Joanna Connor is one of the world’s greatest blues rock guitar players but her rise to the #1 Billboard Blues album has been anything but quick or easy. Blues Rock Review goes in depth with Connor to discover her love of guitar, moving to Chicago to launch her career, how social media has been a game-changer, and her career-defining album, 4801 South Indiana Avenue.
“What’s great about guitar is that it’s such an emotional instrument,” says Joanna Connor. “When a guitar player can really reach inside of you it just triggers so many emotions. That makes a great player.”
40 years into her career, Joanna Connor’s new album 4801 South Indiana Avenue is her first to hit #1 on the Billboard Blues chart.
“I was, like, wow, it only took 40 years,” Connor laughs. “Back in the day when I was younger there was some major labels sniffing around, whatever, it didn’t happen, but they were, like, we don’t know how to market you. You’re too blues, you’re too rock. Three different major labels came and went and then I kind of in between just decided, well, I’m just gonna play music. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen.”
While Connor has always enjoyed music, her first passion was dancing, not guitar.
“I was 7 years old and all the girls in my neighborhood were going to take dance lessons and I wanted to, and I kept asking my mom and she was, like, mmhmm, yeah, yeah, and then one day I wake up and she goes, “Well, guess what? Instead of dance lessons, I bought you a guitar.”
Something that caught Joanna off guard.
“I was, like, a guitar? But my mother had some sort of extraterrestrial wisdom or something, so that started it,” Connor tells Blues Rock Review.
Connor started getting more serious with guitar at 14.
“I was born in Brooklyn, New York but I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, and that’s where I was at Worcester, Mass, and our first gig was at the Sons of Italy Lodge, so our bass player’s family remembers, and we played there every Friday night.”
After a trip to Chicago at age 19, Connor decided to move there.
“We went there, it was Jazz Fest which was free and Miles Davis was playing and then I went to the clubs,” said Connor. “They let me in. I don’t know how but I got in and every great blues artist you could imagine was playing up and down different streets and I was, like, this is it for me, so I moved there when I was 22”
Connor joined Dion Payton’s band and soon after formed her own band.
“We were the house band at the Checkerboard Lounge which was Buddy Guy’s club and then we became the house band at the Kingston Mines and that was, like, 1985, so I played there with him there in the ’80s and the club owner gave me my own night with my band. I didn’t even have a band. He was, like, I want you to give me Tuesday nights, get a band together, you have a month, and I was, like, 26. That started it.”
Connor says she’s played well over 1,500 gigs over her career at Kingston Mines in Chicago.
At Kingston Mines, you never know who will walk through the door.
“Especially back in the ’80s and the early ’90s, Mick Jagger, I met him, Herbie Hancock, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage, all these actors, and musicians whenever they were in Chicago, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, they would all come through there.”
Connor will never forget the night she got to jam with Jimmy Page.
“He’s one of my biggest influences and I still love Led Zeppelin, so I was just so starstruck and he was so nice and so down to Earth, and we spoke to each other, and he was just a lovely guy. I was just on cloud nine. I wish it was the age of the smartphone so I’d have video and photos but there’s nothing.”
Social media has been the ultimate game changer for Connor.
“It took the power kind of out of the hands of the industry and the taste makers and put it in the hands of the people. If it was up to the people I knew I would be doing well, so I think that’s what social media did for me. It gave the people a voice,”says Connor.
A video on social media led Connor to working with blues rock legend Joe Bonamassa.
“I was never a big internet person but it ended up being my best friend. Even recently, Slash put one of my videos on his page, so these things keep happening. I got into a movie because of it with Joe and, I mean, Joe knew about me but I think that video, he was, like, yeah, OK, and that’s what triggered it.”
Connor went to Nashville to record 4801 South Indiana Avenue with Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith which debuted #1 on the Billboard blues Chart.
“It was kind of rewarding in the sense that my perseverance paid off. Also, it was, like, when I was turned down by labels or when I was overlooked at festivals or whatever it was kind of, like, saying, no, you’re alright.”
Connor doesn’t take her rise to the top for granted.
“I’m really humbled by it, too, and my son and my daughter they’re, like, mom you made history, and I was, like, I guess I kind of did.”