Guitarist Johnny Jenkins; Aided Otis Redding

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 29, 2006

Johnny Jenkins, 67, a flashy left-handed blues guitarist who helped to propel the singing career of his former driver, Otis Redding, died June 26 at Coliseum Medical Centers in Macon, Ga., after a stroke.

Mr. Jenkins was a self-taught guitarist, a fixture on the Macon scene known for his Chuck Berry-like walks and behind-the-head guitar picking. He started out with a small blues band called the Pinetoppers that played the college circuit and first heard Redding at a talent show at a Macon theater.

"I heard Otis at the Douglass, and the group behind him just wasn't making it," Mr. Jenkins told pop music biographer Peter Guralnick. "So I went up to him and said, 'Do you mind if I play behind you?' Cause he didn't know me. . . . Well, he sounded great with me playing behind him."

Redding received a lot of airplay for the 1960 single "Shout Bamalama," on which he was backed by the Pinetoppers. But he largely remained the band's gofer, and when the Pinetoppers were asked in 1962 to record for Memphis's Stax records, Redding drove the group to Tennessee.

The session was reportedly a disorganized disaster, with several musicians leaving early. Redding asked whether he could use the remaining time to sing. Among his selections was "These Arms of Mine," a ballad on which Mr. Jenkins can be heard on guitar and Steve Cropper on piano.

"These Arms of Mine" became Redding's breakthrough, selling 800,000 copies, and he alone won a recording contract. He went on to have hits with "Respect," "Try a Little Tenderness" and "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" before a fatal plane crash in 1967.

Mr. Jenkins had declined to join Redding's band, citing a fear of flying, but there may have been other reasons for his refusal.

He told one interviewer, "People always want me to make him sound like a good guy, and, see, I know better. . . . [Redding] was a bully. He was hell to get along with."

Back in Macon, Mr. Jenkins retained a loyal following and some noted admirers, including guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who had relatives in the area. The two performed together occasionally in the late 1960s.

Mr. Jenkins had an acclaimed solo album, "Ton-Ton Macoute!" (1970), which featured guitarist Duane Allman and other members of the Allman Brothers band. Among the songs singled out by critics was their rendition of Dr. John's "I Walk on Guilded Splinters."

But feeling cheated financially by many in the music business, Mr. Jenkins did not release another solo album until "Blessed Blues" (1996), made at the urging of Southern rock producer Phil Walden. On the recording, he worked with keyboardist Chuck Leavell and several sidemen from Muscle Shoals studios.

Critic Philip Martin wrote in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of Mr. Jenkins, "This reemergence shows him as a sturdy country bluesman with excellent taste and a remarkable electric touch."

Johnny Edward Jenkins, the son of a day laborer, was born March 5, 1939, east of Macon in a rural area called Swift Creek. On the radio, he was drawn to hillbilly music and at age 9 built his own guitar from a cigar box and rubber bands.

He left school in seventh grade to take care of his ailing mother and by 16 had turned to music full time.

At one college event with the Pinetoppers, he met Walden, a white student at Macon's Mercer University who was attracted to black rhythm-and-blues music. Besides working as Mr. Jenkins's manager, Walden co-founded the legendary Southern rock label Capricorn Records, which produced "Ton-Ton Macoute!" and "Blessed Blues."

Mr. Jenkins continued playing nightclubs in the Macon area and reemerged on record with "Blessed Blues," followed by "Handle With Care" (2001) and "All in Good Time" (2005).

His wife, Janest Durham Jenkins, died in 2001.

Survivors include three children, Johnny Jenkins Jr., Kelvin Jenkins and Stacy Marie Jenkins, all of Macon; two sisters; a brother; and eight grandchildren.

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