Shirley Johnson was raised in Norfolk, Virginia where she discovered the blues by listening to Norfolk radio station WRAP, and branched out into soul music, opening for Aretha Franklin, Z.Z. Hill, Jerry Butler and others at local theaters and the naval base. After recording 45s on two small regional labels, she came to Chicago in 1983 with some man’s empty promise of a recording deal, and later worked with Buster Benton, Little Johnny Christian, Artie “Blues Boy” White, and “Professor” Eddie Lusk, and recorded a few more singles.
Her resume also includes appearances in major Hollywood films with Patrick Swazye, Robert de Niro, and Kathleen Turner. Delmark released her first domestic CD, Killer Diller in 2002, and followed up with Blues Attack in 2009.
Johnson shares some biographical parallels with Bonnie Lee (born Jessie Lee Frealls) who moved to Chicago from Texas in 1958. Bonnie Lee had a rough time of it as a single woman and finally found a mentor and protector in piano patriarch Sunnyland Slim, and then again in bandleader and bassist Willie Kent, with whom she enjoyed long working relationships and friendships with.
Bonnie Lee, who did get to perform in Europe, was a beloved figure on the Chicago scene despite a limited repertoire that included growling anthems and sweet barroom ballads, and a recorded output of a handful of singles and only two albums, Sweetheart of the Blues (Delmark) and I’m Good (Wolf), plus a few cameos on the recordings of others before her passing in 2006.