James “Super Chikan” Johnson was born in the small Delta community of Darling in 1951 and grew up in rural towns around the area. As a young boy living in the country, he developed an interest in his family’s chickens and spent time trying to understand the meaning of the noises they made. His friends and family soon began calling him “the old chicken boy” or “Chicken” for short. He received the other half of his moniker during a stint working as a taxi driver in Clarksdale. His speedy driving earned him the new nickname “Super Chikan.”
One of eleven children, Johnson came from a musical family. His grandfather, Ellis Johnson, played the fiddle in local string bands and one of his uncles, “Big” Jack Johnson, is an internationally known blues musician. Johnson’s first musical efforts came through building and playing a diddley bow, a one-string instrument popular among Delta blues musicians. When he was 13 he got a used guitar and was taught the basics of the instrument by friends and family members. By the time he was in his early 20s, he was playing bass in local clubs with his Uncle Jack’s band. Johnson went on to play bass and guitar for a number of Delta blues bandleaders, including Frank Frost, Ernest Roy, Sr., Sam Carr, and Wesley Jefferson.
Later on, while working as a truck driver, Johnson used the time while on the road to write his own songs. He recorded his first album as a bandleader, Blues Come Home to Roost, in 1997. On the recording, Johnson first showcased his ability to meld the blues with a number of different musical styles, including country, funk, and rock. His lyrics also came from a unique perspective, providing both humorous and serious views of contemporary life in the Delta. The record captivated the critics and blues audiences, earning him awards for Best Blues Album and Best Debut Album from the 1998 Living Blues Magazine Awards.
Since the success of his first record, Johnson has been busy performing solo and with his band, The Fighting Cocks, at festivals and clubs throughout the U.S. and Europe. He has also continued to release recordings at a steady pace. His most recent CD, Chikan Supe, was released in 2005 on Clarksdale, Mississippi’s Knockdown South Records.
In recent years, Johnson has also become known as a visual artist. Taking lessons learned from his grandfather, who built instruments and made fishing lures, he began building his own guitars and other instruments. Johnson combined discarded guitar parts with old Army gas cans, creating “Chikantars,” fully playable guitars that he now plays at many of his performances. He also makes cigar box guitars, diddley bows, and other one-of-a-kind instruments. Johnson hand paints each of his instruments, decorating them with detailed scenes of the Delta. The instruments have become highly prized by collectors throughout the south. In 2005 he received an Artist Fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission in order to support this part of his artistic career.
Despite his international travel, Johnson remains dedicated to his home region and state. He still performs in Clarksdale clubs on a regular basis and is a constant presence at music festivals around Mississippi. The state has recognized Johnson’s high level of artistry. In 2004, he was a recipient of Mississippi’s Governors Award for Excellence in the Arts. In 2006, he was a featured performer for the Library of Congress’s “Homegrown” series and also performed at the Kennedy Center as part of their Millennium Stage series.