Longtime Living Blues editor Jim O’Neil once said that Living Blues wanted “…to show that blues was still a living tradition in the African- American community, to give credit to the blues artists …and to give a voice to the blues artists to tell their own stories. We would hear people say that the blues was dead and we didn’t think that was the case. It’s still the same way today.”
Despite the risible death proclamations made over the years, the blues are still alive and well. Each generation brought along youngbloods who didn’t get the memo about the demise of this particular musical genre. The last time we heard the old blues Taj Mahal, himself of the 1960 s & 70s Class of blues preservationists, proclaim, “ The boy sure has some fire in him and sure can play the blues” he was talking about Corey Harris. That genial bard was, along with Guy Davis, Keb’ Mo’ and Alvin Youngblood Hart, part of the 1990s class of true blues musicians who defied those who tried to lock the old blues in some museum vault. Harmonica ace Phil Wiggins, from the 1970s class of blues survivors as part of the Piedmont duo Cephas & Wiggins, simply laughs off people who made such death pronouncements with, “I think they need to get out more.” Fact is, the blues was there before those fine folks “discovered” it and will be there long after. Even lately, brilliant young players like Jerron Paxton and Dom Flemons have aptly proven that point.
Meet Jontavious Willis, the living proof in the current class of blues-death deniers. Only a few like him emerge every decade or so, when even the most hard core blues fans realize immediately that this is the real deal, a player and singer whose got it all: Deep roots feeling, instrumental prowess and a voice that carries the heart and soul of the blues with unwavering connection to the ancient roots. Not long ago people said that of Jerron Paxton, and now Jontavious Willis deserves to be celebrated as one of the brilliant new voices.
His mentor and protagonist, Taj Mahal, advocated to Living Blues, “Jontavious Willis. That’s my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind. He’s a great new voice of the 21st Century in the acoustic blues. I just love the way he plays. He has really just delightful timing and a real voice for the music because he was raised in the tradition and the culture. It’s just wonderful to hear him sing. The way he tunes his guitar is just amazing. There’s not a bluesman alive that could pick his instrument up and play it. You’d have to sit there for a good while to figure those tunings out. I had an opportunity to have him grace my stage when I came to Atlanta. He had a thunderous response from the audience. It was just so great. I’m very, very particular and very private about my stage so – and if somebody is on it giving the full run to go, you know that they must be able do whatever it is that they say they can do, and I say that he can do it and more. So I’m just excited that he has a wonderful and amazing future and he’s got a great sound, and we are all lucky to be at this point when this man is starting to launch is going to be an incredible and long career.”