Three major figures of the Memphis music industry passed away recently and the community is reeling with the loss. The deaths of Judith Johnstone, Memphis singer and patron of the music scene, concert promoter James Manning and Memphis punk pioneer Bob Holmes have left a big hole in the Memphis music world.
Judith Johnstone brought the enthusiasm of the Grande Vegas online casino USA to her work. Since the ’70s Johnstone worked as a singer and a songwriter in Bluff City where she opened for The Klitz, under the name JJ Stone. In 2013 she recorded the album, “Of Dragons,” with late Tracy Chapman and Travis Tritt guitarist Jack Holder.
Even more than her music, Johnstone was known and beloved as an unfailing proponent of local music. She supported young musicians both within the industry and on a personal level. Singer-songwriter Harris Scheuner said that the Memphis music community viewed Johnstone as one of its’ unsung heroes.
“What the scene, the city, the world needs now more than ever is more like Judith Johnstone. She was the real thing in every way. She loved the mucky muck of a true art scene, and she loved and supported the civilized world too….I hardly knew her except for running into her for decades, and she always treated lowly me like I was a king insisting that she loved my music, and could see me for who I was, and that she loved me too. And of course, I loved her.”
Graham Winchester of The Sheiks recalled Johnstone as wonderfully familiar figure in local clubs. “Looking back at my photographs, I think she was literally at every gig.” Winchester, who sometimes performed with Johnstone, continued, “Huge shows with hundreds of people? There. Playing for three people in the corner of a restaurant that doesn’t even really book music? There. And with bells on. I think just about every musician would say the same thing too — somehow, she made it to all of our shows, and seemingly at once. Superwoman.”
Often it was the little acts of kindness for which Memphis musicians remembered her. Winchester reminisced about a 2016 David Bowie tribute at which he played at Minglewood Hall when he was overwhelmed and tired. Johnstone appeared backstage with water, protein bars and words of encouragement.
Bassist Daniel McKee recalled how Johnstone used to “bring bottles of champagne for (my bands) almost every gig” while Reigning Sound co-founder Alex Greene spoke about how the evolution of the Memphis music scene could be seen in Johnstone’s eyes after each show. “She invested herself in it and you could feel buoyed up by her passion.”
James Manning, a Memphis concert promoter who gave many local artists their first breaks, died after battling an illness. Manning was a pillar of the local music scene whose impact on Memphis music spanned three decades. His shows were featured in numerous venues including the Barristers, New Daisy, Proud Mary’s, and more recently, Otherlands. He distinguished himself through his efforts to give local bands and singer-songwriters their first big breaks.
Graham Rowell of Elektra-signed artists, The Band Camino, recalled Manning as “the guy that gave literally everyone their first gig in Memphis, and everyone’s biggest supporter…he believed in my band long before anyone else did and he was quick to message me and tell me he was so proud of us…..I legitimately think he started so many artists’ careers, as well as pushed many forward by vouching for them and giving them positive support when no one else would. He was a very special human and will be missed by many.”
Another bassist, John C. Stubblefield of Lucero, said that his roots-rock band was “forever indebted” to Manning…..I know for certain that Lucero wouldn’t have had the same trajectory … but for James Manning, and his belief in us and … then championing us to whoever would listen.”
Manning came to Memphis in the late ’80s. He studied at the University of Memphis and became entranced by a course in The Blues. He started his career as a promotor working at the New Daisy. Simultaneously, he worked with the KFTM-FM 107 alternative radio station and launched an underground newspaper, the “Night Train.”
Manning slowly became involved in bringing, new and cutting-edge artists to Daisy-owned clubs, Proud Mary’s and Barristers. Soul Coughing front man and solo artist, Mike Doughty, described his arrival in Memphis. “James was one of the first people I met in Memphis. He was working the door at Otherlands, and I asked him how to go about getting a gig there. I didn’t tell him that I’d put out a bunch of records before, so he gave me a long spiel about how to start as a total newbie.”
Manning had an unparalleled understanding of the city’s music business and history. Local keyboardist, Gerald Stephens, remembered that “James’ knowledge of Memphis and Memphis bands was legendary….he seemed to instinctually know who was successful and why, or which act fell apart and why, and he understood which audience would probably like which group’s music. He was a true artist but working on the business side of things.”
Bob Holmes, songwriter and lead guitarist for the Modifiers died after experiencing declining health over a period of several months. In addition to the Modifiers, Holmes played for Angerhead, Sarah & the Eyes, and the Binghamptons. Antenna founder Steve McGehee remembered Holmes as a pivotal player in the Memphis punk scene. “It’s hard for me to put into words just how important Bob Holmes was to the Memphis music scene.”
Bob was known for breaking ground and opening doors for original punk/alternative bands that came to Memphis. Bob was a prolific and accomplished songwriter and musician but gleefully took part in the band’s legendary hi-jinks and debauchery.
David Catching, producer and guitarist for groups like the Eagles of Death Metal, earthlings?, Queens of the Stone Age and the Modifiers reminisced that about his time playing with the Modifiers from 1979 – 1989. “Bob Holmes Ohm and Milford Thompson showed me some of the greatest times of my life and taught me more about life and living than anyone. I wouldn’t be what, or where I am without them. Love always. RIP”
Another friend, John Bonds who plays drums with the River City Tanlines, Subteens and Modifiers said “He was an unbelievable, out of this world guitar player. Like no other,” says. “It was an honor and a privilege, not just to be in the band but to become friends with Bob and be a part of his circle.”