandfather was a pastor,” Bruce says. “I lived the experience of the whole southern Baptist gospel trip. It was filled with exciting preaching and singing and people getting the holy spirit – singing jumping around and crying, dancing.”
But his first performance wasn’t promising.
“I did a talent show when I was 11 or 12, lip-syncing to a James Brown song. I was paralysed, I looked at the audience, I couldn’t move. I don’t know what I was thinking. My aunt had made me a beautiful two-piece outfit, vest, bell bottoms. I was stuck with my two uncles shouting from the wings, ‘move’. But I couldn’t. My first attempt on stage was a real disaster. It didn’t put me off, though, it must have been sleeping inside me.”
Bruce left Mississippi after a surprise call.
“I met my dad for the first time by phone when I was 10. I knew nothing about him before then. He came from nowhere. He was interested in meeting me, he came to meet me and took me to see his life in Indianapolis. As my mother didn’t raise me, I was one of the only kids without parents. My grandfather, who was the carer for me, said take me. I was sent to live there.
“I lost my bearings when I left Mississippi. I left my grandmother and a giant family. In Indianapolis I discovered six aunts, three uncles, a grandmother and tonnes of cousins.”
At high school, a visitor caught Bruce’s eye.
“The marine recruiter had such a fine-looking uniform on and I was already in reserve officers training corps. I loved that marine uniform. He told us great stories about travelling and seeing the world and being part of a family. I wanted to get away from my life. I asked my dad to sign for me before I was legal age.”
Singing briefly caught his eye just after signing up.
“The first time I started singing publicly was in high school,” says Bruce.
“I was in a talent show. I loved the sensation, I felt like someone to my peers. I hadn’t really existed until that. People were nice to me. I started singing. But all this happened after I signed for the marines.”
But life as a marine failed to live up to expectations.
“It was a big disappointment. I wanted to go in with the idea of contributing, paying my dues for the American dream, I had honourable ideas, I wanted to serve, be part of a bigger family. I struggled to do what was necessary in boot camp, although I managed. But the bigger problem was racism – it wasn’t the family I thought it would be.
“The marines is the branch that probably has the least African-Americans in it, it was the last to mix. It has a history of being an elite corps, majority white.”
Bruce travelled, living in Africa, Asia, France, but knew being a marine wasn’t for him.
“You had to have a certain mindset to be a career marine,” he says. “You either want to be a leader or a follower, to embrace being ordered around 24/7 to the point where you got to be ready to run into battle. I just felt that the military would’ve given me the opportunity to travel and be my own man, which I did. I don’t regret it but I haven’t seen a war worth dying for.”
After leaving the marines Bruce established himself in Paris, where he was promised a gig by a music teacher if he formed a repertoire. He carved out a career, meeting some incredible jazz musicians, eventually leaving after meeting his wife at a jazz brunch in Paris.
“She wanted to move to England to follow her career,” he says. “I thought, I’ve done a whole bunch of everything a lot of nothing, I can do that anywhere. I’ve been in movies, toured with French pop stars, but never at the front. I came to England and never looked back.”
Bruce is promoting his new album, which is out now.
He says: “I called it The Deal Baby because I’m saying this is the deal, this is what it’s about. I speak about love, sex, life, it’s a contemporary take on old-school blues and soul. It’s not blues played by a black man with no shoes on sitting on the porch, it’s more contemporary, close to who I am.”