Dollar worked as a Chicago police officer until being injured in the late 1970s. He now receives disability compensation from the city.
"Now I'm too old and too ill to be an officer," he says. "I was one until 15 years ago. Now I have an enlarged heart, congestive heart failure. I'm on a fixed income. I'm okay. I make well over enough money to survive with."
"I got hurt and it kinda scared me more than it normally do," he says of the incident that put him into retirement.
"I can show you better than I can tell you," he adds, lifting up his shirt to reveal scars on his stomach. "I got shot five times. Right in the back and the belly and everywhere. Front and back. But I killed two children and did not have any thoughts about it. Never felt bad about it. Those kids was killing me. And I got shot in the head since then, I got shot in the arm since then, I got shot in the leg since then, and it's no thing...I got shot because papa don't take no mess. Some people get angry. I don't give no fuck, I'll get angry too. And they need to know that, just like they'll shoot me, I'll shoot them back."
Dollar describes being shot as "sort of like having a toothache."
"It's an individual thing, you know," he says. "It sort of depends on where you get hit at, I guess. It hurts anywhere, but sometimes you get hit and don't come back to life for awhile. Other times you get hit, it's alive and kicking and well, O.K.? There are hot spots, like maybe on the inside of an arm, or a leg. It stays hot. It don't numb. It feels like somebody hit you with a red hot chisel with a red hot sledge hammer. The impact and the pain remains. I have a very low tolerance for pain. I'm like a wimp, O.K? I hate it, man. I hate pain. Nobody hates pain worse than John. I can get a toothache and it'll depress me to the point where I lose weight. I hate pain, but I deal with it...I survive these things because I'm from the streets man. I love these streets. I don't give a fuck. I know all the stars. I know Johnny Taylor. I know Tyrone Davis. I know B.B. King. I have no desire to be around these people. These people have a different philosophy than me. I like to be right here, where I'm from. Right down here on the street, O.K.? I like to be right here with these people that I'm around and go through the mistakes and shit they made 'cause this is where I'm from, man. If I had a lot of money, do you know what would happen to me? I would do the John Belushi. I would kill myself because my body can't take what I would do to it if I had the money to do it with. I don't do drugs, but I would drink and get enough sex to kill me! I mean that. If I had $20 million I would die in two weeks. I would enjoy the money."
Our first interview comes to a screeching halt when Dollar's son appears, unfortunately, short on cash. We meet again one month later, again outside Lilly's. This time, Dollar is in a much more relaxed mood. In the plush, warm confines of his white, 1983 Cadillac - his pride and joy - Dollar chain-smokes cigarettes until the car is filled with a haze. His voice rarely rises above a whisper.
"I love this this stupid thing," he says of the car he has named The Dinosaur. "It's not a limosine, but I drive this all the time. This is my car. There's no muffler on this car, but it's so quiet. I knocked it off. But you know, this car will go. If this car had to go to Heaven, it could go. I love this car. I call this car Frosty. She'll go anywhere. And when I get upset, I talk to this car. You might think I'm nuts for talking to a car, but I say 'Let's get out of here.' She had a problem with the thermostat in this car. I'd say to her 'You freeze me in this car, you're going to make me sick and I'm not gonna be able to function.' I took her to the hospital and got her thermostat fixed and now she could cook toast! She could make eggs. She's all good."
For a rare moment, Dollar gets interested in talking about the specifics of his music. Perhaps his greatest recorded achievement to date is the Isabel album My Soul Is Blue. On the seven-song album, recorded in Paris on Nov. 8 and Dec. 14, 1980, Dollar is backed by a stellar Chicago unit including George Smith on harmonica, guitarist Sammy Lawhorn, Roosevelt "Snake" Shaw on drums and bassist Nick Charles. Although it's a wonderful album of deep Chicago blues, Dollar calls My Soul Is Blue "...the worst shit I've ever done in my life."
"It's too raw. It's too down to Earth," he stresses. But if he's from the streets, how could it be too raw? "Doctor that son of a bitch!" He counters. "See, making a record is one thing, but phrasing is another thing. When you say a word, it has got to be said in the right way. I have spent two hours trying to say a word the right way. You might want to say the word sweetheart. You don't just say sweetheart. You say sweetheart. I hated that whole album. I hated the cover. I hated everything. They took that cover picture in Nice, France and we almost had a fist fight about that cover, because I don't like nobody to catch me on no picture when I'm just laughin' so hard that I have no control. Do not take my picture when I am laughing that hard about something. Then I look like some kinda animal or something. They did that and I had a fit. I called them and I said "If you release that, I will kill you, personally - choke-you-to-death. And I will kill them for what they did. I'll knock their ass down South."
Moving into his storytelling mode, Dollar relates, "When we walked into the studio to record that album, there was some French star, who makes maybe $100,000 a night, recording in the same studio, only he was like, down the hall. And we had no respect for him 'cause we went down there and we looked at him - and we was drinkin' Black and White scotch, right? I went and I looked in there and I said "Who is this muthafucka? I was high. I had a big thing of chestnuts, man. You know they had chestnuts roastin' outside. I said "Who is this muthafucka? He came out, and me and him got drunk as two skunks. Look, I said, "Man, who are you? He said, "Hey, I'm Raoul, whoever he say he was. I didn't care who he was. I just wanted to know who could stop everybody's movement...He was like a Julio Iglesias or some motherfucker like that over in France. He was very famous. But I didn't care and he didn't give a shit either. He wanted to meet me. 'cause I'm awesome. I'm awesome in the clutch. I swear I am. And he came to see us that night. We played at the Hotel DeVille, downtown Paris. See, we never played no bullshit gigs. We played gigs for real. When we walked onstage, it sounded like thunder man. Kinda like God was your MC. You walk on the stage and it was like that, man. Two-hundred speakers over here and 200 hundred speakers here...All over Europe, man, I had myself a wonderful time. And when I came back from that son of a bitch, I had plenty...of...money. I mean a lot of money, man. I'm not talkin' about no $6,000. I had like $65,000 and I spent it all in about two weeks."
In an interview that appeared in Soul Bag magazine in the 1980s, Dollar was quoted saying that he felt he was a better singer than guitarist. That is no longer the case.
"Not now. Sixteen years done came in between that statement and now," he says. "Right now, I think the combination is what is givin' me a lot. I thank God I can play the son of a bitch behind myself and I surround myself with other good guitar players so I don't even have to be faced with that problem. My shit is my shit. I do what I do and I'm done with it."
"You know what?" he adds, sinking deeper into the soft, tan leather seat of the Caddy. "This is the honest to God truth. I've been sick. Sick, sick, sick. But I'm not gonna stop kickin'. I don't want to die. I want to stay right here. Right here. I think God's trying to tell me something. I wanna see what he's got to tell me."
He pauses and peers through glassy eyes out to the street.
"I was born in Greenville, Mississippi. I had a mid-wife deliver me, so I have a controversial birthdate. They say, the 22nd of November sometimes, and that would make me a Scorpio. Then they say the 23rd, in 1941. Even when I go to the social security board for a printout, they'll give me the 23rd and then come back and give me the 22nd. Doesn't matter the day. One day."
Dollar makes his last name as ambiguous to interviewers as his date of birth.
"Sometimes I'll be Williams, when I want to be, because that was my mother's name. I'll use another name when I get ready. I had a reason for changing my name," he says.
When asked why he uses Dollar as his last name, he grins as nervously as a guy like Johnny Dollar can, and whispers "You don't want to know. Seriously - in the street, actually." A moment later he adds, "As a child, you know, we always used to ask our uncle for some money and I would always ask for a dollar. So he would always give me a dollar. They would give us all a dollar. Whatever amount they gave, they would give everybody some, O.K.? There was so many of us. But when you came to our house, you had to go take out a loan, because there was a lot of us."
Dollar's family was close when it's members lived in the Delta of Mississippi, but when they moved north over the years, the clan drifted apart. Dollar also spent a portion of his youth in California.
"My father, he came here first, and he brought me with him and my mother. I was so young, only a few months old, when I came up. I never really knew anything about the South. I was just born there, that's about the size of it. But I know that lots of people who are (blues performers) were born in Greenville - Little Milton and people like that. I think if I had known those people earlier, I probably would have started playing music earlier, but I didn't know those people."
Dollar's mother died when he was 14, and as a child, he recalls, he was shifted among his relatives.
"I never really got set in any place. But we lived at 1422 Trumbull when my mother passed away on August 27, 1960. That was a sad day for the Williams family. It was a bad day for them. When I think of that, it makes me very depressed...Then one time, I married a woman whose birthday was on August 27. I was like 'Wow, you're celebratin' and I got to be sad about it.'"
Dollar is a strong, aggressive personality most of the time, but when the subject of the conversation about his family life drifts to his brother, Dizz, he softens under the sadness and pain he feels in Dizz's absence.
"I've never loved a human being as much as I loved that boy," he says, tears welling in his eyes. "It was five months (after his death) before I could even talk about it. I'd be drivin' down the street in my car and I'd start cryin', thinkin' about my brother. See, I loved him dearly, because my mama passed and left (Dizz) here to take care of all these children and my brother Dizz did that. And wherever my brother is right now, I hope God just moves him over so I can be right next to him. I loved Dizz. Dizz was not nobody's joke. People that didn't know Dizz didn't have any kind of concept about him. Dizz read the Bible all day. People never knew that. He's my oldest brother. He was left-handed and my father was left-handed. My father's a Walter and Lefty's a Walter. I've never known anybody in my whole life as great as my brother. He never stopped. Every day was a holiday and every night was a party. Dizz would wake up and the games would begin. I will never be the same. This boy fixed it. If something was wrong, Dizz fixed it. When I wanted to know how to drive, he fixed the car...Lefty Dizz got sick, man. My brother got sick, man. He wanted to be popular like Buddy Guy and all of them guys and he should have been. They (criticized) him because he drank whiskey. That's why I drink it and tell them to kiss my ass. If you don't like what I do, kiss my ass. All I ask God to do is, please, whenever and wherever there's a judgment day, let me see Dizz again because Dizz was stolen from us...See, people didn't know Lefty Dizz like I knew him...The older people always treated me - I was the baby, the baby boy. They gave me special attention. They called me John John. Nobody knows that. We would get into the Kankakee River and swim and I'd hold onto (Dizz) real tight. He'd say "Come on! Come on!' 'Cause he was a big guy and I was little. He'd say, 'Come on. Don't be scared.' I'd say 'Can I hold you?' He'd say 'Yeah. Come on and hold onto my neck,' and we'd swim way out. And I'd be so scared. I'd say 'You're not going to let me go?' He'd say 'I'd never let you go.' He would do things like that, man. (Dizz) is a very touchy subject with me. Because, some kind of way, I think I was robbed of my brother."
Although the two were close, Dollar says Dizz never taught him much on the guitar.
These days, Dollar seems to be going through a mid-life crisis. His health has also been failing in recent years. He says he sees his body changing and he looks wistful when he thinks of his younger self.
"Up 'til now, I've always been a girls man. I chase girls to death," he says. 'I don't do 'em any harm. I just subdue 'em, get 'em. 'Come here. Be still. Say I can and I won't. Say I can't and I will,' you know what I'm sayin'? It's one of those kinds of things. Even at 55 years old, I get joy out of chasing women. I do. And I get 'em too. They like me too. I don't know what kinda stuff happens, but they still like me. My teeth are falling out. My hair's falling out, turning gray...These things are strange to me, because I was intact until maybe five years ago. But now I can run my hand across my hair and it's real smooth in spots. I ain't hidin' anything, I just like lookin' at myself the way I always been, you know what I'm sayin'. I've changed."
Contributing to his health problems is Dollar's admitted penchant for for alcohol. Like other difficulties in his life, he accepts his problem and tries to deal with it day to day, hoping to survive.
"God has been good to me," he says. "'Cause I've had like, three heart attacks and kidney failure twice. I was in the hospital one time (for kidney failure) and I got out and started sneaking and drinking and my kidneys shut back down and God gave me another chance. Robert Covington, when he had his kidney failure and transplant, he called me up and said 'You protect yourself. Stop drinkin' that stuff.' But I never stopped...I'm a total alcoholic and I don't even regret it...But you know what, I love bein' Johnny Dollar. If you find out that you're makin' mistakes over and over again - not even the same mistake, but different kinds of mistakes, but you go in and you find yourself, then it's up to you. You can start fresh from that point. I went away and found myself, I really did, because the alcohol was killing me, but the funny thing about that, the thing that was killin' me was helping me relax. The doctors said 'The reason you have congestive heart failure is because of the alcohol.' But when you don't drink the whiskey, it makes you go through some kind of acute anxiety stage. So, I love alcohol. I'm not a drunk. I don't drink to get drunk. I drink to make the sick go away. See, as disciplined as I am in so many areas, when it comes to alcohol I'm undisciplined. I love the shit. It just makes me just feel...Even when you're havin' sex, when you drink alcohol, you think you're doin' a helluva job, you know. So be it."
Dollar says he is thankful for his caring wife, Diane Sibley, who, he says, does her best to watch over his health.
"I drink and I forget to do things that's important for me to live," he says. "I gotta take all this medication every day to live, and I forget. I drink and I have a good time and I forget that I'm not...healthy. I'll go three or four days without taking things that I've gotta take to live. My doctor, he's like, a friend of mine and he says 'Johnny, please man, you know, one blood clot through that big fat heart of yours and you're outta here.' So I have to have a woman around me that loves me. One that cares more about me than I do. For some reason I forget these things. But when you've got somebody around you that cares, they make sure you don't forget."
Dollar laughs when he looks at the picture of himself from a decade ago on the cover of J.D.'s Blues. He looks young and strong. He moves quickly from the subject of aging, to reminiscing about the people involved in the making of that album.
"You know, around the time that photo was taken, I had a friend (who was involved in the project) who hadn't even been around blacks at all. He didn't know any black people because he was from Poland. He and I got to be very close. We used to hang out every day. I thought that cover turned out good man. We used to hang out, you know, hang tough, man. I said to him, 'Man, what you actually need to do is get you a black girl and sit down and talk to her ass and see what happens man.' He had a girlfriend man, and I wasn't going to take him out and put him on some bad trip or somethin', but I wanted him to talk to a black girl. He was fascinated. He said, 'You know, everybody's the same.' I said, 'I told you, fool!' The people that make shit ugly is the older people. The young people, they don't give a damn what happens. 'Hey, how you doin' man?' 'Fuck you!' 'Fuck you back.' So be it. You know what I'm sayin'? It's as simple as that, you know? As a Chicago policeman, man, I ran into many, many things that made me think differently about so many things."
Dollar expresses no desire to conform to anything - let alone the expectations of those in the music industry.
"I look at myself like I look at my brother's career," he says. "Maybe we've gone as far as we could go. And Lefty Dizz never got to a Buddy Guy status or a Bruce Springsteen status, but they all knew him and they all cared about him. Maybe I've gone as far as I can go in this thing...But Bootsy Collins told me on the train to Denver, Colorado, he told me 'Johnny, man, as well as you can play, I don't understand why you haven't made it big.' But out of all the years I been out here, I never had a booking agent. Never had an agent. If I had an agent, I could've made it. Probably still could make it, but I just think that the record industry, as far as Chicago is concerned, they're intimidated by me, because I'll turn from John the Baptist to instant motherfucker in two seconds. They know I get very angry very quick. And I don't just get angry, I react. And I don't play those games. They like to take Koko (Taylor) and Lonnie (Brooks) and all them people and push them. Hey, they're cool. But I insist on being a man 99 1/2 percent of the time. I'll be a child the other half. But I don't have somebody overseein' me and hangin' around watchin' me. Bruce (Iglauer) follows his entertainers all over the place, man. He goes with 'em, but I don't like that. That's good (for some people) but that's not for me."
For a renegade like Dollar, autonomy, whether it leads to mass appeal or not, is the only way pursue life and his music. It's difficult to envision him working any other way. Being onstage helps satiate his huge ego, and whether he would admit it or not, the stage must be a welcome respite from a crazy world. Onstage people cooperate and get along. They smile at him. They laugh at his jokes, and there's never any question that he's the man in charge.
"Being on that stage, that's my world, that's where I live," he says. "I love that, and playin' the guitar and singin' for people. I can't even tell you, I don't even have the right words to tell you how that makes me feel to be up there entertaining people. My personality versus 2,500 personalities. Hey, they're listening to me because I have a job here. I'm doin' my job. And I don't ever brag, but sometimes, I get on a roll and I can make things happen."
When Dollar steps off the stage, he heads right back to his streets. He's certainly well-equipped for survival there - tough-talking, always ready to brawl. But even though Dollar wears his tough, macho personality like a coat of armor, it seems to hide and protect a sensitive, decent man. "Be careful with me," he implores quietly when we discuss how this story will be presented.
"I'm a real deep person," he says. "Things move me spontaneously, O.K.? If I see 20,000 blacks jumpin' on you, you'd rather see me than the police 'cause I'm gonna win! I never saw anything I can't win. If I saw 20,000 whites jumpin' on you, I'm gonna come and do the same thing 'cause I'm only one way. I don't have any color in my system. That's why I took the job as a policeman, see, because I knew I would be a just motherfucker, but they shot me and they hurt me and they frightened me. You know, even Godzilla gets scared...I'm a tough guy because I take my lumps and my bumps like everybody else. I welcome them. I really do. That's the way it is...Basically, I'm a happy guy. I'll smile for anybody. When I meet somebody, I'll always give them a smile. They have to make the smile go away. Not me you know. And it's kinda hard to make it go away sometimes. But, you know, I'm a happy person because I love life. I love living, you know. I love people. I love being around people. I have not a prejudiced bone in my body for anybody. I'll let anybody make the first step the wrong way, and if I see 'em goin' the wrong way, if I can stop 'em from goin' that way, I will. I have no animosity toward anybody. I love people, man."
A band member taps on the window of Dollar's car to let him know that Lilly's is packed and he's wanted back onstage.
"I'm just Johnny Dollar," he concludes. "That's it. I'm not scared of shit. I don't wanna die, but I'm not scared of shit."
Excerpts from this story appeared in Living Blues #128.