Dollar is bellied up to the bar at Lilly's on Chicago's North Side. He has just completed his first set of the night, during which the musicians in his band have included accomplished guitarist Jimmy Burns, up-and-coming axman David Lindsey and Magic Sam's former drummer, Robert "Huckleberry Hound" Wright.
Dollar is jovial and outgoing at the bar. His booming voice can be heard throughout the club. He holds a special place in the hearts of many in the room, but they also seem to regard him with a degree of caution, and with good reason. Dollar is an unpredictable, live wire. He truly is larger than life, an egomaniac whose emotions only come one way - extreme.
Dollar is known for his generosity and for his selfishness, his understanding and impatience, his chivalry and womanizing. Dollar can be kind, funny and as playful as a child, but his games can turn rough quickly. He is, after all, a survivor of mean streets and war zones. He's a Vietnam veteran, an ex-Chicago cop, and an admitted alcoholic with an addiction also to chasing women. The scars on his stomach attest to the half-dozen or so times he's been shot. Dollar's encounters with the worst that the human experience can offer have molded his personality into one of volatility and defensiveness. But it is this very unpredictability and intensity that make Dollar a fascinating and appealing person.
On stage Dollar clowns, displaying a rapport with his audience. Sometimes, however, his music seems to sit in contrast to his disjointed life. His fluid, unhurried, peaceful stage presence seems a contrast to his disjointed life. As a guitarist, he is a master of control - his sense of musical timing is impeccable, and his style hints at his affection for his old friend Magic Sam. His deep, relaxed vocals are reminiscent of a gin-drenched Lou Rawls. When he is hitting on all cylinders, Dollar's music bears a strong resemblance to the good whiskey he loves - smooth, warm and intoxicating, but with a sharp bite that reminds one abruptly that it is indeed powerful stuff.
Johnny Dollar has been a part of the Chicago blues scene since the early the1960s, when he played "just chords" behind Magic Sam at places such as The Alex Club on the West Side. Later, when he was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California in the middle 1960s, he learned about picking the guitar from a man he describes as "a little hillbilly guy," known as Private Dix. Upon leaving the military in the late 1960s, Dollar became the lead singer of the popular West Side R&B band, The Soundmasters. The group's membership included brothers Eddie, Thomas, Jim and Charles Fisher.
"We were young together," says Dollar of his time with The Soundmasters.
"I became more or less one of the family, the Fisher family, you know what I'm sayin'?"
The group recorded numerous songs, among them, "Your Love Has Got Me," which Dollar recently re-recorded on a demo of blues and soul/blues that he is shopping around.
In the 1970s and '80s, Dollar was a mainstay in the clubs of the city's West and North sides. He toured Europe. In his career he has seen the release of three albums, among them, My Soul is Blue (900.509 WE 341) for the French Isabel label in 1980 and JD's Blues (BRB 3603) for the Chicago-based B.L.U.E.S. in 1986. While in France in 1980, Dollar also played backing guitar on Jimmy Witherspoon's Isabel effort, Spoon's Life, re-issued recently by Evidence (ECD 26044-2).
From his spot at Lilly's bar, Dollar, who never sits still for long, takes our conversation outside into the cold November night air. He's rocket-fueled on Lilly's monster margaritas and shots of whiskey, and he doesn't bother to bring a jacket. Away from the women at the bar, Dollar turns feisty and profane in discussing his life. This, our initial meeting for this story, ends shortly after it starts, with Dollar and his adult son throwing roundhouse punches at each other in the middle of Lincoln Avenue in a dispute over the younger man's unpaid bar tab. Despite the presence of a tire iron that Dollar pulls from the trunk of his Cadillac, neither is seriously hurt.
"People say I'm a motherfucker, but let me tell you somethin'," Dollar states. "I'm an ex-cop with eight years in the Marines, twice in Vietnam - ain't nothin' gentle about me, O.K.? But I love people. I have a smile for anybody that approaches me, but I can turn from instant saint to instant bitch in two seconds. I'll knock my mother down if she pisses me off the wrong way...The whole point is this: I'm just a human being, a human being that's survived a lot of craziness. I love everybody. They changed (the world), not me."
Dollar is disturbed by several elements of today's Chicago's blues scene, and unlike many other artists, he's not afraid to point fingers and name names.
"The West Side is where we all came from," he says. "Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Mighty Joe Young, Magic Sam. All of a sudden everybody abandoned the West Side to come to the North Side. It's all about money. That's what it's about. I don't give no fuck about no money, O.K.? Money's cool. As long as I can be who I am and not have to borrow money to make it from day to day. I've never had any intentions of being rich, because if I was rich, I would hurt myself. I'm a spoiled rotten kid, you see. I always had everything I wanted, anyway. See, that's what made me a sick person...This goddamn bullshit with these blues clubowners. They would have let me make it, but they're afraid of me. I'm a timebomb. If they don't have my money, I'm gonna start some shit - immediately. You're gonna pay me, or I'll live in your club until you give me my money."
In recent years, Dollar has suffered from heart problems and his appearances in Chicago have been infrequent. He has shown up occasionally at Mr. Tee's on West Lake Street and he has made brief guest appearances at The Guess Who Lounge at Hamlin and Ohio. In 1995, however, Dollar and his band reappeared on the North Side, at Lilly's, exclusively.
"I love Lilly," he says. "Lilly don't give no fuck. She don't care about the system. That's what I love about Lilly. I'll work for Lilly for nothin'. If she say 'Come on, help me. I need somethin',' I'm comin'. She's not like (some other club owners). She's her own person. She's her. And if she tells me she needs me to play at nine o'clock on a Saturday mornin' in January, I'll be there. This is as close as our relationship goes, O.K.? She ain't never lied to me about nothin' and I ain't never lied to her about nothin'."
Dollar's background in blues is about as solid as any Chicago practitioner in his age bracket. He was taught how to play the guitar by such greats as Mighty Joe Young, Sammy Lawhorn and Jimmy Johnson, "See, I came along with those guys when I was a teenager," he says. "Magic Sam's was the first band I ever played with in my life, back in the early '60s. Magic Sam died with a heart attack when he was 32 and I was younger than that."
Dollar recalls that Magic Sam took a liking to him "because I was aggressive and I was good lookin'."
"I had pretty cars, I was clean and all the girls liked me," he boasts. "Man, I had a thousand women...I went through the learnin' process with (Sam). It was me, Huckleberry Hound, Ernest Johnson on the bass, and Magic Sam. (Sam) used to call me young blood. As a matter of fact, a woman he was trying to talk to - he was married at the time and she was married at the time too - this was like, 1963, because I had a '63 Grand Prix. I was like 16 or 17 years old. I started dealin' with one of Sam's women. Prettiest woman you ever seen in your life. He gave her to me. He used to say 'Dance with her! Dance with her, young blood. I can't dance! Dance with her.' We danced and danced until he fucked around and he made me dance one night too many! She was like 37 years old. She was so pretty, I couldn't believe there was a human being could be that pretty. And I dealt with her, you know. We had sex. Wonderful sex. She never came to a climax. Ten years, never came to a climax. Then one day, I begged her, I says, 'Please tell me what is wrong?' She said "You're giving me everything I want. That's why I can't climax!" She said 'Hold back. Hold back. And I'll get it.' I tried it and she almost killed me. She climaxed and she tore me all apart, man. She climaxed in five minutes. All she wanted me to do was just hold back, you dig what I'm sayin'? Don't give her everything, just hold back, make her reach for it. Man, she went all the way insane!"
His time working and partying with Magic Sam and his friends left an indelible impression on Dollar. Sam is always the first person Dollar mentions when naming those who influenced his guitar style. He confirms that Lou Rawls is one of his main vocal influences.
" I've never seen a motherfucker with more saviorefare!" He says of Rawls. "He's a classy, singin' son of a bitch...No other other entertainer phrases like that man...There was also a guy on guitar, Luther Tucker, who played with Otis Rush - that was even before the Magic Sam deal - Luther Tucker was the reason I wanted to play. The way he played...Man...When I was 12, I used to go up to a place called The Castle Rock on Keeler and Roosevelt and I wasn't big enough to see in there I'd pull myself up (at the window) and look in there and see him play and Otis Rush and Bobby Neely playing saxophone. I used to love them guys. I was 12 years old. I used to climb up in the window. I walked eight blocks just to go down there and see them, 'cause I heard them playin', but I never had no idea I would be a musician."
Dollar began playing blues as a young man "because it was a family thing." Dollar's brother was none other than guitar wizard Lefty Dizz (Walter Williams), who died of cancer on September 7, 1993 in Chicago.
Dollar recalls that he first started playing blues when he was in his late teens at a club called The Domino, near Madison and Hamlin.
"It was fascinatin' to me that all the women liked to be around these guys that do just nothin'," he says. "I seen the way women reacted to entertainers. I think the whole thing was females. That's what made me want to play...When I decided to do it, to be dedicated to it for real, everybody was laughing because when I started to play, in six months, I was playing...I had thought it was a waste of time 'cause I used to be reasonable. I'm not anymore. This shit is unreasonable to level-headed people, man. They don't understand what you're doin' here. 'What in the fuck are you doin' here?' You know? 'Playin' this stupid shit out for a bunch of street people, night people, and gettin' nothin' out of it.' But what they don't understand is, this thing is for real. It's inside of you."
In his teens, Dollar entered the military service. But he did even that, his way. He entered the Marine Corps for his brother, under that sibling's name.
"I was gone for three years and they found out and then they sent me home and they threatened to send me to Leavenworth, and when I got to be 18, they drafted me and put me back in and I was glad. It was one of those kind of deals. So I enlisted and I stayed there for eight years. I went back! I loved that shit man. I was in the Marine Corps for eight years. I loved it. I really did. It was very difficult because I'm an undisciplined person. It was very difficult for me to take orders. That was a challenge that beat anything that I had encountered, you know. Sometimes, now, I wish I was in the Marine Corps. I was in the Marines until 1967. I was in Vietnam - twice. First time I went over there I was a Private First Class. The second time I re-enlisted, I went as an E5. I went back as a squad leader. That was a very difficult time."
Dollar calls his time in Vietnam "an experience that everybody should go through."
"I mean every man," he adds. "At the time you're doing it, you hate it. You don't want to be there, you want to be here. Any place but there, because you turn primitive. You're living in the woods like a bear or something, you know what I'm sayin'? But when you get back, and you look over your shoulder and look at what happened to you and think about the things you did and how you sacrificed just to make somebody just feel better for a moment, it gives you a warm feeling, a good feeling. I never knew that so many people existed in one spot until I went to Vietnam. The 226th Regiment, we went there with those people and man, only 400 people came back out of there out of maybe 20,000 people. That's how many people got killed from us. Sometimes, you know, my flesh will crawl, I'll be out by the lake or something, I'll drive out by Lake Michigan and I'll see all that water. I think of the times that I wanted to just run, go home. 'I quit.' But I never got hurt in Vietnam. Not even a splinter. Never got a bug bite - twice there." I pray a lot. I pray a lot. Strange as that may seem, I pray a lot."
"When you go to Vietnam," he continues, "you find out lots of things about yourself. You find out that sometimes you're a coward - in the worst kind of way. I know for a fact that I'm not going to go to Heaven because I believe strongly in the Bible and God said 'Thou shalt not kill,' and I know I killed people there. I seen myself doing it. And I felt bad for their families, but it was something I had to do to stay where my family is, you know? So being in the Marines for eight years, I decided I wanted to be a policeman in 1971."
Johnny Dollar continued