Story By: Karah Rhodes & Molly Vines.
“Unique. It’s me.”
Sitting on a deep cushioned couch in the family living room while resting his hands on his first acoustic guitar, twenty-one-year-old Jontavious Willis pauses a moment, thoughtfully considering how to describe his sound. His friends and family call him “Quon.” Two time Grammy Award winner and blues legend, Taj Mahal, deems him as “My Wonderboy, the Wunderkind,” while others regard him as a testament to this generation of blues being alive and well.
A Sunday evening spent resting at his family’s home in Greenville, Georgia, in-between college classes and touring, Willis, humbled to share his musical journey, eases back to readjust his hands along the guitar, smiling as he begins strumming and singing along.
Where they say roots run deep in the South, Willis, who was born in LaGrange, Georgia and raised in Greenville, finds his musical roots running through the depths of Georgia to the front of the church where he began singing alongside his grandfather.
It was there in church, singing gospel music with his “Granddad” at the age of three where his passion for music began.
Though his passion for music began at an early age, it was not until later in his childhood that he learned to play an instrument. Beginning with the piano then moving to the trombone, Willis found his true love on December 24, 2010, when his dad granted his Christmas wish for an electric guitar.
A self-started musician whose raw musical talent expands an impressive repertoire of piano, trombone, harmonica, banjo and guitar, Willis was awestruck with the electric guitar, practicing for two months until February when sensing he was “ playin’ pretty good -not awesome, but it was good enough “ to purchase what he now points to sitting nearby on the couch as his first acoustic guitar.
From there, Willis took his musical passion and talents full circle in returning to church – this time with a guitar. Meanwhile playing music in several churches, he began playing the blues at home, moving to the public scene in 2012. Fast forward three years to 2015 where he played alongside a man with connections to one of Atlanta’s concert and festival venue hotbeds, Piedmont Park.
Soon Willis got the chance to play in another festival and then another and another. Continuing to gain momentum, it was during this snowballing of musical opportunity that his talent caught the eye of the renowned blues artist, musician, and Grammy Award winner, Taj Mahal. “Taj is an older cat that’s been doin’ blues and different genres of music since ‘63… he was the one that got me out on the road. He invited me to Atlanta and told me he had a show. The biggest crowd I had played for-maybe like 80, 85 people. So he told me to come to the show. I thought he had just invited me to come to the show – he told me to bring my guitar-cuz’ back then I had been doin’ a weird tune – I thought he was just wantin’ to see the tune. So he told me to come up and do a sound check, so I did a sound check. Nobody was there – it was just a big open field… ‘bout two hours later, there were people everywhere – like 2,000 – 3,000 people. And that was so different from me playin’ for 80 people to 2,000 – 3,000 people.
Floored by his musical talent and sound, this one time successful account evolved into a mentorship between Majal and WIllis leading to his first taste of fame.
“He was basically saying he was taking me under his wing. Stuff started rolling for me,” and then, as WIllis began snapping his fingers, “ in 2 016, I started getting festivals like this.”
With this sudden fame, Willis found his name had become a recognized name within the blues community: “ People t hat I h ad m essaged b efore
that said, ‘I don’t know who you are’ but then reply – miraculously – ‘Oh, but we know you now!’”
Mahal continues to serve as a guiding light to Willis, and for that, Willis ishumbled. “H e [ Majal] j ust d id a l ot f or m e a nd t he b lues c ulture a ltogether. T hey c all me the grid of the blues. He’s a master now… he was learnin’ around all the guys that originally recorded in the 20s and the 30s and he just … like
a master musician – Wonderful guy.”
Wrapping a ragtime tune, Willis, who enjoys playing as much as the audience listens, turns to us, asking, “ Wanna d o one m ore? What about Columbus GA Blues?” Written about a past relationship gone wrong, “Columbus GA Blues” is a song appearing on his most recent album written by Willis himself that reflects a genuine, relatable story. “She cheated on me… the whole CD I wrote was basically during that time. You do your more creative stuff during the highs and lows I feel. That’s definitely one.”
Inspired by both his and others’ personal experiences, you’ll find Willis’ songs share a common denominator of life, “ because life – life brings a lot of emotions… you know how life goes.”
For Willis, his family remains the backbone of his musical journey. “They support me. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have anything. In July, we went to Portland, Oregon, and in September, we were in Champaign, Illinois, together… they supported me all the way.”
For now, Willis continues to complete his degree in sociology as a college student at Columbus State University. Upon completion of his degree in May, Willis anticipates the freedom to embark on his musical journey full time. Beaming, Jontavious Willis sums up the motivation behind his musical success, saying, “And I loooovee blues – and gospel. Gospel and blues… that’s my heart.