Johnnie Frierson

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Memphis soul musician whose work spans from mid-'60s Stax sides to obscure mid-'90s gospel releases.
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A relatively minor player on the mid-'60s Memphis soul scene, Johnnie Frierson got his start at a young age, joining gospel act the Sunset Travelers while still a teenager. The year was 1964 and he made his first appearance on record playing guitar on the Travelers' Peacock label single "On Jesus' Program." Born and raised in Memphis to a devoted Christian family, Frierson would spend most of his intermittent career alternating between gospel music and secular soul and R&B. Around the same time he was beginning his gospel career, he and his younger sister, Mary Frierson Cross, formed the R&B quartet the Drapels with the aim of cutting a record for Stax. The young group eventually earned its way into the studio by persistently hanging out at Stax's office after school and trying to forge connections. While the Drapels' four Stax sides never quite took off, Mary and her singing partner, Marianne Brittenum, became increasingly busy singing backup for Otis Redding and a number of other prominent Stax artists.

When Mary was eventually signed as Wendy Rene, Johnnie worked more behind the scenes, co-writing her biggest Stax hit, "After Laughter (Comes Tears)," and doing some backup gigs of his own. His efforts from this era weren't just limited to the Stax roster, as he became active at Willie Mitchell's Royal Studio, co-writing Tony Ashley's funk song "I'll Go Crazy" and fronting the Hi Rhythm Section (under the name James Fry), who released a single, "Tumbling Down," for Hi Records in 1968. This era of the late '60s would be Frierson's most prolific and, following a stint with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, he spent most of the following two decades out of the music business. He and a couple of friends did release one 1975 gospel single, "Can You Lose by Following God," using the band name Whole Truth, but for the most part, Frierson stayed out of the spotlight, raising a family, working a number of jobs, and playing only occasionally at local clubs and festivals.

Have You Been Good to Yourself
In the early '90s he hosted a gospel show on local radio station WEVL Memphis, and sometime in the early part of the decade he became known as Khafele Ajanaku. It was under this name that he began releasing music again. Recording himself with just a simple tape recorder, he began to self-release cassettes, selling them at local festivals and corner stores around Memphis. The spare but upbeat and soulful songs were religious by nature, with Frierson accompanying himself live on electric guitar. His daughter Keesha refers to this period as one of her father's most difficult times, as he continued to suffer from what was most likely post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by his time in Vietnam. About five years after Frierson's death in April 2010, his homemade cassettes were discovered in a Memphis thrift store by local music aficionado Jameson Sweiger, who brought them to the attention of reissue label Light in the Attic. In 2016, they gave Frierson's unique songs a deluxe reissue under the name Have You Been Good to Yourself, posthumously plucking him out of obscurity.