Buddy Johnson (Born 10/01/1915, Died 09/02/1977)
|Born Woodrow Wilson Johnson, the pianist and bandleader finds his place in the Primer as a pioneer in much the same way as the more well known Louis Jordan - a man who bridged the gap between the old guard and the new era and a great songwriter in his own right. With his sister Ella serving for decades as his primary vocalist, pianist Buddy Johnson led a large jump blues band that enjoyed tremendous success during the 1940s and '50s. The bandleader actually spotlighted a series of talented singers, including the very wonderful Arthur Prysock, but it was Ella's understated delivery (beautifully highlighted on the lovely ballad 'Since I Fell for You', possibly Johnson's most well known song) and Buddy's danceable "Walk-Em Rhythm" that made the partnership such a key one throughout both their careers.
Buddy began taking piano lessons at age four and classical music was as much his preferred genre as he mastered the instrument as the R&B in which he was later to specialise - it remained a passion throughout his life. Johnson produced his first 78 in 1939 ('Stop Pretending') and Ella joined the band shortly afterwards. Buddy put together a nine-piece orchestra by 1941 and recorded for Decca throughout the war period, regularly hitting the R&B charts, making the top spot with 'When My Man Comes Home'. Ella cut her own version of the wonderful 'Since I Fell for You' in 1945, a year after Buddy produced 'Fine Brown Frame'. Both these songs have become R&B classics; probably the most successful version of the former (certainly in terms of pop success) was by Lenny Welch, whilst 'Fine Brown Frame' was recently included by Lou Rawls on the CD "Portrait Of The Blues"
In a similar vein to Louis Jordan, Johnson not only had success on in the charts but was an incredibly popular live act, frequently playing to sellout crowds throughout the '40s. Buddy left Decca and moved over to Mercury Records in 1953 and scored more smashes with Ella's 'Hittin' on Me' and 'I'm Just Your Fool', the latter a 1954 standout that was later recorded by Little Walter. Rock & roll eventually halted Buddy Johnson's momentum (the parallels to Jordan continue, although it has to be said Jordan was always a bigger draw than Johnson), but his band kept recording for Mercury through 1958, switched to Roulette the next year, and bowed out with a solitary session for Hy Weiss's Old Town label in 1964.
Singer Lenny Welch ensured the immortality of 'Since I Fell for You' when his rendition of the Johnson-penned ballad reached the uppermost reaches of the pop charts in 1963. It was a perfect match of song and singer but Johnson's own output is also worthy of investigation. Johnson died in 1977 and is perhaps unjustly forgotten as one of the great pioneers of jump blues and early R&B. He was one of the most important R&B band leaders and composers of the 1940s and 1950s - he wasn't a bad vocalist in his own right, as well as showcasing his sister and the likes of Arthur Prysock. His recordings aren't that easy to get hold of but the Decca, Roulette and Mercury recordings are all worthy additions to your R&B collection if you can find them.