Johnny “Guitar” Knox, a beloved musician who personified the blues in Sacramento, has died of natural causes following long-standing health issues, his family said. Knox’s body was discovered by friends on Tuesday at his Tahoe Park home. Knox was 66.
Whether he was playing swampy tunes on an acoustic guitar or rowdy numbers while plugged into an amplifier, Knox was among Sacramento’s most revered blues musicians and a fixture of the central city. He was inducted into the Sacramento Blues Society’s hall of fame in 2010.
When it came to music, Knox was no weekend warrior. Playing the blues was his primary business. In addition to performing at local clubs, he busked on the street for spare change. A longtime fixture of the Sunday farmers market under the W/X freeway, he was also well known to shoppers at the Tower Records on Broadway, where he would play near the store’s entrance throughout the 1990s.
Knox expertly and intuitively played the musical genre in its many forms, from electrifying Chicago-style blues to deep, down-home riffs. He lived as a consummate bluesman, articulating the pain and joy of his hard-living lifestyle through his guitar licks.
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In a 1997 interview with The Bee, Knox talked about his stretches of living homeless and his use of opiates. But he also articulated his desire to make music on a deep level. “Mine is a valuable and viable voice that deserves to be heard,” he said to The Bee. “I’m a bluesman. I don’t know anything else to do.”
Aaron Moreno, a fellow Sacramento Blues Society Hall of Fame member who performs as Aaron King, remembers Knox for his musicianship and mentoring. Like many blues players around Sacramento, Moreno turned to Knox as a guitar teacher to develop a deeper understanding of the music.
“He was a profound influence in Sacramento, not just in blues but the whole music scene,” Moreno said. “He was well known and respected by those of all stripes. He passed down what he knew and shared it freely.”
Knox was born in Oakland and spent much of his youth in Marysville. His father was a rhythm guitarist in Dixieland and big band jazz ensembles. Knox started playing guitar in his early teens while attending boarding school, said his brother, Cal Knox.
With his six-string in tow, Knox later immersed himself in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury scene during the 1960s. Knox moved to Sacramento in the late-1970s and developed a following in the local blues scene. He was an integral musician at such Sacramento blues haunts as the former Sam’s Hof Brau on J Street and downtown’s Torch Club.
“(Torch Club) was like a second home to him,” said owner Marina Texeira. “He must have played hundreds and hundreds of shows. Everybody knew him, and so many people were influenced by Johnny and were students of his.”
While Knox was a familiar presence at Sacramento blues shows, he recorded only sporadically. His recording output includes 2000’s “Hoboin’” as well as a handful of self-produced albums.
According to Moreno, Knox had been sober for the past decade. Knox’s musical career was sidelined after he underwent a heart bypass and double valve replacement surgery in 2015. Following the surgery, Knox’s health continued to slip and he endured liver issues.
Knox was unable to play for much of the past year. His last public performance was Aug. 7 at a Torch Club benefit show to help with Knox’s medical expenses. Though Knox’s fingers were weakened from his fragile health, he was treated like blues royalty by the crowd, his brother said.
“It was incredible,” Cal Knox said. “It reminded me of Don Corleone in ‘The Godfather,’ like he was holding court with his disciples. Everyone was just gushing over him.”
Knox is survived by four siblings. He was preceded in death by his father, John Knox Jr., and mother, Lois Skaggs. Services are pending, and it’s likely that a jam session will be held soon in Knox’s honor.
“He was one of those Sacramento institutions,” Cal Knox said. “He had friends that were high class and low class. He was a people person.”