Who was/is Clarence "Jelly" Johnson ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
Clarence "Jelly" Johnson
Piano player piano rolls have been available since the 1890s about as long as records. Millions of rolls were sold, played and enjoyed through the mid-'30s (some are still being issued today). In the first volume of "Enhanced Pianola Rolls" Delmark presented the music of pianist Jimmy Blythe. Low Down Papa features boogie woogie, blues, stomps and pop music of the 1920s by pianist Clarence "Jelly" Johnson. South State Street in Chicago was known as "The Stroll' from 1912 through the 1920s. It was a multi-block area where hundreds of African-American performers, composers and merchants flocked. It was where Clarence Williams (of Williams and Piron, New Orleans) first settled when he moved to Chicago in 1918. His store was at 3129 S. State Street and he called it The Home of Jazz, a name that appears on his Chicago publications.
In the meantime. Lloyd Smith, a pianist. composer and entrepreneur. had a music store. the Garden Music Co., at 453 E. 31st Street. When Clarence Williams vacated his store prior to relocating in New York, Lloyd Smith moved his business into 3129 S. State in October 1922. and now the business was The Original Home of Jazz (OHJ). Lloyd's brother Warren Smith became a partner. and more importantly. the talented Clarence A. Johnson joined. too. All the fabled jazz and blues musicians and blues singers came into the store. and the OHJ guys knew people such as Jelly Roll Morton. Joe Oliver, Lem Fowler, Clarence and Spencer Williams. Jimmy Blythe, Alexander Robinson, Thomas (Georgia Tom) Dorsey, Dave Peyton and so on Clarence Johnson began making piano rolls in 1919 for the U.S. Music Company in Chicago. Clar-ence was in demand as a piano roll performer because he was not only very talented but he was a "clean" player as well (meaning that his accuracy at the keyboard eliminated the need for his master rolls to need much editing for mistakes).
His total roll output for U.S. Music was impressive, and we're still finding numbers he made under the pseudonym "Chet Gordon." By 1920 or 1921, he started making rolls for the Columbia Music Roll Co., which had recently been contracted by Sears Roebuck to furnish all the rolls Sears offered under the brand name Supertone. Columbia, in addition to regular piano rolls. also issued large 10-tune "A" rolls for automatic coin-operated pianos. situated in restaurants. roadhouses. amusement parks - anywhere people might want to hear "live" piano playing. for five-cents a pop. On this CD, the first 12 tracks are prime examples of the tunes Clarence recorded for the large "A" rolls. In 1923 he relocated for several months to New York City. where he was able to perform five rolls for the mighty ORS Company, and these - all included here for the first time - represent his most creative piano stylings. Collectors of jazz and blues records have always known that any 78 with Jimmy Blythe on it is going to be hot or very bluesy. Blythe made many 78s with blues singers as well as hot trios and quartets featuring numbers composed, in most cases. by the musicians themselves. Blythe also made over 200 piano rolls. But 78s with Clarence Johnson as accompanist to a singer are fewer in number, and there are no known piano solo 78s by this talented and tasty player. Most record collectors never got deeply into the world of piano rolls, partly because of unfamiliarity with the artists shown on the labels. partly because to enjoy piano rolls one needs a working player piano, and partly because such rolls are very scarce because they were produced in small numbers to begin with.
When I bought Jack Baker's fine collection of piano rolls in 1956 I not only acquired many numbers by Jelly Roll Morton. Thomas Wailer. James P. Johnson, I also found several played by Clarence Johnson. The Johnson rolls were generally so superb musically that I decided to learn all I could about the man and his work. Jimmy Blythe with one or two exceptions) made his rolls exclusively for the Columbia Music Roll Co. in Chicago. Clarence Johnson (who enlisted in the Army in 1917 and served with the Illinois 8th Regiment) was discharged in 1919 in time for him to write a tune with Spencer Williams (Don't Mind Cryin" Blues) and began making piano rolls for the U.S. Music Co. of Chicago. Columbia (Capitol in late 1924) had its own label, too. Later in the 20s they began using obscure blues numbers brought to them by black composers. Many of these never had lyrics. but they were copyrighted but not published as counter copies for music stores to sell).
Both Blythe and Johnson made the majority of these tunes for the A rolls. and tracks 1 - 12 represent how these numbers sounded as played by Clarence. Clarence Johnson left Chicago in the late 1920s and settled in Detroit. He was known to lead small bands at places like the Chocolate Bar and the Michigan Democratic League. and he apparently lived at a house owned by Willa Strickland which must have served as a blind pig it was Prohibition, remember). Should say Clarence died in Detroit on August 9. It was a great shock to his family. His aunt. Florence How-ard. let me interview her and showed me pictures of Clarence in his WWI uniform. as well as photos taken at the time of his interment in the same cemetery in Smithland. KY where his father and other relatives are buried. Johnson and Blythe had slightly different styles. Blythe typically played in a highly syncopated. even "dirty" manner. Johnson's style is fuller and musically more sophisticated. His more polished playing may reflect his specialization as a blues singer accompanist just as Blythe's more heavily rhythmic style can be attributed to his work as a band pianist. These differences may not be obvious to the average ear, but they do exist.
Acknowledgments Over the years many collectors have contributed to what you're hearing here. These include Bill Bur-khardt. whose original -A- rolls were the basis for Paul Affeldt's Euphonic LPs which Ed Sprankle produced with my help and encouragement). I also thank Trebor Tichenor, Paul Manganero and Frank Hipsl, major collectors and historians all. -Mike Montgomery. December 2010