There’s a photo of Stella Carter Johnson sitting on B.B. King’s lap. The picture was taken at a famous Chicago club some time during Johnson’s younger years, but not so long ago that she can’t remember the moment.
After all, it would be mighty hard for an avid listener of the blues to forget an experience like that despite her advanced years. On July 31, Johnson turned 101. The Austin resident and mother of two children came to Chicago in 1941 from Greenwood, Mississippi — a town about 20 minutes from the cotton plantation where the famous blues musician was born.
“She loves blues,” said Johnson’s daughter, Florianne Johnson, during a phone interview on Sunday. There were, in fact, multiple phone interviews. The second was initiated by Stella herself, who wanted to know why there hadn’t been a question posed about her husband — the other love of her life.
Stella married Willie Johnson on July 31, 1941 (her birthday and the year she migrated here from Mississippi). She was 16 years old and he was 21. They met at a night club, each reveling in the blues.
Her husband worked for International Harvester for 26 years before he died in 1977. Stella held down manufacturing jobs at a glass company and then a belt company before she focused on housekeeping. She retired in 1975.
Stella still listens to the music. Along with King, she enjoys Johnny Taylor, Tyrone Davis, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. On Sundays, her ears are tipped toward the radio.
She struggles with glaucoma and arthritis and is sometimes “a little weak,” her daughter said, but Stella’s still sharp and, for the most part, healthy. She is tended to during the week by a caregiver, Donna Kelly, whom Stella considers another daughter. Florianne takes over after Kelly leaves.
The matriarch is the oldest living person in the Johnson family. Along with her two children, she has five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
When asked if there’s a secret to her having lived so long, Johnson fell into silence.
“I never was sick too much,” she finally said. “I don’t know.”
Maybe the blues has something to do with that.