Any musician who gets credited with being an overnight sensation knows that statement just makes for good headlines. In reality, the backstory for greatness is a road paved with more rocks than a prison quarry.
Even with the rising, seemingly quick success of blues singer/songwriter Orphan Jon English, he still informs his ever-growing fan base upfront from the microphone – “I was an orphan, abandoned as a little boy” – if nothing else, just to clear up how the name of the band came about. But there is nothing overnight about the success of Orphan Jon and the Abandoned and their new CD Abandoned No More. The inspiration for every song was decades in the making. In the words of the late, great Sunshine Sonny Payne: “Ya gotta live the blues before you play it.”
Orphan Jon English’s family, based on the outskirts of Bakersfield, California, was part of a long line of migrant workers who traveled from town to town, from state to state for work. When Jon’s mother was a young teen, she gave birth to her first child, a daughter, and soon another and another child was born every year or so until there were four more – all boys. In and out of the family’s life, the children’s father finally abandoned them. His mother, still young and rebellious, had less interest in her children than she did in hanging out in the bars. The State of California was finally called to look in on the unkempt, unsupervised kids. Beginning at eight months old, Jon and his three brothers were sucked into the California Social Services orphanages and foster care system.
Social Services had offered the all the children to their maternal grandparents. But his grandparents only wanted the oldest child, Jon’s sister Georgia, and declined to take the boys. It was three more years before his mother got the boys back. That reunion would only last a few short months.
A Child with No Home: Orphan Jon
Early Years of Abandonment
One day in 1970, a skinny, disheveled four-and-a-half-year-old boy peered out the window of a motel room looking for…waiting for…his mother to return. In tattered clothes and no shoes on his feet, surrounded by his three older brothers, all under the age of 10, the last memory Jon had of his mother was from the night before, when she cupped his face in her hands and kissed his cheek in a rare display of affection, leaving him with some last words: “Don’t you boys go running around all over the place.”
With that, and no warning, while they slept, she vanished and did not return.
That next day they woke up alone. The children had waited, pulling snacks of food from vending machines, running around anyway, barefoot and unattended – and eventually making their way up the road to the house of their mother’s sister.
His aunt took the four boys in, temporarily. But with many children of her own, the addition of four more rambunctious boys was too much for her and, after a short time, she reluctantly called social services – again.
The four boys were split up and taken to an orphanage.
Puzzled and alone again, the scrawny boy Jon, lay in the top bunk in the boys side of the dorm of the orphanage, hugging the emptiness and staring at the neon EXIT sign over the door located on the distant wall.
“Why? Why has this happened to me?” With tears streaming down his face, he waited for some word that their mother would return. Or, that someone…a family…would come forward to take them in.
Weeks went by, which turned into months.
Adopted, at Last
After spending his early years in and out of foster homes and dealing with many abuses by those that were supposed to be there to protect him, a day came when Jon was 10 that he and one of his older brothers got the news that the English family, with whom they had been living, would adopt them.
And that’s when the nightmare got bigger.
“The lady who took us in was very abusive,” said Jon, in a recent interview.
“Looking back, I see there’s so many different paths and directions my life took when I was young that I had no control over,” Jon said.
Because his brother Clarence was older and bigger and had more physical defenses, the younger and smaller Jon took the brunt of the physical and emotional abuse from their adoptive mother.
“When I was young, there were those moments when I hated her. I hated life. I wished for death.” Jon said.
The two brothers became slave labor to serve the adoptive family.
“My life was wrapped around doing chores. That’s all I did as a kid. My brother and I would get up early in the morning, fix our dad’s lunch and do chores before going to school, we never had any play time,” he remembered.
The dad in the family had his own problems and issues.
“He was gone all of the time,” Jon recalled. “He was a workaholic. He didn’t know until years later about the stuff she had done, he had no idea. Of course, when you’re a kid, you don’t think to say ‘Hey, Dad, there’s a lot going on here…’”
There was no one to tell.
Telling anyone about abuses was double-wrapped in the fear of losing the only real home he had come to know. As a result, Jon did what he hoped would keep him on the good side of his abuser.
“We cleaned the house constantly. We did all the floors and dust mopped them, did the dishes, cleaned the bedrooms, did the laundry. We’d go out in the yard and pull weeds in the flower beds and mow the lawns. That’s all we did day in and day out. Go to school, come home from school, do your homework, do the chores, do the dishes, go to bed,” Jon said.
And put up with the beatings, the ridicule, the loneliness and abandonment.
As Jon related his story, he was able to say that, over time, and from a much older viewpoint, he realized that his adoptive mother was one more link in a chain of child abuse – trapped in a cycle of her own life of abuse.
“I recalled the stories she told me when I was a child – about her stepdad and how he raped her…and just beat the crap out of her with a razor strap. It wasn’t until I was older and had an adult mind and I could look back and say ‘Wow, I see why she was the way she was.’ She was conditioned to do that. I don’t think she could look and say, ‘I can change this’ towards me,” Jon said.
Within the despair, however, were rhythms of hope – coming through the speakers of a record player. His adoptive mother would, in softened moments, invite his companionship to listen to her favorite songs.
“One positive thing she did is she would introduce me to music. I don’t remember truly listening to any music at all in my childhood until she came into my life. She loved Mozart, she loved The Everly Brothers – the harmony – Fats Domino and Marvin Gaye. So, I would listen to these songs – and she would encourage me to sing them.
And I discovered that when I did this, there were moments of affection shown towards me like a mother towards a child.
She liked the Everly Brothers. Those two guys can sing! I love their singing style, their harmony. As a child, I would imitate them, and she would sing with me.
There was just something about it [those moments] – as a child. That there was a peace and comfort, and compassion shown towards me. You don’t want to be left again,” Jon recalled.
Running Into Hope
Another path of hope came, a few years later, when Jon attended high school. He discovered he was really good at athletics. It was also a place where Jon’s adoptive father took notice of him.
“I was extremely dedicated to my athletics – running. I would get up early in the morning and run 10 miles a day. Here was my adopted dad who was an athlete [when he was younger] and it was something we could have in common, we connected with, so he started coaching us. I became one of the top runners in the Valley,” said Jon.
“It helped me channel my anger and frustrations in life at the time. I remember in high school that I never felt accepted because that’s just the way I am – never feeling like I belonged. Athletics allowed me the comraderie where I felt like I belonged because I was excelling in the sport that I was in.”
Orphan Jon English as a young athlete in high school found acceptance by excelling in sports. (submitted photos from Jon English)
Finding a Voice
Also, as a young teen, Jon found himself attracted to a young woman who was in chamber choir at his high school. In yet another fateful twist, he joined the choir to be near her.
“I was only in it for one semester, but it was enough to learn from an outstanding choral director in Mr. Mike McQuerrey. I learned to sing a capella, I learned pitch. I learned how to properly warm up your vocal chords And that was part of my life where I rediscovered that I had a voice,” Jon remembered.
Jon said that he still didn’t do anything with his singing until a bit later at the age of 16 when his adoptive grandmother – even more mean and abusive towards him than his adoptive mother – insisted Jon go to church with her…and sing. For Jon, in his never-ending effort to weave threads of obedience entwined with strands of abuse, a tapestry pattern was firmly set by then.
“I would do anything in my power to win over her affection and gain her acceptance,” Jon said.
The church was Jon’s first experience singing before an audience. In front of the tiny Pentecostal congregation of 10 or 15 people, his grandmother had asked him to sing “Why Me, Lord?” by Kris Kristoffersen. (shown here with grateful acknowledgment to the inimitable Kris Kristofferson.) (1)
Jon said the song was something he felt he could connect with, emotionally. His rendition apparently conveyed that emotion to the audience.
“People reacted so positive,” Jon said. “I felt like, ‘Hey, I’m liked by these people.’”
While his rendition of the Kristofferson song was well-received, his life was still void of true acceptance. He soon parted ways with his adopted grandmother and her church, and eventually found another church, one that was more conservative and was overwhelmingly immersed in old-time country gospel. The singing ministry in the new church offered something they called “Specials” wherein they would feature different singers from the church congregation to solo their favorite country gospel songs.
At some point, because he had become known for his singing voice at the previous church, all eyes turned to Jon to contribute his gift of voice.
“They sang something they called ‘Specials’ – songs by The Hansens, The Goodmans, The Bill Gaither Trio, etc. All country gospel artists,” Jon added. “So, I come along, and they came to me and they encouraged me. ‘You should sing a Special’ but I would respond to them ‘I’m not gonna sing a Special, I’m not a singer like that…a country gospel singer. It’s not me.’ But still they would insist ‘Oh, you are, too.’ So, finally I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.'”
“Well, I’m not going to sing country gospel,” Jon said he thought to himself. “I’m going to sing what I love, which is Black spirituals. There was something about the heart and soul in those gospel songs that hit home with me. And because of my love for Motown music. That’s what made the most sense to me as a singer.
“Thankfully I was encouraged by some of the young people in the church; because they remembered me from our high school Chamber Choir days. And by not singing what was expected, it was our way, the youth, of rebelling against the older, more conservative elders in the church. That was as rebellious as you could get. Forsake the normalcy of the country gospel and sing something completely different.” Jon let out one of his deep-toned, infectious laughs at the remembrance of those times.
One of those spirituals came from a Reverend FC Barnes’ songs called “Rough Side of the Mountain.”
“I wanted to do the song,” Jon said. “So, the pastor’s granddaughter – she was an amazing pianist – and was a year younger than me. So, I said, I want to sing this song. And she was like ‘Whoa. That’s not like the Hansens or the Goodmans.’ I said, ‘No, but I think this is a song you would like.’
So, she was like, ‘okay, let’s try it.’
But I said, ‘I don’t want to sing it just like FC Barnes.’ So, with her help we devised my own style and interpretation of the song.”
The stakes were high. The two young people – Jon and the minister’s granddaughter – knew the congregation would only accept Jon’s selection if the minister, himself, heard it and responded with approval – AND – the congregation would be looking to the minister before they decided how to react themselves.
“So, I get up there and I sing the special, ‘Rough Side of the Mountain'” Jon recalled, “with everybody in the congregation on pins and needles, waiting for Pastor, Rev. Jimmy S. Davis’ reaction. He just LOVED it!” Jon said.
(2)(youtube link with grateful acknowledgement to Rev. F. C. Barnes and Rev. Janice Brown)
Jon felt he had followed an inner spirit, taken a chance and won over a skeptical audience. That cemented a connection for the former orphan – that his voice was a way to amplify his feelings but also gain acceptance. That experience became an inner vow.
“If I’m going to sing a song, I’m going to sing a song that is true to the heart. I’m not just going to go through the motions just to sing it. I never sang any song that I wrote or cover song that didn’t affect me.
Because singing is such an emotional expression,” Jon said.
Parting Ways with his Adoptive Family
By the time Jon was 17, his adoptive family life had devolved into an unlivable chaos. His adoptive mother left his adoptive father when he was 14 and the home lost what shreds of stability it had. He left to live with his adoptive mother’s sister, Vickie, who had also attended the previously mentioned church with him along with his adoptive grandmother. She was a woman who was very kind to him. “She was the polar opposite of her sister,” Jon recalled.
Jon graduated high school and began his own life while continuing to attend the new Pentacostal church pastored by the Rev. Davis for the next 18 years. Through the church, he met his first wife, the mother of his children. During that period of years, Jon became a youth minister. He continued to sing in the church.
“I learned so much back then, especially how to sing and connect with the audience,” he said.
Though Jon and his first wife divorced in 2001, they made a joint decision to parent closely with their children. As a result, Jon and the mother of their children have a good relationship and their children grew into successful adults with loving parents.
The abandoned boy had grown into a man who turned a life of loneliness, bitterness and loss into a thriving family of his own and a large group of people at a church with whom he developed his gift of singing.
“It’s all based on acceptance,” Jon admitted.“Acceptance from my adopted mother; acceptance from my church; acceptance as an athlete from my peers and classmates. Everything I poured my heart and soul into because I always wanted to be accepted. That’s how it is for an abandoned kid. I feel like everything I went through as a child, as a young adult and a husband and a father, brought me to where I am today.”
Thankfully, the story does not end there but merely began new chapter – of songwriting, singing and an even more expanded family of musicians.
End – Part One.
Blues fans lucky enough to have caught the first Midwest tour in the summer of 2017 of Orphan Jon English, with his band Orphan Jon and the Abandoned , will be thrilled to know that the band is booked for two shows in Kansas City this spring for their Abandoned No More CD release party tour. The fresh new CD is produced by Barry Levenson at Rip Cat Records.
OJATA is appearing once at Knuckleheads on Friday, April 20, 2018 on the north side of Kansas City and then once again at BB’s Lawnside BBQ April 27, 2018 on the south side of Kansas City. Orphan Jon and the Abandoned has whipped up a fresh batch of emotionally-charged blues lyrics by heralded songwriter Jon English with hypnotizing guitar licks by his bandmate and blues brother, Bruce Krupnik.
Here’s a little taste of where the Krupnik blues zone can take you (from the 2017 OJATA performance at BB’s Lawnside BBQ):
Fair warning: For blues fans who relish being able to say they were among the first to see a hot band’s debut, these two appearance dates in Kansas City on the CD release tour for Abandoned No More are not only full of promise of great new original from-the-heart lyrics and music, but also a promise to be a part of a sweet niche of musical history. Fan-tastic tees will be available also featuring Heather June’s original graphic at the top of this story. Don’t even wonder: you will want one – and for now, that’s the only place they will be available is along the tour.
Blues Insights acknowledgements for contributions to this story:
(1) “Why Me Lord?” Kris Kristofferson. Kris Kristofferson website
(2) “Rough Side of the Mountain” by Rev. F. C. Barnes Chart History, Songs by Rev. F C Barnes and Rev. Janice Brown Rev. F. C. Barnes Classics at CD Universe
(3) Grateful acknowledgement to Orphan Jon English for his generous time and efforts as well as archival photographs and newspaper clippings.
(4) Grateful acknowledgement to artist Heather June for allowing the use of the Orphan Jon & The Abandoned logo for this article. Used with permission here but otherwise commercial rights reserved ©2018 Heather June.
(5) Video by Peggy Stevinson Bair, Blues Insights – Standard License youtube – may be view on Peggy Stevinson Bair youtube channel only. (No parts may be lifted and shown on other sites without prior written contractual permission.) ©2017 All permissions and commercial usage rights reserved and enforced.