SPOTLIGHT ON – PLAS JOHNSON
“Everybody on this planet knows Plas Johnson, perhaps not his name, but they have heard his saxophone!”, says his long-time friend Jean-Michel Reisser-Beethoven.Too Close For Comfort from This Is The Plas, 1959)
It might be prototypes of Archie Bunker or Al Bundy. Slumped on the couch. Or it might be a teenage couple in the movie theater in the 1960’s. They’re staring at the screen. A woman slowly and seductively starts to undress herself in front of a man, accompanied by lurid sax sounds. Or a bronze-colored guy wildly rides the West Coast waves on his surf board. Honking tenor. That’s The Plas that Jean-Michel is talking about. Perhaps not everybody knows his name but the whole Western Hemisphere, and a big part of the East and South, is familiar with Johnson’s sax line and solo on Henry Mancini’s iconic Pink Panther Theme. Heck, I was behind the drum kit a million moons ago in my first (and last) blues band doing a noisy version of it and not yet even knowing about Plas Johnson’s existence. Nowadays, the epic melody is a perennial favorite of my daughter at the piano.
No doubt, Plas Johnson holds the world record as most recorded saxophonist in the modern culture of movies, tv and popular music. Johnson made a career in Hollywood and – often as part of the class act Wrecking Crew including drummer Earl Palmer and bassist Carol Kaye – recorded with Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, B.B. King, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Otis and The Beach Boys, among hundreds of others. He was also the long-time saxophonist on the Merv Griffin Show.
- Ella Fitzgerald, Sings The Harold Arlen Songbook
- Sam Cooke, Twistin’ The Night Away
- Henry Cain, The Funky Organization Of Henry Cain
- Dr. John, Gris-Gris
- Steely Dan, The Royal Scam
Johnson was born in Donaldsonville, Louisiana in 1931 and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950’s, never looking back. At the age of 90, Johnson, according to Jean-Michel, is keeping his saxophone chops up and to remain in touch with jazz reality teaches a couple of youngsters. Likely, teaching will be about finding a personal sound and about versatility. Johnson’s sound is juicy, solid, with a generous blues-drenched touch. His multi-faceted career has its roots in Louisiana’s musical melting pot, where he started out as a singer and saxophonist in the groups of his family and brother.
Having but a few jazz recordings of Plas Johnson, I wondered where to look and how many mainstream jazz things Johnson has done. This is when Jean-Michel, friend of the likes of Johnson, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Wild Bill Davis and former manager of Ray Brown, comes in. (See past posts in coop with Jean-Michel about Jimmy Rowles and Ray Brown here and here.) The floor is Jean-Michel’s:
“Plas was one of the very first black guys that worked in the studios in L.A. Those days, they unfortunately didn’t have a chance. Actually, the first was Buddy Colette, he could read and play all the horns. I think the second is Plas. He plays soprano, alto, baritone, trombone, flute! He’s a good reader. That’s why he was successful in L.A. And of course, he has that very special sound. You can go shopping, eat in a restaurant, sooner of later you will hear sax on a rock or pop record. That’s him! What’s great about him, he was able to adapt his style to many different situations and artists. Very few people are able to do that.”
“Plas also recorded as ‘Johnny Beecher’ and in different instrumental groups as B. Bumble & The Stingers. Him and Ray Brown told me that they did many more recordings that aren’t even known. Record companies didn’t mention the black guys and put the wrong names and pictures of white musicians on the sleeves, can you believe it? Terrible. It was the same story with ghost arrangers. It was hard for Plas but after a while he accepted it. He got paid.”
“He said to me that he did all this different music for the money. He said: ‘I played jazz… not to go totally crazy!’ Some people went nuts. Bud Shank played on hundreds of songs as well, he was everywhere. He became very depressed and tired because he didn’t play jazz anymore. One night Bud’s wife called Ray and said that Bud wasn’t doing well. So Ray visited him and decided to form the L.A. Four. This way Bud could play a bit more jazz. So Plas had two lives, by day he was in the studios and at night he played jazz. Crazy, right! On alto, Plas had four influences: Louis Jordan, Benny Carter, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson and Johnny Hodges. His tenor heroes were Illinois Jacquet and Chu Berry.
“Ray was a big name on the Concord label. He called Plas and said, ‘hey man, I want you to do a real jazz album with me, you choose the guys. That became the successful album The Blues with Ray, Herb Ellis, Sweets, Jake Hanna and Mike Melvoin. A day before the recording session, Ray was driving with his wife and she said that she had to do some shopping. She said, ‘don’t go with me, it’ll only take five minutes, I’ll be back.’ After ninety minutes, his wife still wasn’t there. So Ray’s in the car, saying ‘shit…’, you know. That’s when he wrote that tune, Parking Lot Blues, waiting for his wife. The next day he came to the studio and said, ‘hey, Plas, I think I’ve got a new tune…’. Everybody loved it. It was a big hit for Plas.”
“I first met him at the festival in Nice in 1982. He played with Sweets and Jimmy Cobb, among others. What a band. After that, I saw him play with Wild Bill Davis many times. I did these tours with Ray and often Wild Bill and Plas were on the same bill. I like his record with Wild Bill a lot, That’s All, with drummer Butch Miles, a killer trio!Parking Lot Blues from The Blues, 1975; Fatty McSlatty from After You’re Gone, 1975 and I’ve Found A New Baby from Live At Concord, 1975) Good Bait from On The Trail, 1991 and Airmail Special from World Tour, 1990) Where Or When from That’s All, 1991; Keep That Groove Going from Keep That Groove Going, 2001 and From C To Shining C from *From C To Shining C, 2009)
– This Must Be The Plas (Capitol 1959)
– Mood For The Blues (Capitol 1960)
– The Blues (Concord 1975)
– Positively (Concord 1976)
– On The Trail (with Totti Bergh, Gemini 1991)
– Evening Delight (Carell 1999)
– Keep That Groove Going (with Red Holloway, Milestone 2001)
Featuring Plas Johnson:
– Benny Carter, Aspects (United Artists 1959)
– Herb Ellis & Ray Brown, After You’re Gone (Concord 1975)
– The Hanna / Fontana Band, Live At Concord (Concord 1975)
– Wild Bill Davis Super Trio, That’s All (Jazz Connaisseur 1991)
– Gene Harris & The Philip Morris Superband, World Tour (Concord 1990)
– Rhoda Scott, From C To Shining C (Doodlin’ Records 2009)