Walk 'Em : The Buddy Johnson Story©2004JCMarion


Woodrow Wilson "Buddy" Johnson was born in Darlington, South Carolina, in January of 1915. He took to music at an early age, becoming adept at the piano beginning at the age of five. As a teenager he was active in church and school groups arranging and producing musical presentations in the local community. By the time he was in his early twenties, he realized that attaining his place in the field of music would be helped by a move to the Northeast, New York City in particular. By the late nineteen thirties, New York was a bustling center of musical activity, and there were many opportunities for someone of talent to break into the business. There were many clubs that afforded a place for Black musicians both in Harlem and "downtown" in Greenwich Village and along 52nd Street in midtown Manhattan. He soon found work as a pianist with a traveling show called The Cotton Club Revue.

He soon put together a small band that played blues tunes and riff based jump and boogie dance numbers. In late 1939 he secured a recording contract with the oldest of the major labels, Decca Records. His very first recording was "Jammin' In Georgia" and "Stop Pretending" featuring Buddy on vocal accompanied by The Mack Sisters on # 7864. A short time after Buddy began recording for Decca, his teenaged sister Ella joined him in New York and recorded with the band, on the tune "Please Mr. Johnson" on # 8555. Besides Ella Johnson, singer Etta Jones also was a vocalist with the band in 1943 and 1944. Johnson showed off his talent as a composer with a Decca recording of two of his original tunes "Troyon Swing" and "Southern Exposure" on # 8562. By the year 1941, Buddy had put together a tight nine piece band that was composed of Courtney Williams and Chester Boone on trumpets; Dan Minor on trombone; Bill Bowen, Ken Hollon, and Les Johnakens on saxes; Frank Clark on bass; Alfred Taylor on drums; and Buddy on piano.

The band began to have successes for Decca during the war years."Let's Beat Out Some Love" on # 8647 ("I Done Found Out" on the flip), "Baby Don't You Cry" on # 8632, "When My Man Comes Home" and "I'll Always Be Here With You" on # 8655, and a big hit version of "That's The Stuff You Gotta Watch" with Ella Johnson on vocal on # 8671. The 1944 addition of male vocalist Arthur Prysock gave the Johnson band an even greater push as a top performing unit. In late 1944 "They All Say I'm The Biggest Fool" with Prysock on vocal was a big seller for the band (Decca # 48016)and it came on the heels of two other big hits "Fine Brown Frame" (# 11000) and "Walk 'Em" on # 48012. From that point on the band called its music "Walk 'Em Rhythm" which meant to the people to get ready to dance, dance, dance.

More hits followed for the band. Ella Johnson hit paydirt with a wonderful vocal turn on a Buddy Johnson original tune that would become an American standard - "Since I Fell For You" on # 48016. (The song would be covered eight years later by The Harptones, and a few years after that by Lenny Welch). "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone" on # 48040 with a Prysock vocal scored, as did the instrumental "Lil' Dog" on # 48076 coupled with "Far Cry" which was part of Johnson's original Piano Concerto. In 1947 the band had a hit with a record that symbolized the great change about to come in the country with "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball" (# 24675). With a string of hit records, two superb vocalists, great original music charts, the Buddy Johnson band was one of the great attractions of the time. Although America was still existing in a type of racial parallel universe, the Johnson band played to huge throngs everywhere it went. Without radio play on mainstream stations, and shut out of the pop music field, Buddy Johnson soon became known as the "king of the one nighters" because the band was such a huge draw. They were as popular at the Savoy Ballroom in New York as the Savoy in Los Angeles. They drew sellout crowds in Houston as well as Atlanta - Chicago as well as Kansas City. They were truly America's band, although the majority of America didn't know it.

In broadening his musical horizons, Buddy Johnson penned his complete "Piano Concerto" and in late 1948 had the opportunity to perform the work at Carnegie Hall in New York City. This was coupled with "Southland Suite", another serious side of Johnson's musical talents with vocal work by Ella Johnson. During the next year, the influence of R & B began to take hold and many of the more jazz influenced musicians were embracing the more blues based style of this type of music. The Buddy Johnson band continued to hold forth even as the music began to evolve into what would be termed rock 'n roll in a few years. He and his band end the year with a sold out engagement at New York's Bop City.

Johnson began the year 1950 with an extended engagement at Philadelphia's Earle Theater sharing the bill with the other Ella - Fitzgerald. The hits continued - "I'm Tired Of Crying Over You" / "It Was Swell Knowing You" on # 24817, and in January Arthur Prysock's "Because" parts one and two on # 24842 was released and both were big sellers. In April, the band does a week at the Paradise Theater in Detroit and gets ready for another Southern tour of one nighters starting in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In May, a filmed version of "The Jackie Robinson Story" will use Buddy's 1947 hit version of "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball" in the motion picture. Late in the month the band appears with Timmy Rogers and Savannah Churchill in St. Louis. In May "Keep Me Closer To You" (vocal by Ella) and "You Got To Walk The Chalk Line" are released by Decca on # 24996. In June after collapsing on the bandstand at a date in Ohio, Buddy Johnson cancels the rest of the tour and will rest and have a medical checkup. In September, Buddy Johnson wins top spot in a listeners poll in Georgia for top in person attraction. That month Johnson resumes touring beginning in New Orleans and then a series of one nighters in the South beginning in Jackson, Mississippi.

In early 1951 "I Cry" (# 27330) featuring Arthur Prysock on vocal is a big R & B seller. It is quickly followed by "Jet" (another Prysock vocal) and "No More Love" on # 27416. In May of 1951 it is noted that Buddy Johnson's band is one of the very few orchestras that can consistently draw good crowds, especially in the South. That month another one nighter tour begins in Phoenix City, Alabama. In June "My Reverie" (vocal by Prysock) and "Am I Blue?" (vocal by Ella) is released on Decca #27567. In June the two split vocals again with Arthur on "We'd Only Start It All Over Again" and Ella on "I Need You" on # 27627. In July Arthur Prysock signs with Decca Records as a solo artist. In September the Johnson band plays Philadelphia's Club Harlem. The old standard "Stormy Weather" is recorded with an Ella Johnson vocal on # 27711. The flip side is Arthur Prysock's "I'm In Your Power". In February of 1952 another former Buddy Johnson vocalist is signed as a solo performer-Joe Medlin is signed by Decca Records. Medlin would later show up as part of the vocal group The Ravens, and have a hit record as a solo performer in 1959 called "I Kneel At Your Throne". Arthur Prysock announces he will leave the band at the end of their current tour. That month Decca releases # 27947 featuring Ella Johnson & The Bee-Jays, a vocal trio made up of band members Julius Watson, Purvis Henson, and Steve Pulliam. The songs are "I'm Gonna Jump In The River" and "Til' My baby Comes Back". In March "Root Man Blues" with Geezil Minerve and "At Last" featuring Arthur Prysock is released on # 27998. In May "My Aching Heart" sung by Prysock is coupled with Ella on "I Don't Know What's Troubling Your Mind" on # 28165. In July Johnson and his band do a week at the Regal in Chicago and then heads out for a tour of the West Coast. In September, the replacement for Arthur Prysock as male vocalist, Nolan Lewis, records his first release with the band "Be Reasonable" and joins Ella Johnson on "This New Situation" released on # 28378. In October Ella Johnson reveals that she has turned down offers to go out as a solo in order to remain with brother Buddy's band. After a three and a half month road tour, Buddy and the band do a late December week at New York's Savoy Ballroom.

In January of 1953 Ella and Nolan Lewis split vocals on the new Decca single on # 28530 - "Just To Be Yours" with Nolan, and "Somehow, Somewhere" by Ella. In February, the Johnson band plays a week at New York's Savoy Ballroom once again. That month also has the news that the Buddy Johnson band, after more than thirteen years with Decca Records has switched labels and is now signed by Mercury Records of Chicago. Two last Decca sides were issued - "Jeanette" (written for Buddy's wife) on # 28907, and "A handful Of Stars" and "Two Cigarettes In The Dark" on # 29058. By April the first Mercury recording is released - "Hittin On Me" and "Ecstasy" on Mercury # 70116. By now the Johnson band had expanded to fourteen members. The usual lineup was : trumpets - Ricky Harper, Willis Nelson, and Andrew Wood; trombones - Steve Pulliam and Julius Watson; saxes - Harold Minerve, Dave Van Dyke, Teddy Conyers, and lead tenor Purvis Henson; guitar - Chauncey Westbrook; bass - Leon Spann; drums - Emmanuel Sims; vocals - Ella Johnson and Nolan Lewis; and piano and leader - Buddy Johnson. Gil Askey on trumpet and Slide Hampton on trombone were notable replacements soon after the Mercury sessions began. By early may "Hittin On Me" is a big seller especially in the Midwest. In May, the eighth annual Theatrical Poll held by the Pittsburgh Courier once again puts Buddy and his band in the number one spot among readers. Late in the month, the band readies another tour of one nighters throughout the South. In June "Jit Jit" and "That's How I Feel About You (vocal by Ella Johnson)" are issued on Mercury # 70173. Johnson signs for a summer tour with a show that will feature Ruth Brown, The Clovers, Lester Young, Wynonie Harris, and former boxer Joe Louis. The show sells out in Cleveland where it is mc'd by Alan "Moondog" Freed. In October Buddy Johnson and his band perform at the Pittsburgh Courier's Poll Winners "Operation Music" show in Philadelphia. Also on the bill is former Johnson vocalist Arthur Prysock. At year's end "I'm Just Your Fool" with Ella on vocal, and the instrumental "A-12" are out on Mercury # 70251.

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