Who was/is Raymond Johnson ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
Raymond Johnson, the brother of the famed saxophonist Plas Johnson, likewise carved out a distinguished musical career in a Creole family that includes other fine musical talents, including singing sister Gwen Johnson, some very talented cousins -- trumpeter Renald Richard (the original Ray Charles bandleader and co-author of I Got A Woman), renowned traditional jazz clarinetist Dr. Michael White, and Don Vappie, string playing leader of the Creole Jazz Serenaders -- and many other fine musicians dating back at least to the beginnings of jazz.
Ray was born in New Orleans on April 30, 1930, the year before Plas was born in Donaldsonville. Their parents were Grace and Plas Johnson, Sr., who was a musician who played multiple instruments -- saxophone, guitar, and banjo. Though his father's real first love was auto mechanics, a skill that Ray, regretfully, never learned.
Ray and Plas attended grammar school in Thibodaux, and then Xavier Prep in New Orleans, McDonough 35 high school, and eventually Dillard University. Ray played saxophone and drums in his school bands, but he settled on the piano when nightclub owner Ernie Stovall hired the brothers, with Plas playing a b-flat soprano sax, for their first gig when they were 13 and 12. They continued to play nightclubs when ever they could, considering they took their schooling more seriously than most, including gigs in Thibodaux and Donaldsonville, the family's other stomping grounds.
In the late 1940s the teenage Johnson Brothers Combo was a respected band in New Orleans, playing shows at various clubs, including the Dew Drop Inn. At various times the combo included cousin Renald Richard on trumpet and Harold Battiste on saxophone. Local star Paul Gayten recognized their talent by recording them for DeLuxe Records, though the record did nothing. At Dillard University the brothers had the honor of learning from art instructor Vernon Winslow, the respectable alter ego for the creator of the Poppa Stoppa radio show, who became 'Dr. Daddy-O,' the very popular disc jockey.
"I had a blues environment," says Johnson. "I was tuning in the blues stations to see what they were doing, and Charles Brown was very big, and Ray Charles. Charles Brown first. And Big Joe Turner, Roy Milton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. My vocal [inspiration] for my kind of thing was Nat Cole, Ray Charles, Charles Brown – these were my idols."
The Johnson Brothers broke up temporarily when Plas joined Charles Brown's band in 1951. Soon both he and Ray were drafted into the army. Upon getting out in 1953 Ray returned briefly to New Orleans. That is when he recorded his excellent Mercury sides, which are clearly influenced by Charles Brown and other pianists of the time, though with a strong New Orleans groove. Though Ray remembers playing with Alma Lollypop and the 'Caravan Club,' the details of the sessions are likewise almost totally forgotten to him. "That was in New Orleans," says Johnson. "That was right after I got out of the service, probably. I didn't play around town too long before I joined my brother."
By 1954 he rejoined Plas out in California, living in Watsonville and Salinas before moving to Los Angeles due to Plas' connections with Charles Brown. Though it took some time, Ray also became an in demand session player like Plas and other fellow New Orleans expatriates Earl Palmer and Rene Hall.
He played piano on the Flip Records doo wop classics A Casual Look by the Six Teens and The Death Of An Angel by Donald Woods and the Vel-Aires. He worked with Earl Palmer at Aladdin, including arranging The Glory Of Love by the Velvetones, adding a bit of vintage New Orleans R&B, adding the "You're way up on top now" rap from Larry Darnell's classic I'll Get Along Somehow. He was later on several records by Ricky Nelson, including Travelin' Man, Hello Mary Lou and others from 'Rick Is 21' and two other albums. After the Nelson sessions, Johnson says, "There was just a bombardment of record dates from everywhere." The session work included country-styled albums by two pop icons -- Bobby Darin's You're the Reason I'm Living and Nat 'King' Cole's Ramblin' Rose. Later, he played on albums by Canned Heat and T-Bone Walker.
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