Donald Ray Johnson at last year's Blues Fest. Johnson plays with his daughter at this year's event.
the Gauntlet

Family ties flourish at this year's Blues Fest

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This year, the Calgary International Blues Festival is adding a family connection to its musical one. One featured artist on the lineup is a familiar name to local blues lovers--Calgary-based Donald Ray Johnson. Internationally renowned for his deep blues vocals and power-driven drumming, Johnson will be musically reunited with his singer-songwriter daughter Panzie Johnson. A celebrity in her own right, Texas-born Panzie has made countless concert and television appearances and has toured for 14 years as a backing vocalist for Stevie Wonder. Now focusing her solo career on southern-based gospel music, Panzie will be performing a separate solo set at the Blues Festival and will be joined by her father on drums. The Gauntlet spoke recently on the phone with Donald in Calgary and was joined on a second line from San Antonio with Panzie.

Gauntlet: Have you worked much with your father?

Panzie: I've done a lot of work with my father and it's been an honour. All of the times I toured with Stevie, he'd give me pointers. It's been an awesome experience and I'm very fortunate.

G: Did the two of you make music together when you were a child?

P: Absolutely. My father was always there and a lot of the things we did together were, of course, gospel.

G: When was the last time you were in Calgary?

P: Believe it or not, this visit will be my first. I'm thrilled and am looking forward to it.

G: Touring with Stevie must have been a real eye-opening experience.

P: It was. He was very open with sharing things that, as artists, we needed to know. I know this sounds weird, but I didn't start at the bottom. God allowed me to start off with a legendary icon. I learnt a lot from a man at the top of his game. I'm now doing a lot of writing and getting ready to go back into the studio. I toured with Stevie for 14 years, so I felt like I needed to change my course and concentrate on Panzie.

G: What motivated you to pursue gospel music?

P: For me, it's the love of Jesus Christ. I like to sing about things that people can feel and leave a positive impression on someone's life.

Donald: Down in Bryan, [Texas], where we're from, we all grew up in the church. Panzie's grandma was an evangelist. Her mom's an evangelist. Somehow down the line, I'm kind of thinking that my baby girl's probably going to end up being a preacher too.

G: I suppose in a way she already is.

D: Oh yeah, she's spreading the good news.

P: And I enjoy every minute of it! It's a joy to do something and see the lives of so many people change because of maybe one word or a line in one song. It cuts to the core of your heart. Even if I never got a dime, I'm so happy to see someone's life change for the better.

G: That's a refreshing attitude, because the music industry is not always about that.

P: No, it's not. If you're going to preach, talk and sing about it, you should at least be about it. There's a passion behind what I do and that's the love of God.

D: Told you she was gonna be a preacher.

P: I thank God that He gave me an opportunity to be a vessel.

G: I get the feeling that's all you've ever wanted to do.

P: All I've ever wanted to do is allow God to use me. I can be true to who I am.

G: Does it bother you that other people in the music industry don't necessarily share your viewpoint?

P: I'm used to it. It doesn't bother me because I know God for myself. I do see the impact I make on other people.

G: I know you have a new CD coming out in September. Are you planning to tour?

P: I would love to tour the United States and Europe, and Canada for the opportunity to see my father.

G: I'd love to hear the two of you record together. I think your voices would really compliment each other.

D: We both feel strongly about that. It's just a matter of choosing the songs. This whole thing, as far as I'm concerned, is to introduce Panzie to Canada. I'm sure that Canada will embrace her just like they embraced me.

Donald Ray Johnson plays the Calgary International Blues Festival on Aug. 9 at 9:30 p.m. Panzie Johnson's set is Aug. 10 at 12 p.m.