At 76, North Carolina sacred soul singer Johnny Ray Daniels is releasing his first solo album, Whatever You Need, but he’s hardly a neophyte.
One of seven children who grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina, he claims he didn’t start to actually “work” on the farm until he was 14. “I didn’t do much work. I used to cook when they’d come home for lunch. My mom would take out what she wanted me to cook. I could cook anything.”
His specialty was cheese biscuits.
“My mother’s the one that started us singing. I started singing about five years old. She had us in church singing. We wanted to go outside and play. My mother had that look. We knowed if we didn’t sing, she was gonna come and get us.”
By the time Johnny Ray was 20 in 1965 he was making up to $1500 a night singing and playing guitar in a cover band called The Soul Twisters in an all-white nightclub, often playing support for national touring acts that came through town. “We played every kind of song that made a hit and was popular. We would do those songs ’cause that’s what people wanted then. We would rehearse all the new songs. We would give the people what they wanted to hear.”
The accident changed everything. He was sleeping on the back seat of a van on the way home from his day job as a carpet layer in the wee hours.
“I was getting a nap. Next thing I know we were turning over and over. A guy came along in a truck and found me. When I got to the hospital, the doctor told me, ‘Your kidneys are bleeding.’ Lord have mercy. So, I prayed. I was dying. I said, ‘Lord, if you heal my kidneys, I will serve you.’ Three days later, (the doctor) came back and said, ‘A miracle done happened. Your kidneys aren’t bleeding anymore.’ And I know the Lord heard my prayer. And that just sounded like Jesus is waiting on you. All you gotta do is pray and he’s waiting for you. Raise your hand in prayer.”
He heard the voice of the Lord say, “You’re in the wrong place” and decided to devote himself to sacred soul music and the church. “Jesus Is in Me” on the new album is the story of Johnny’s conversion to sacred music. He shouts “Jesus is sitting waiting for my call.” Unabashedly primal, Johnny Ray’s rough-hewn vocals are backed by a crack band, The Sacred Soul Sound Section, with veteran musicians whose credits include Al Green and Alejandro Escovedo.
“Yes. I left the Soul Twisters because I knew I was given back my life, and I knew Jesus was waiting on my call. I don’t care what your problem is, a large one or a small one, he’s with me.”
The Soul Twisters had important gigs. The club owner was insistent. “All he wanted me to do was come in and play. He wanted me to come up every week. He said, ‘I’ll buy you a customized van and all that. When you get tired and want to take a break, it’ll be your van anyway.’ I told him I can’t do that.”
Another man had dangled an opportunity that could have made him a star. The Soul Twisters played a gig in White Plains, New York. “There was a guy (up there) who wanted to take me to the Apollo. ‘I want to sponsor you. I just want you!’ I said, ‘I can’t quit my band. I got a family back home, too.’ He said, ‘I own apartments.’ I’ll give you one to stay in to do what I want you to do. Go to the Apollo and all that.’ I said, ‘I can’t do it. I appreciate your offer, but I can’t do that. I can’t leave the band.”
After leaving the Soul Twisters, Johnny Ray joined his wife Dorothy Vines’ gospel group The Vines Sisters. He played behind every song the Vines Sisters ever sang as the group built up a reputation as one of the most stirring gospel groups in Eastern North Carolina.
Holding to a hard-driving old-school quartet style, they were soon dubbed the “Glorifying” Vines Sisters by a local radio DJ, for the way they sang and shouted for the Lord. Daniels drove the Glorifying Vines Sisters on long road trips around the national gospel circuit, often coming home to sleep for four hours before putting in a day of work and getting right back on the road again. They played on bills with legends like the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Sam Cooke, Shirley Caesar, and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
On May 6th Bible & Tire Recording Co. will release Whatever You Need, produced in Memphis by Will Sexton and Bruce Watson, label owner and longtime executive with Mississippi’s Fat Possum Records. The Memphis Commercial Appeal calls Watson “a pivotal force in the discovery and rediscovery of a generation of Hill Country blues arts.”
The album also features The Sacred Soul Sound Section: Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Al Green) and Will Sexton on guitars (Charlie Sexton, Alejandro Escovedo, Roky Erickson).
One of the performers on the album is Johnny’s son Anthony who leads the Dedicated Men of Zion (DMZ), following a career as a backup singer for the likes of Elton John and Bebe Winans; and grandson Antwan, a member of DMZ. Both of them sing backup on his album.
“Anthony was an organ student,” say Johnny. I teached him how to play. He started with us when he was about 15 years old. He started with another group but wanted to quit ’cause the other guy the group was not a good guy to work with.”
Johnny’s granddaughter also sings on the album.
There are eight standards including “I Shall Not Be Moved” and “God Is Able” on the album. The one original is “Jesus Is Waiting” about his conversion to gospel music as a calling after his accident.
Sacred soul fans are anticipating this album following key tracks of his on the compilation album Hanging Tree Guitars (on Music Maker Foundation, which Robert Christgau named his top album of 2020) and the newly-recorded various artists album Sacred Soul of North Carolina (on Bible & Tire Recording Co. / Music Maker Foundation, which earned acclaim from NPR Music, MOJO , DownBeat, and WNYC and which Christgau named his #20 album of 2021.
At 76, Johnny has no plans for slowing down. “I go to church every weekend. I play piano for the choir. Then, I go to my daughter’s church and play. I play for that choir in nine different churches.”
He only recently turned over his carpet laying business to his son Anthony. “I was on a job and I pulled a muscle. I pinched a nerve in my left leg. That’s the only problem I have. The dead nerve in one side of my leg. That’s all. We had a contract for all the school houses. In the summertime 15 or 20 years ago, we covered the schools in the summer.
He hopes to tour on the new album. “I’m ready to meet all the people. That’s the thing about me. I want to do something to uplift people, and bless people. This is my goal. That’s really important to me that I want to do something, live for The Lord.”
When I called Johnny, he was at his nephew’ house. I could hear the sound of pool balls cracking in the background.
At the end of our conversation, he said, “Call me anytime you want.”