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Merline Johnson

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Biography

During the late '30s, one Chicago-based blues woman cut more records than either Memphis Minnie or Georgia White, and even edged in on Blue Lu Barker with a smart cover of her most famous hit, "Don't You Make Me High." The aunt of R&B vocalist LaVern Baker, Merline Johnson was usually billed as the Yas Yas Girl, a bawdy nickname that utilized a favorite early blues euphemism for your butt. Little is known of this singer's origins, her life during a brief but productive heyday, or her eventual fate. Legend has it she first saw the light of day somewhere in the state of Mississippi during the year 1912. After making her way to Chicago, she established herself as a sanguine, straightforward blues vocalist whose backup bands were often peppered with seasoned jazz musicians who were capable of swinging hard when necessary, and sometimes launched into full-strength boogie-woogie. After cutting six sides as Merline Johnson for Bluebird in May 1937, she commenced recording for the American Record Corporation a few weeks later as the Yas Yas Girl, already demonstrating an innate ability to put across blues and jazzy dance tunes convincingly, with a combination of honesty and warmth that is still very effective. Between 1938 and 1941 Merline Johnson waxed more than 50 titles for Vocalion and OKeh, covering the standard topical range of Chicago blues. She sang of passionate and at times turbulent interpersonal relationships, of unencumbered sexuality, and of unapologetic alcohol consumption. Her accompanists, drawn from a pool of experts from New Orleans and Chicago, included trumpeters Punch Miller and Lee Collins; saxophonists Buster Bennett and Bill Owsley; guitarists Big Bill Broonzy, George Barnes, and Lonnie Johnson; Vocalion's resident steel guitarist Casey Bill Weldon; pianists Blind John Davis, Black Bob Hudson, and Aletha Robinson; string bassists Ransom Knowling and Bill Settles; an interesting character named Alfred Elkins who carried a bassline really well using only his voice; and a rock-solid drummer by the name of Fred Williams. Aside from one final session in 1947, most of this woman's recorded legacy dates from the years and months prior to the U.S.A.'s direct involvement in the Second World War. During the 1990s the Vienna-based Document label set out to reissue her complete works in four volumes. Unfortunately, the last installment seems never to have materialized, leaving a conspicuous gap in the Document catalog and a frustrating ellipsis where anyone studying her life and works would expect to be able to listen in on and read about her last years as a recording artist. Although a smattering of her later work was included in a Yas Yas Girl sampler released by Wolf Records in 1989, a comprehensive compilation of every recording ever made by Merline Johnson has yet to materialize. ~ arwulf arwulf

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