Pablo Picasso once said that “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” When Vietnam veteran and former Stax guitarist Johnnie Frierson sat down in his garage, hit record on his cassette player and captured the album he would later call “Have You Been Good To Yourself”, there was a lot of dust to wash away. Mountains of it.
Reeling from his combat experiences in the jungles of Southeast Asia, he would lose his young son not long after returning to the states, and desperately needed an outlet.
And for him, it was always that one particular art form.
See, for Frierson, being drafted into the military was a seminal moment in many more ways than one. When they called his number to enlist — in 1968 — it came just a few days after he’d gotten out of the studio and cut first solo single (as “James Fry”) for Hi Records.
But when he got back upon being discharged and returned to Memphis, it was to a music career that no longer existed, and a local recording industry that was on its last legs.
With no one to facilitate his talent, his passion, he took it on himself.
That’s when he sat down with his guitar, and his modest recording equipment, and unleashed his soul: seven gospel-inspired songs under his real name.
“He really was trying to find his way,” his daughter said of the album.
“And writing and making music were a way out for him.”
Here are a few below, including the title track (here’s the volume in its entirety on Spotify):
When the recordings were complete (at some point in the early 1990s) he made a few copies, and hawked them at Memphis-area corner stores and music festivals. Aside from that, though, not much fuss was made about them, and pretty soon they were out of circulation completely.
Until a few years ago (not long after the vet’s death in 2010) when a Tennessee crate digger (aka a record hound) discovered the cassettes at a thrift store and got them to the Seattle recording label Light in the Attic Records, a hipster outfit renowned for unearthing lost gems from decades past.
Due to their love of Frierson’s heartfelt, vulnerable sound and their canny reissue (which debuted this past August) the late service member’s work lives on today.