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9351Re: Clarence Johnson

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  • Andrew
    Nov 22, 2012
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      Dear Mr. Champarou and group,

      You have come to the right place.
      Clarence Johnson is one of my most favorite pianists... he is one of my top five favorite pianists of all time.

      I think very few pianists recording pre-1925 or so had his special kind of relaxed, laid-back modern swing feel.

      Only the greats with which we are familiar (James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, James Blythe, Eddie Heywood Sr., etc) can really compare in terms of swing feel, in my opinion.

      If you listen to his 1923 records (recorded during a trip to New York) accompanying Monette Moore, Edna Hicks, and Lizzie Miles, you will hear immediately what I mean. I would imagine his 1923 record accompanying Edna Taylor (recorded in Chicago) is equally relaxed, but I have not yet heard it, although it's been reissued on Document.

      The late Mr. Mike Montgomery was probably the world's #1 authority on Clarence Johnson before he passed away, and I will forever regret not asking him more about Mr. Johnson while talking with him on the one or two telephone conversations we had (which I recorded) before he passed away.

      The lengthiest conversation I had with Mr. Montgomery about Clarence
      Johnson came at our first (and regrettably, only) in-person meeting, at the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest in Peoria, IL, on Memorial Day Weekend (May-June), 2008.

      I was a contestant in this event (I ultimately ended up placing sixth in the adult division, just shy of the top five), and Mr. Montgomery was there mainly because his son, a good pianist and very fine and creative modern ragtime composer, was also a contestant.

      Anyway, at some point early in the weekend (I think before the main event got underway), I had lunch with Mr. Montgomery in the hotel, and over my salad (I cannot remember what he ordered) I asked him as much as possible about Clarence Johnson, what with the limited time we had before I had to go run off to compete.

      It turns out Mr. Montgomery is probably the only jazz researcher to have done serious research on the 1920s pianist Clarence Johnson.
      He started inquiring about Johnson's whereabouts after first hearing some of his piano rolls (and possibly, audio recordings) in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

      He turned up a gentleman with the same name playing piano with Louis Metcalf's jazz band in New York. I'm not sure, but I believe this would be the same Clarence Johnson who had previously played with Louis Jordan's "jump swing" (R&B) band in New York in the 1930s and 1940s.

      THAT Clarence Johnson told Mr. Montgomery that although he had made one single piano roll when he was very young, subbing for another man who couldn't make the roll-recording date, (and thus the roll was probably not released under his own name), that he was not the same man who had made all of the rolls for Columbia/Capitol and US in Chicago (plus Billings/Staffnote in Milwaukee), and the half-dozen or so rolls for QRS and Aeolian in New York. He also said (apparently) he was not the same man who had accompanied those blues and vaudeville singers on records in the 1920s.

      I don't have the data on the later Clarence Johnson, but judging from the few photos I've seen of him with Louis Jordan's band in the 1930s and 1940s, he is quite a young man, apparently a teenager or in his early 20s in the late 1930s, and probably not older than his early 30s in the late 1940s. This alone would seem to rule him out as "the" Clarence Johnson, since this man's rolls started appearing circa 1921 (or circa 1919, if you believe the theory that US roll artist "Chet Gordon" was a name used by Johnson, which I don't believe).

      Here's the exact pertinent quotes from Mike Montgomery's 1963 interview with J. Lawrence Cook, reproduced in:

      The Billings Rollography
      Volume Five

      J. Lawrence Cook tape-recorded interview with Mike Montgomery, 1963.

      pg. 49

      "MONTGOMERY: Who is Clarence Johnson? Is he the guy, is he the same Clarence Johnson that recorded on Supertone or
      Capital[sic] and Melodee rolls and...

      COOK: Could well be, because I don't recall having met him, but I do know he's a real guy. His name's pretty well known, but
      I'm not sure about him. "

      pg. 58

      "MONTGOMERY: Again, Clarence Johnson, here's his name again. He made a lot of rolls on US. Now, there's a Clarence
      Johnson, Lawrence, that's still alive in New York here; he's fifty or so, fifty-five, and he's playing with Louie Metcalf's band
      downtown. And he says he made a piano roll once when he was fourteen or fifteen years old, because he was substituting for
      someone else who couldn't be there. He's not the Clarence Johnson I'm trying to locate. He's not THE big recording Clarence
      Johnson who made all the good blues rolls. But you never ran into this guy at US?

      COOK: No. When I worked there, I didn't work OUT there. I did the work on my Leabarjan machine [Andrew's note:
      a personal, keyboard-less table-top home roll perforator] and mailed it to them; and the first work I did for QRS, including
      "Dying with the Blues," I did all that on the Leabarjan machine. Mailed them. Mailed it to Chicago.

      MONGTOMERY: A lot of these people you might have run into if you'd been in Chicago.

      COOK: I definitely would have. I was only in the factory once, the time I was on vacation. "

      Anyway, according to Mr. Montgomery's own subsequent succesful research, "the" Clarence Johnson to whom we are referring was born circa 1900 in Kentucky. I don't have his birth information, but if it has been found, it probably exists with Mr. Montgomery's research and effects which are still in possession of the family.

      I believe he was at least a year or two older than James Blythe, who was born in 1901, also in Kentucky (although I don't think they were born near each other).

      Clarence Johnson moved to Chicago sometime in the 'teens and started hanging out with Lloyd and Warren Smith, brother musicians (Lloyd played piano; Warren played saxophone) and songwriters, who helped Clarence Johnson get some early songs published.

      He also collaborated with Clarence Williams before the latter left for New York, and may have collaborated with him on a few subsequent songs while visiting Williams in New York, or perhaps via telephone or mail.

      A young Thomas A. Dorsey encountered Johnson while hanging out at the Smith Brothers' store, "The Original Home of Jazz Music" (formerly owned and run by Clarence Williams) in Chicago. This reminiscence is recounted on pg. 77 of the book "The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church", by Michael W. Harris:


      Also according to this same passage in the book, other people who visited the store included Spencer Williams, Charlie Warfield, Clarence M. Jones, and even W. C. Handy himself! I have read in other texts that Lil Hardin Armstrong and King Oliver were two other people who would visit the store from time to time.

      I sure would like to hear more anecdotes about this store, and maybe see some photos!

      Anyway, getting back to Clarence Johnson, seemingly absolutely nothing was known about him by jazz researchers (including Mr. Montgomery) until he had a breakthrough in the mid-to-late 1960s, where (I forget how, since it's been four years since he told me the story and I didn't write it down) he managed to locate Mr. Johnson's aunt(!), whose last name was Howard, as I recall. I believe she was living in a small town in Illinois, although I really forget the details and could be wrong about this.

      Basically, this was during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and black people were suspicious of white people, and vice versa. So Mr. Montgomery had quite a lot of courage to venture into a mostly-black neighborhood back then, and knock on Ms. Howard's door. Somehow he managed to convey that he was trying to find out about Clarence Johnson, and had hit nothing but dead ends so far, and she let him in. Ms. Howard apparently remembered her nephew quite well and even had a piano in the parlor on which he used to play(!) She pulled out a couple of photos of Clarence Johnson in his WWI uniform which I think might be in with Mr. Montgomery's effects.

      Now I wish I could remember more details of this visit as conveyed to me by Mr. Montgomery, I really should have had a tape recorder handy at the time. I only hope that Mr. Montgomery recorded the visit, or at least took down notes on a piece of paper.

      He must have written down SOMETHING, or at least had a good memory, since a few more details are included in the liner notes to the Delmark Clarence Johnson CD "Low Down Papa", which I recommend!

      Since Mr. Montgomery himself wrote these notes, before he passed away, they are obviously way more accurate than my half-baked recollection above.

      There is also a really really good photo of Clarence Johnson on the back cover of the Delmark CD, probably taken from the original photo used to make the 1923 QRS ad here:


      From the information he learned, Mr. Montgomery was able to piece together at least a little bit more about Clarence Johnson, and find out that he had moved to Detroit by the late 1920s, and died there of Tuberculosis in 1933.

      The former statement I've made (that Johnson was out of Chicago by the late 1920s) seems confirmed in this passage from a book on Lester Young. ["Pres: The Story of Lester Young" by Luc Delannoy.]
      The person quoted here, on page 22, is not Young himself, but seems to be saxophonist Eddie Barefield:

      "It was the winter of 1927, around Christmas time. I was in Bismarck ND playing at the Spencer Hotel with Clarence Johnson on the piano. I had just left Minneapolis, where I had founded the Ethiopian Symphonians with trumpet-player Roy "Snake" White and pianist Frank Hines, both of whom were to become Lester's first big admirers."


      I wish I could add more about Clarence Johnson, but about all else that I can recall are two statements, both with vague attributions.

      FIRST: The liner notes to the Delmark CD state that "Stories about Clarence Johnson confirm that he preferred to stay in the background". This is quite a vague statement and I wish Mr. Montgomery had gone to the extra trouble of reproducing and sourcing these stories, since I believe they are published nowhere. What are the stories, and where did he hear them? Johnson's aunt? Talking with Lizzie Miles?

      SECOND: Speaking of Lizzie Miles, I have read in several sources (which I cannot remember, or else I'd cite them here!) that (in later interviews with jazz fans) Lizzie Miles considered Clarence Johnson her favorite accompanist of all of the many pianists with whom she worked, including Jelly Roll Morton!
      If you listen to their records together, you really can tell they are two peas in a pod! I wonder if they were ever in a relationship!


      I have a feeling that Mr. Montgomery did not get to meet or correspond with several living (in the 1960s and 1970s) musicians who would have remembered Clarence Johnson:

      Lil Hardin Armstrong; William Evans (Buddy) Burton; Aletha Dickerson; Thomas A. Dorsey; William Henry Huff; P. M. Keast; Meade Lux Lewis; J. Mayo Williams; and Clarence Williams.

      Each one of these people could have shed quite a lot of personal and biographical light on both Mr. Johnson and also his dimly-remembered friend James Blythe. Unfortunately, as far as I know, when they were interviewed (by folks other than Mr. Montgomery) these musicians were never asked specifically about either Mr. Blythe or Mr. Johnson, and thus some good opportunities were wasted.

      This makes finding any personal information about either man more difficult today.

      [The only way we know or can guess these people knew Johnson is either circumstantial evidence:
      - they were in the right places at the right times and hung out or recorded with friends of Johnson, and so MUST have at least met him once -
      or direct evidence:
      - they volunteered his name during the course of an unrelated interview.]


      One more thing: As a musician, I am mightily impressed by Clarence Johnson's recordings and piano rolls. They are epitomes of good taste as well as good blues.

      I know is that his playing from the 1922-1923 period on is heavily indebted to James P. Johnson, particularly on his audio recordings.

      I find it interesting that most of piano solos he takes on his recordings with Edna Hicks, Lizzie Miles, etc (in between the vocal choruses) are based on the same motifs derived primarily from two James P. Johnson sources: a piano roll and a recording!

      Here's the roll... an A-roll adaptation of QRS 88-note roll 1673, originally issued in October, 1921.

      [Although a Columbia A-roll, this is derived from a QRS 88-note master, since early Columbia and very late Capitol coin piano rolls sometimes used QRS masters for the arrangements, due to a deal worked out with QRS. However, most Columbia and Capitol coin-op roll arrangements are their own, made in their own factories, using in-house talent (or at least local Chicago talent), and derived from the original Columbia and Capitol 88-note issues]

      This A-roll is played on a very fine Coinola CX coin piano with mandolin effect and xylophone, with a perfectly-restored and voiced piano. [The xylophone has been manually switched off for this particular video] THIS is how a fully-restored player piano should sound... not awful like so many other commercially-issued recordings of player pianos.

      Although the note field and sustain pedal track are adapted from the 88-note roll (although compressed to fit the 58 notes of the A-roll), The soft pedal (hammer rail) track is a creation of the coin piano roll editor.


      Here's my pertinent comments I made on the video (in case it is ever removed):

      "This is one of the four or five most important James P. Johnson rolls in his entire oevure, because it was (along with his Pathe record "Watch Me Go" accompanying Lavinia Turner) one of the two primary sources influencing the ?younger? (b. 1900?) Clarence A. "Jelly" Johnson in his piano playing.

      Clarence Johnson obviously had a copy of both the original QRS 88-note roll of "Cry Baby Blues" and the Pathe record of "Watch Me Go", since practically every PIANO SOLO (not accompaniment portion) that Clarence Johnson plays on his 1923 records accompanying singers (Monette Moore, Edna Hicks, Lizzie Miles), is made up of licks copied note-for-note from either JPJ's piano solo in the middle of "Watch Me Go", or JPJ's two blues choruses on "Cry-Baby Blues" (here from 1:16 to 1:54). Remarkable!

      One more tidbit, Clarence Johnson's friend James Blythe (b. 1901) also knew this roll, possibly through exposure to it at his friend's house.

      This is proven because, on his 1924 Paramount record of "You Ain't Foolin' Me" accompanying singer Priscilla Stewart, Blythe copies the coda of JPJ's "Cry-Baby Blues" roll note-for-note (deliberately changing the very end from JPJ's original strong resolution to a Chicago-style "up-in-the-air" ending on an extremely strange chord, probably a hip way of "signifiying" used by Black pianists in Chicago in the early 1920s, as evidenced by its heavy use on blues records and piano rolls)."

      I wish I had links to both "Watch Me Go" (an absolutely FANTASTIC James P. Johnson record where he plays a KILLER accompaniment to Lavinia Turner's great vocal) and also "You Ain't Foolin' Me" (a very nice record by Priscilla Stewart with a very tasty piano accompaniment by the 23-year-old James Blythe), so that you folks on the group here could all hear them! At least they've been reissued once on Document, but we need CLEAN versions!!! Luckily a friend has an original 78 of "Watch Me Go" and I've been privileged to hear it!

      While I'm on the subject... I should mention that upon playing that Pathe record, both the record owner and I noticed there were not one, but TWO pairs of hands on the piano in the introduction to "Watch Me Go". Yet... Rust's "Jazz Records" (and the Scott Brown book on James P. Johnson) both only list Johnson as the sole pianist on the side.

      A telephone call to Brooks Kerr cleared everything up.

      Mr. Kerr claims it is legendary Harlem pianist Fred "The Tonsil" Tunstall lending his second pair of hands to James P. for the introduction to "Watch Me Go". I don't believe Mr. Tunstall made any other records, but if he did, I'd love to hear them!!! Here's a photo of him:


      Anyway, that's it for right now, but watch in a few minutes for the posting of my Clarence Johnson discography (compiled many months ago), and I hope to be able to throw together a rollography in a few weeks.

      In the meantime, you can hear quite a lot of Clarence Johnson's rolls here (including most of the "Chet Gordon" U.S. rolls from 1919-1920 which I don't personally believe are actually Johnson, but which Mr. Himpsl does):


      Notice that there are actual Clarence Johnson US rolls interspersed with the Chet Gordon rolls (including the many "Gordon and Brown" duets with Mae Brown, and the "Gordon and Winters", "Gordon and Robinson", etc etc rolls). I think the US rolls that actually say "Pianist: Clarence Johnson" on the label started coming out in 1921 or so, at least a few months before his first known Columbia rolls.

      Unfortunately, Mr. Himpsl has chosen to indiscriminately label all of his MIDIs of these US rolls as "Clarence Johnson" regardless of whether they said "Chet Gordon" on the label, or not. I hope to be able to straighten this issue out for you folks once my US Rollography is finally completed. (It won't be finished for a while).

      You can rest assured, however, that all of the Columbia, Capitol, and Supertone rolls on this page labeled as played by Clarence Johnson are correct, as are the handful of QRS and Staffnote rolls. This is a really excellent collection... I could spend days on this site!

      I hate to pick favorites, but "Mobile Blues" is fantastic, as is "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me" (unfortunately with some edge damage to the roll which Mr. Himpsl has not yet edited out of the MIDI file), the latter probably hands down the hottest roll ever made of this wonderful song (and for my money, one of the hottest rolls of anything ever made by anybody).

      Andrew E. Barrett

      --- In RedHotJazz@yahoogroups.com, "Patrice Champarou" <patrice.champarou@...> wrote:
      > I first heard Clarence Johnson decades ago, thanks to a (nearly
      > confidential, and now unavailable) compilation edited by French pianist
      > Jean-Paul Amouroux (Boogie-woogie story vol.1, Milan Jazz 887 795), an
      > amazing style with a rhythmic approach I found very "modern" at the time. I
      > recently noticed that he also accompanied more female blues vocalists than I
      > would have guessed, and the examples provided by the RedHotJazz Archive
      > (under names like Edna Hicks, Sara Martin, Lizzie Miles, Sodarisa Miller,
      > Monette Moore, or Priscilla Stewart) make him instantly recogizable. I also
      > found a great CD reissue of some of his piano rolls on Delmark (also seized
      > the opportunity to buy their Jimmy Blythe CD).
      > I was wondering if any biographical data about this pianist were available,
      > and more generally if any discography had ever been devoted to the solo
      > performances of Blythe, both Jimmy and James P. Johnson's, Eubie Blake, and
      > other post-ragtime musicians on piano rolls. Not expecting anything
      > complete, of course, but at least some systematic investigation of the
      > titles they were credited for.
      > Patrice
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