Jontavious Willis began his blues career right here in LaGrange, but his music is starting to gain national attention, especially after his tour with Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ that took him all over the country in 2017. Willis’ first album, “Blue Metamorphosis,” was named as a finalist for the 34th International Blues Foundation Challenge for Best Self-Produced CD.
He still keeps in touch with his roots though, and he said that one of his favorite venues to perform at is Pure Life Studios, on the same stage that hosted his first performance.
“I love being here at Pure Life,” Willis said. “It is so intimate, and people know you. It is at home. I was born here in LaGrange. I was raised in Greenville, born in LaGrange, but I love Pure Life to death.”
Willis graduated from Callaway High School in 2014. He gained some early experience at the high school’s talent show, as well as at a performance at the Hillside Food, Music and Art Festival. His inspiration to become a blues musician started far before those performances though, in the church where he grew up.
“I’m from the old Baptist church, and a lot of the melody, a lot of the timing, a lot of stuff is still the same,” Willis said. “So, when I heard the blues it was an easy transition. It was already familiar to my ear, so I just went on and did it.”
Willis said that that familiarity is what drew him to blues.
“I think Muddy Waters was the first guy that I heard play, and I liked the way he sounded,” Willis said. “He sounded like a preacher to me, and — like I said — I’m already familiar with that, so it made it easy.”
That easy familiarity shows through in Willis’ music, which is characterized by an easy atmosphere and fun songs, but also an emphasis on the history of blues.
“A lot of people don’t understand that blues has a deep, deep, deep heritage in African American culture,” Willis said. “Now, later in the 60s and 70s when the British Invasion happened, it kind of combined, but people forget the cultural aspect of the blues and where it was born out in the cotton fields and born out of field hauling. A lot of people don’t understand that and how important lyrics are in the blues, not just guitar playing. I think that is an aspect that gets lost today.”
That emphasis on the history and meaning behind the music adds to his performance and has earned him several dedicated fans according to Pure Life Studios owner Maggie McDonald.
“He is about the only person that will make people jump out of their seat, hoot and holler louder than any other crowd,” McDonald said. “It is just 100 percent fun. It is just fun and hilarious and educational. He knows a lot about the history, and he tries to bring that into his shows, and so it is not just entertainment. You feel like you are learning something, and I think people kind of like that right now. It is a rarity that has been taken out of music, so we always appreciate that.”
Willis’ lighthearted style of blues can sometimes be directly at odds with audience’s preconceptions about blues, and he enjoys challenging those views.
“That’s another misconception — that the blues is all sad. No, the blues is just life,” Willis said. “Ups, downs, it is just what life is, and if I want to go up there and tell you about being happy or talk about how I’ve got a 9-foot (tall) woman with little feet then we can do it and have fun with it.”
That style of blues has filled local venues and gained Willis new fans in performances across the country.
“He draws people in, and people know him, and they come to see him,” McDonald said. “It is great because every time [Willis] plays I see new people because people are always bringing new people like, ‘you’ve got to see this kid.’”
Willis toured with Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ — otherwise known as TajMo — in 2017.
“The tour was great,” Willis said. “It was definitely the highlight of 2017, of my musical career actually.”
While on tour with TajMo, Willis performed at more than 30 venues across the United States, including the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; the Fox Theatre in Tuscon, Arizona; and Sweetland Amphitheatre in LaGrange.
“Every day there were thousands and thousands of people,” Willis said. “Central Park probably had the most. There were so many people they were like ants, but it was very, very fun. I ended up making a lot of friends along the way.”
Willis said the best part of the tour was the time that he got to spend with the Grammy Award winning artists and learning from them.
“That was my favorite part of the tour — just sitting down learning what I could from these magnificent musicians,” Willis said.
For him, it is all about the people. In fact, when asked what his favorite performance was for last year, he was quick to name one of the smaller venues that he played at where he felt a real connection with an older blues musician.
“Last year, there was a guy — and I just went to see him a couple days ago actually — but we were in Elkins, West Virginia called Augusta Heritage,” Willis said. “It is like a camp, and I was teaching. There are a lot of teachers and a lot of students. There were about 200 people there, and this one guy named Mr. John Dee Holeman — he is 88 years old — and he wanted to perform, but he wasn’t moving much. He had a cane and all that, so that night, I was the one hosting the music, so I played. I saw him come out, and he got out on the dance floor, and he started dancing, and I’m like OK. And then he shuffled his way up to the stage, and said, ‘Can I sing with you?’”
Willis said he was singing ‘Big Legged Woman with a Short, Short Mini Skirt’ by Freddie King, and Holeman got up on the stage and started singing it with him.
“It just felt so good because it felt like he was reversing that age. And I said, ‘Mr. John Dee, what did that girl do to you?’ And he said, ‘She stepped on my feet and my feelings too.’ Everybody started laughing. It was wonderful,” Willis said. “Just connecting with the older musicians, with older people in general (is fantastic) because it is just like a library full of what you’re going to go through, and so all you’ve got to do is sit down and listen, and you can avoid so many mistakes.”
Performances with older musicians have played a major role in helping Willis develop his personal style over time.
“The more I play with other people, the more I travel, the more I’m influenced by other things,” Willis said.
“As time goes on I learn more and more, and I hope that never stops.”
The winner finalist for the 34th International Blues Foundation Challenge for Best Self-Produced CD should have been announced on Jan. 20.
Willis is scheduled to play at Pure Life Studios in LaGrange on April 7, July 7 and Oct. 13 this year.
For more information on Willis and additional concert dates, visit Jontaviouswillis.com.