He’s been called a “Wonderboy” and “the Wunderkind” by blues legend Taj Mahal. And a newspaper headline once described him as a “70-year-old bluesman in a 20-year-old body.”
For the just-turned 21 Jontavious Willis, who hails from the Meriwether County seat of Greenville, Ga., about an hour north of Columbus, he humbly just wants to play the blues and soak up its rich history and cultural impact.
“I have to,” says Willis, also a Columbus State University sociology major entering his senior year this fall. “I feel like if you’re doing any occupation you should try to be the best that you can be and know the most about it ... There’s so many songs that people don’t know and the blues are so underappreciated. I just feel like I have that duty.”
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Ask him about any prominent and obscure blues musician or performer and the young man likely will know something about their music and background. That, of course, includes Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’, who have five Grammy Awards between them and have invited Willis to open for them on their current TajMo Tour for several dates in August.
Stops on the tour will include New York’s Central Park, Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C., and the Heritage Music Bluesfest in West Virginia, as well as venues in Massachusetts. He also will be with the bluesmen at Sweetland Amphitheatre in nearby LaGrange, Ga., in late September.
“Jontavious Willis. That’s my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind,” his mentor Taj Mahal told Living Blues magazine. “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 ... We are all lucky to be at this point when this man is starting to launch what is going to be an incredible and long career.”
Such glowing commentary might swell the heads of some musicians, those singing the blues or otherwise. But not Willis, who was raised in the Baptist church and whose mother and father have grounded him and nurtured his abilities from the age of 3, back when he would sing gospel tunes alongside his grandfather.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Willis recently about the burgeoning part-time job that he expects to become a full-time blues career once he earns a degree from CSU next May. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. When did you know you had musical talent?
A. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 14, but I was singing when I was 3. I started singing in church with my granddaddy. I liked it, and I always knew from when I was little that I didn’t like to work (a normal job). I had a job for two months at a Walmart distribution center in LaGrange, moving those boxes. It was an easy job, but it was just too hot. I lost a lot of weight, too. That was one perk about it. ... But I started when I was little and I loved it. I started playing guitar on Dec. 24, 2010. My daddy bought me a guitar for Christmas. I had to learn how to play it, but by February of 2011 I had it down somewhat. I’ve got video to prove it, too.
Q. How did you gravitate toward the blues?
A. I listen to everything. Right now on my phone I’m listening to Prince. But I’m from the Baptist church, and you know the black Baptist church has always been a paramount thing in music. ... The back beat was brought about in those churches. Spiritual music had a great influence on blues and jazz and all of that. So it was easy to transition over and sing both of them. When I was in church, I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning the melodies, I was learning timing … there in church.
Q. When you’re playing and singing, what are you feeling inside? Is there emotion?
A. Always. Emotion is a hard thing to describe. But I think about everything. I think about the song, the crowd. I like to make them laugh a lot. I might do one or two slow, sad songs, I call ’em, just to even everybody back out until we go back up (tempo) again. I really want to make it a wonderful experience for the audience. That’s the biggest thing. They’re the customers that you want to make come back every time, and make it even better than the last time they came. I really just try to put on my A game.
Q. How and where did you meet Taj Mahal?
A. In 2015, in Piedmont Park, at the botanical gardens. After B.B. King died, I said I’m not going to sit around here no longer. I’m going to go do something. I wanted to meet B.B., but when somebody dies you can’t get it back. You can sit around and listen to stories, but you can’t get it back.
So I went up to North Carolina to meet these guys (associated with Taj Mahal), and they were thrilled about my guitar tuning because they hadn’t seen anybody tune the way I tune one. The man made a call and Taj Mahal was on the phone and he said (in his raspy voice), “I been waiting for you, Willis.” A week later they called and said Taj Mahal has got a show at Piedmont Park and he wants you to come. He said bring your guitar.
I know Taj Majal, he don’t bring nobody on stage if they’re not getting paid. I thought he wanted me to play for him before the show because he wanted me to get there early. But he told me, “You go up there and do your sound check.” There wasn’t nobody out there. So I did the sound check, and he said, “Man, that’s good.” He was like: I love it, I haven’t ever heard anybody tune a guitar like that. He said I want you to play a song (during the show). Before then, the biggest show I had was maybe 75 or 80 people.
Q. How many were at the Piedmont Park show?
A. There had to be 1,500 or 2,000. Going from 80 to a few thousand, I wasn’t scared (on stage) anymore. And there was the fact that Taj Mahal was sitting right there while I was playing. The band had gone off stage, and he was hand boning. He said (to the crowd): “That’s good. Y’all give it up for Willis. He’s from Georgia.” The people went crazy. And then he said, “I think they want another one,” so I played again. We got done with that and we had a good relationship. He gave a quote for me to Living Blues magazine and I’ve been having shows ever since.
Q. Your first album, “Blue Metamorphosis,” came out last July. Did you go into a studio?
A. I didn’t want to do it like that for my first one. What we did — kind of like what they used to do back in the day — is go into a room or a building. You have somebody over here playing one instrument and somebody over there playing their instrument and somebody here playing another. Now a lot of people will actually go into a high-priced studio and mix the stuff. We just did it raw and that’s how I wanted it. I wanted you to hear everything. So it was fine. It was good. It’s on iTunes.
Q. Did you write the songs?
A. I wrote about every one of them on there. One is a traditional song, but the rest of them are my compositions.
Q. Do you enjoy writing songs?
A. I like writing songs. But I like singing other peoples’ songs, too, the unknown peoples’ songs. I’ve got a voice, so whenever I want to pull one of my songs out it ain’t nothing. I can sell you a CD or whatever. But there are other people in their graves and they didn’t get any money. They got trampled on (by the music industry) and their families didn’t get any money for it. Them are the people that need the voices. If I do a set I’ll do one of my songs, but most of them will be other peoples’ songs. When I get done people will come up to me and ask me, whose song was that? And I’ll tell them the whole biography.
Q. The tour coming up in August is pretty major for you. And there should be big crowds?
A. Central Park might be a lot of folks. I was up in Erie, Pa., and there was 20,000 (in attendance during the festival). It was probably 8,000 or 9,000 when I was playing up there. … But this will probably be one of the highlights of my career (thus far). One of the best memories I ever had … The oldest blues musician lives in Alabama. He’s 97 years old, I think, and he owns a juke joint in Bessemer, Ala., right outside Birmingham. He’s been having it ever since 1954.
Q. What’s his name?
A. Henry Gipson. He’s still a grave digger and owns all the houses (and a cemetery) around him and he still drives and plays guitar. It’s like he’s a super human. Meeting him is one of the highlights. But I think this (upcoming tour) will still be up there. It’s going to be good.
Q. You’re also entering your final year at Columbus State University. How is that mixing with your music job?
A. The way it mixes is I try to manage my classes. I try to get late Mondays and no Fridays and go about my business on the weekends and come on back. I’m a student Monday through Thursday and I’m a musician Friday through Sunday. But I always wanted sociology just in case. I might even do an internship this year. The thing is, if I get a job, nobody’s going to work me the hours that I need. I’m out so much. It’s so hard to even find a job and keep one. At this point, I’m just trying to get done with school and have a degree.
Q. Your education is your insurance in case it all ends at some point?
A. That’s it. But I’m not worried at all.
Q. What’s the farthest distance you’ve gone so far to play?
A. I’ve just been on the East Coast so far, all up and down the coast. I was up in Martha’s Vineyard last month. But next month I’ll be in Portland (Oregon). That’s by myself (and with his parents with him). They just called and I booked the date.
Q. Your mother, who I spoke with on the phone, is your agent?
A. My agent is my Mama. My Dad and my Mama come to every show. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I’m at.
Q. This will be a very busy summer for you I take it?
A. My July and August are real busy. I have 14 shows in August and in July I’ve got nine or 10 ... In the summertime they pick up anyway. July and August are always hot. I’ll be pretty busy, and it’s only going to get more so because when you’re out there with Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ and they let you go in front of them for 30 minutes ...
Q. People will start recognizing you?
A. Yeah, and then there’ll be magazines and more and more press.
Q. What’s one of the most challenging aspects of your blues job, the logistics and traveling?
A. Since I’m a solo man, that makes it a lot easier. They send me an itinerary. I know when I’m leaving. I know where I need to be. And I go to sleep with the bats and wake up with the birds. So it isn’t nothing. I can go to sleep at 2 o’clock and bounce right back up at 6 (in the morning) and keep moving. It’s no problem. I just love every minute of it.
Q. You just turned 21 last month, so this is your prime?
A. That’s what I hear. My granddad told me once that he was 21 and then he woke up at 80. (laughs)
Q. Your mom seemed so nice over the phone?
A. She’s nice, but she’ll tell me like it is … I love her to death. She’s the reason I don’t have an ego.
Q. You’ll be opening for TajMo at Sweetland Amphitheatre in LaGrange. Do you like that place?
A. Oh, yeah. I played there two weeks ago, and I played there back in October at a festival. It was good.
Q. Do you have a preference for where you play, indoors at a club or at an outdoor venue perhaps?
A. It really don’t matter … The good thing about the larger venues is it is more income, but it might not necessarily be a full, attentive crowd. That’s because you’ve got people spread out everywhere, and you’ve got food over here and other stuff over there. But with a small intimate venue like I’m playing Saturday in LaGrange, it’s called Pure Life and only holds 80 people. That’s it. But the thing about it is I can see everybody and their reactions. It’s just priceless.
Q. Is there a bucket list venue you would like to play?
A. Carnegie Hall, that’s a good one. (New York’s) Apollo and Carnegie would be good. Those are wonderful.
Q. What’s the future hold for your playing career? If things go the way you want the next two or three years, what will it be like?
A. I would be getting shows all the time. Taj Mahal, if I’m not mistaken, does over 100 shows a year and he’s 75. I do think I’m going to move back home because there really won’t be a point if I’m doing that many shows to have my apartment here (in Columbus). So I’ll save my money and then buy a house, because I’m trying to be moved in and paying on something by the time I’m 25. And go places. Just go.
Q. You want to be on the road as much as you can?
A. And while I can.
Q. How about Europe. Those are music fanatics over there?
A. I actually was supposed to have done (a show) in Spain. The (booking person) got sick and it kept throwing (the dates) back. But that’s the most I ever got paid (under terms of the contract). That was supposed to be my trip to Spain, but it never happened. My friend went over there and he said that they keep you. He said they only had 10 gigs when they left and came back two months later. They keep you going. (laughs) It’s like, do you want to do four more shows? Why not. Do you want to do seven more shows? Why not.
Q. So a year from now, your college bridle will be gone and you’ll off and running?
A. Once I don’t have any obligations and can stay places for a week, like a festival, I can keep riding. It’s going to be very interesting.
Age: Turned 21 in May
Hometown: Greenville, Ga. (born in LaGrange)
Current residence: Columbus
Education: Graduated from Callaway High School in Hogansville, Ga., in 2014; will be a senior this fall majoring in sociology at Columbus State University
Previous jobs: Playing music is it
Family: His parents, Bernice and Larry Willis (he’s their only child)
Leisure time: Enjoys what most 21-year-olds do, he said, which is playing video games and going to the movies