My Man .... Pete Johnson
by Marge Johnson
The Pete Johnson Story was the first published boogie woogie biography. This article is the first chapter of The Pete Johnson Story. It originally appeared as a consecutive series in JAZZ REPORT Magazine, Vol. II numbers 8, 9 and 10 (April, May and June 1962 issues).
The Pete Johnson Story was published as a fund raiser for Pete Johnson. The boogie woogie craze had long since ended and Johnson had fallen on hard times. Paul Affeldt, the editor of Jazz Report, commisioned this article from Marge Johnson, Pete's wife. The magazine also published an extensive Pete Johnson discography. These articles from Jazz Report became the inspiration for The Pete Johnson Story.
This article is reprinted here with the permission of Paul Affeldt.
Pete Johnson was born in Kansas City, Mo, in a room above a saloon at 19th and Holmes. The date: March 24, 1904. He and his mother were left alone while Pete was still a baby. This situation necessitated his mother supporting them by doing domestic work. Being gone long hours every day, she had to depend on various people to "look after" Pete.
The living accommodations Pete's mother was able to provide were very meager, most of the time only one room with Pete's bed a bureau drawer.
When Pete was between the ages of three and four, Mrs. Johnson had to place him in an orphanage, believing he would receive proper care and supervision. He was terribly homesick even though his mother visited him as often as possible. As a result of the spoiled food and poor care he became very ill. When he was well enough to be up, he skipped the orphanage and took off for home. This prompted Mrs. Johnson to sign him out. Apparently, she felt, the hazards of being alone were nothing compared to the "care" at the orphanage.
Pete was late starting to school, and while still in the fifth grade he had to drop out and begin working. At that time he was twelve and big for his age, so he pushed it up to sixteen in order to get employment. That first steady job was at night in the shipping room of a china company. From then on, there were numerous jobs: shining shoes, movie usher, on a livery wagon with his Uncle Smash, loading freight cars, slaughter house, in a laundry and almost every other type of manual labor.
Through it all, from as far back as his memory goes, he loved music. He can remember he was little enough to get lost "a gang of times" following the marching bands.
Pete played drums first. One of his first jobs was with Louis "Good Bootie" Johnson, a pianist who Pete says played much like James P. Johnson. Louis wanted Pete to learn piano for a very good reason; Louis just couldn't always make it to a job on time, what with his drinking and other diversions. So he felt that Pete taking over on piano could hold any job for them. Pete had his own reasons for preferring the piano; a drummer has to be first one there, to set up, and the last to leave. The other musicians were out on their way to a jam session or party, while Pete was still "taking down" his drums.
Even with the drums, Pete began fooling with a keyboard when he was just a kid. He couldn't resist touching a piano, no matter where he was or what he was doing.
He was water-boy for a building crew that was repairing a church. After his rounds with the waterpail, he'd run into the church and try out the piano.
Not everybody appreciated the sounds he got from a piano in those early years. One incident in particular: there was a card playing place on 18th in Kansas City which had an old beat-up piano. The manager used to let Pete practice there. Apparently, this one time, it got on the nerves of one card player. He asked Pete, "Do you know 'The Silent Rag'? Pete was eager to learn, and asked him how it went. "First you take your foot off the pedal." That seemed reasonable. "Then you take your hands off the keys." Well, what kind of rag is this? "Then you take your ass off the seat and get out of here!" Everyone roared with laughter; not Pete, he felt about so big.
In the 1920's and 30's jazz was everywhere in K.C. and this meant many jobs for musicians. In fact, Pete can remember only some of the spots he played. One of his first jobs with his own group was the "Backbiter's Club". The name was descriptive of the atmosphere. This was located in the northern section of K.C. known as "Little Italy". This club, like many, was a speakeasy and (as Pete describes it), low and degraded. He first met Joe Turner here.
The union apparently didn't have many laws to protect the musicians, because almost every place kept the music going all night with the same men, no substitutes. There was the "Grey Goose" and "Peacock Inn" where Pete played seven nights a week, from 10 'til 4 or 5. The "Spinning Wheel" was the worst. It was light when they went in and light when they went out; a half-hour intermission for eating and whatever else can be done in that time. They had a system set up with the bartender for getting their booze; they'd play "I Want a Little Girl", and he'd come up with a quart of gin and a bucket of beer, which they would mix. The pay was $3.00 nightly, plus tips; that was considered good. Because of the hours and conditions they'd have to stay juiced to tolerate the place. I've heard Pete say that the condition of the places and the pianos he's played would drive any pianist to drink. He did play with a good band at the "Spinning Wheel", it was Herman Walder's Rockette Swing Unit. Pete had gone to school with him and they were in the same music class. Pete was learning drums, Herman trumpet, then he changed to sax. The Rockette Swing Unit consisted of Pete, p; Herman, alto; Woody Walder, tenor & cl; Booker Washington, tp; Jack Johnson, bass; Baby Lovett, drums.
Pete learned something of piano from so many people, his Uncle Smash played ragtime and taught him "Peculiar Rag". He learned from Louis Johnson, Myrtle Hawkins, a "terrific ragtime pianist"; Slamfoot Brown, "the best of the ragtime pianists", who taught Pete "Nickels and Dimes". Then there was Stacey La Guardia playing at 12th and Vine. Pete was still in short pants and too young to go in the front door, so he'd sneak in the back door and Stacey would let him take over on piano. Buster Smith taught him a smattering of reading music plus the evaluation of notes. In later years he learned from a man named Bill Steven (or Stephenson), better known as the "Harmony King". He was a pianist who could create many tunes, take a tune, improvise on it and find odd harmonies.
Graft, corruption and all types of lawlessness were riding the crest in K.C. in those years, and so were most musicians; any and all places had music. It was the Pendergast regime. The Mayor may not have been honest and ethical, but he still did some pretty charitable things. At Christmas time he would give baskets of food and a big dinner to the poor. Pete used to play at these events. Also at this period in K.C. were two men, Piney Brown and Ellis Burton, whom the musicians could depend on for help. Ellis had several night clubs and employed many musicians, he would see to it that they had food, a place to stay, and would even pay for their laundry. If they got stranded in K.C. and wanted to move on he'd pay their traveling expenses. Piney Brown, of Pete's and Joe Turner's "Piney Brown Blues", was much the same.
In the late 1920's and early 1930's Pete was playing at Hawaiian Gardens with a small band led by Abie Price, drummer. Joe was bartending and singing requests. This was a bootleg joint; the whiskey was kept in a shed out back and served in pitchers. The bar and dance floor were on one level and at one end was a balcony for white people, at the other a balcony for colored people. At this particular time in K.C. some musicians were being threatened and even murdered by gangsters. Many clubs were owned by the Syndicate, and if a musician playing one of these clubs became dissatisfied, he just couldn't pick up and leave; if they said "stay", that's what he did unless he was brave and foolish. A few of the musicians began carrying guns, this is what Abie Price did, and accidentally shot himself in the foot; a thing quite disabling to a drummer. He turned the band over to Pete, whose leadership was short-lived. A few nights later J. Edgar Hoover and his men raided the place. They asked who had the band, Pete didn't offer any information; however Grimes, the trumpet player said, "Pete, give them the contract". That really put the finger on the reticent piano player, but he didn't have it with him at the time. J. Edgar gave the piano to Pete on the condition that it would be moved out that night. Pete would have loved to have taken it, the drawback was that the F.B.I. inconvenienced the musicians by raiding on paynight, so Pete didn't have a cent in his pocket to get the piano moved. The aftermath of that raid was that Pete was supposed to appear in court, by invitation of the F.B.I., to name the owners. He was afraid not to; however, the five men who owned the Gardens were more persuasive in their advice to him to stay home. That's just what he did!
In 1933 or '35 Pete began working at the Sunset Crystal Palace at 12th and Woodlawn in K.C. He began with two pieces, himself on piano and Murl Johnson, drums. He added a sax, and if he couldn't get that , a trumpet. Eventually he increased the band to seven pieces. The personnel changed from time to time, but for one consecutive period he did have the following: Clint Weaver, bass; Clifford McTyre, g; Murl Johnson, dr; Curtis Foster, tenor; Dave Hunt, alto; Robert Hall, tp. They broadcast from the club through the facilities of W9XBY from 12 to 12:30 PM. The band played for dancing and the floor shows. Joe Turner and Henry Lawson did the vocals.
It's been rumored that John Hammond and Benny Goodman heard some of these broadcasts and got the idea to have Joe and Pete come to New York in 1936. Hammond and Willard Alexander (agency head) came to K.C. looking for talent. So in 1936, at the suggestion of Hammond, the two men went to New York by bus. There was no job waiting for them, and it was summer, the off-season. They did make an appearance on the stage of the Apollo Theatre. This turned out to be a sad, miserable exposure to the critical tastes of Harlem jazz lovers. The fault lies with the person who planned the program. Instead of letting Joe and Pete do a blues number, they were told to do a ballad, "I'm Glad For Your Sake, I'm Sorry For Mine". Before they got through that mess, everybody was sorry. The audience began stamping their feet and beating their hands together. Joe and Pete couldn't imagine what was happening -- until the curtains were closed. To quote Pete: "It's a good thing they closed them or they'd been throwing rocks at us." Louis Armstrong was on the same program and as they passed him he said, "That's Show Business." Later, Pete realized what was meant by that remark: If you're going to appear before the public, do your best number first and you can stay on; if you don't do that, you might not GET on . . . Back they went to K.C., and a job at the Spinning Wheel.
Then in May 1938, Pete received a wire from New York for him and Joe to come and audition for a spot on Benny Goodman's Camel Show. Their travelling, living expenses and meals would be paid. Of course, if they got the job that had to be paid back. They got the job. There was that one appearance and back to K.C. On December 19, 1938 John Hammond wired them to return to* N.Y. for a concert with the suggestion that bus travel would be the most economical. That economy trip terminated in one of the biggest, greatest and most effective bashes to ever hit Carnegie Hall. Everything that could be said about that concert has already been said and written. It's interesting to note with all that talent the prices of admission were from $.55 to $3.30.
The outcome of the concert, as far as Joe and Peter were concerned, is that they really had "arrived" this time and had been accepted by the public. John Hammond was kind and interested enough to get Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Joe Turner into Cafe Society, a very popular night-club owned by Barney Josephson. Pete was to begin at the Famous Door. On the night the three were to open at Cafe Society, John Hammond suggested that perhaps Pete would like to come down to show Albert some of the technique for accompanying Joe. Later that same night John asked Pete if he would like to stay at Cafe Society. The offer appealed strongly to Pete. He liked the place, also it meant that he and Joe could stay together. Also, although the concert was his first meeting with Meade and Albert, he enjoyed working with them very much
Joe and Meade were the first ones to leave Cafe Society. Albert and Pete remained for a long stay. During their stay at Cafe Society Uptown the duet would sometimes depart to make tours and appearances elsewhere. At one time they joined a 16-day-theater tour with the Basie Band. One clipping states: "Boogie Woogie Boys Steal the Basie Program", (State Theater in Hartford, Conn.) At one time they were guests of the New York Beethoven Society where "their playing was acclaimed". Another time the two, (along with other musicians) entertained at the Turkish Embassy in Washington.
Albert and Pete made appearances in many cities. When they worked at Rolumbo's in Philadelphia a young blind man used to come in accompanied by another man. They would stand by the piano and listen. After listening for a while they would leave, and never stop for a drink or to talk. Pete found out recently from Carroll Hardy (a disc jockey) that George Shearing got many of his ideas from Pete and Albert. So it would be natural to assume that he was the quiet listener in Philadelphia. There were many radio broadcasts. From the scrap-book I see clippings for May 1941, Ammons and Johnson, CBS shortwave to England. The preceding night with Kate Smith. August 1940, Joe and Pete did a broadcast for the Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. In 1939, Pete, Albert and Lux worked the Panther Room of Hotel Sherman in Chicago along with Harry James and Frank Sinatra. These shows were broadcast, and at one time when the three pianists got the signal to begin playing, Pete looked over his piano to the one Lux and Albert were on and there was Lux, sitting and snoozing.
Pete made two trips to California in 1947 and 1948. Some places he worked alone, and some with Albert. The two played at Streets of Paris on Hollywood Blvd., Pete and Joe at the Memo Cocktail Lounge on South Central and at Harold Blackshear's Supper Club on Fillmore in San Francisco. Pete soloed at the Hotel Ambassador in Santa Monica. Quite a few of Pete's recordings were made on the West Coast, a Jazz concert from the Shrine Auditorium in L.A., and one from an auditorium in Long Beach.
When Pete came back East, he started playing cities such as Syracuse, Watertown, Mohawk, Auburn and Little Falls. The dates were fairly steady at first, but he must have had a grade C booking agent out of Syracuse. The more the booker tried to expand his business by getting more clients, the less bookings he could find, at least for Pete. He would get Pete a job and when the engagement was finished, all Pete could do was to wait in that location until the agent got around to finding another spot. During the waiting periods between jobs, the money Pete had earned would have to go for living costs. He could never seem to get ahead with that system, (or lack of same). One drawback too, was that through publicity Pete was billed as a Boogie Woogie pianist, and that style had lost popularity with the general public. Of course, anyone familiar with his records and in-person playing at many bars, knows that he could play so many types, blues, ballads; anything but country or classical.
He first played Buffalo at McVan's Night Club in 1949, and from there to Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit; from Detroit to Endicott, N.Y. Since Buffalo was about halfway between Central New York and Michigan, It seemed sensible to make it his residence; a decision he's regretted ever since. Jobs have been few, far between and low paying, right up to the time he became ill. There were a few high spots in the 1950's, to compensate for the low spots, (which were the dives and hole-in-the-wall places he played in the "Queen City" of Buffalo). In 1952 he, Lux, Erroll Garner and Art Tatum were in a package deal titled "Piano Parade". They played Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Toronto and several other spots in Canada; then finished with two weeks at Birdland. Back to Buffalo and nothing. Then Pete and Meade Lux went to the Celebrity Club in Providence, Rhode Island; a short stay. A little later the two went into the Sportsman's Club in Newport, Kentucky. Previous to the Piano Parade Pete took a job in a Super-Market. He was given the title of "Receiving Clerk", a position that covered a lot of back-breaking jobs: porter work, hanging and taking down huge sides of beef in refrigerators, driving truck, etc. He not only got $40.00 a week, but also arthritis and pneumonia. That market and the dives were what Buffalo had to offer, the nadir in his life after becoming a professional. The apex was always outside this town.
I doubt if Pete could remember the names of the entertainers at either of the Cafe Societies (one called Cafe Society Uptown at 128 E. 58th St. and Cafe Society Downtown at 2 Sheridan Square). There was Teddy Wilson with his band for dancing, and his trio to fill in at showtime; the Golden Gate Quartet, Hazel Scott, Lena Horne, Josh White, Cliff Jackson, Imogene Coca, Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday, Judy Holliday, Eddie Heywood, Frankie Newton and Bill Coleman. There were others, many others, but this list gives an idea of the variety of music and entertainment presented in one spot.
The management of Cafe Society would sometimes present further concerts at Carnegie Hall, using the artists from the night-club. Pete, Albert and Lena Horne did one, along with Art Tatum, Eddie South, John Kirby, and Henry Red Allen. This concert was given for the Benefit of the Musicians' Union Medical Fund, Local 802. That was a nice idea, but I wonder if any sick musicians DID benefit from it?
In that same year 1952, Pete and Lux also played the Flame Show Bar in Detroit for two weeks. They both talked to agents in Detroit and Cleveland, trying to line something up to follow The Flame, Lux even drove back to Buffalo at the end of the two weeks because there was a possibility of something in the East. Nothing materialized, so back to California. In August Pete went to K.C. for a few weeks at the Boulevard Room. Following that, a two-night-a-week job in Niagara Falls in a rundown place called "Otey's". Crown Prince Waterford worked with him, along with a sax and drums. During this same winter he went one night to hear Basie at Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo. On the way home the car got stuck and while trying to get it out, Pete lost the end of his little finger in a towrope. He had Buffalo pianist Hank Roberts fill in for him at "Otey's". The finger took a long time to heal, however, Pete just couldn't afford to take off the necessary amount of time for his finger to get well. It was painful for him to play, but even with the bandages he sounded good.
From January 1953 to October 1953 he got a 3 to 11 job at an ice cream company washing trucks. Also he was working weekends at the Bamboo Room with a small group of local musicians. The management of the ice cream company was cooperative and nice enough to let Pete off early enough on Friday and Saturday nights to enable him to make his music job by 10.
There were several small jobs in Buffalo, nothing spectacular. Practically all were short in endurance, and none paid more than scale (the scale in Buffalo is minimum). The ironic element of getting a job in the neighborhood dives is that they would expect Pete to audition before they would take the big step of hiring him. I must mention too, that the owner would set audition time at night when the customers were there, so he could provide free entertainment.
In 1954 nothing was happening in music for Pete. That meant get some other work, which he did; general porter work at a Mortuary. Washing cars, hearses and doing yard work. On days when they had funerals there would be nothing for him to do, so rather than pay him for the time, he'd be sent home. He was lucky to get $25.00 per week. Then in July he received a wire to come to St. Louis' Forest Park Hotel and play the Circus Snack Bar where he and Albert had worked in 1943. He stayed there six weeks, and on Saturday afternoons the management would have him go to the Chase Hotel for the broadcasts of "Saturday at the Chase".
With him on the show was a dixieland group called the Bourbon Street Six. After the six weeks there was nothing to do but come back to Buffalo. During the early fall he got another weekend job at a small place in Niagara Falls by the name of the Ebony Room. The combo consisted of piano, sax, drums and guitar; plus a singing waitress and a hostess who also sang. After that, the Ebony Room in Buffalo. That too, was only weekends, however, it was a job close to where he lived.
One night there was a fight at this place, and when a woman got the nightstick away from the special door policeman and started pounding on him the manager called the City Police. They came on like Gang-Busters and proceeded to put the customers out. Pete was standing at the bar and as he wasn't wearing a sign labeling him as a musician, he was ousted too. It was cold and he didn't have his coat, so he sneaked around to the side door and a singer let him in. The police spotted him and said: "I thought we put you out", and would have again if the singer hadn't told them he was the pianist.
In 1955 Pete made three appearances at the Berkshire Music Barn in Lenox, Mass. One time was to accompany Jimmy Rushing, once with Joe Turner, and the third time he soloed.
In May of 1958, when he was at Johnny's Ellicott Grill, he had the opportunity to join Norman Granz' JATP for a tour. This was one of the peaks of his life. Although he was not feeling well that year it was an opportunity he wouldn't pass up, and there was a possibility the publicity would help. Also, Charles Delauney and Sammy Price wanted him for a concert in France later that summer, and Delauney was sure Pete could get club work in Paris between the two concerts. Pete was undecided about the second concert as the contract didn't look just right; too many things left unsaid. He took off for Europe with JATP, his old friend Joe Turner among the other entertainers. They played Brussels, Amsterdam, Milan, Rome, Zurich, Munich , Frankfort, Hamburg, Berlin, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Goteburg and Paris. The publicity in the States was nil, but in Europe it must have been well-advanced for there was always a capacity audience. Pete found out he had many fans (as did all the musicians) in Europe, and as a result he's cultivated lasting friendships with some of them. In Rome, at the concert hall Dizzy Gillespie was doing a bit of solo work and Stan Getz was to follow. When Stan came on the audience hadn't had enough of Dizzy and began to raise a rumpus. Granz couldn't see the audience dictating how he should conduct his concerts, so he called a halt to the whole thing. That made the audience even more angry and after the hall was cleared many people milled about outside for several hours, during which time the musicians were kept there. Finally the police escorted them to their hotel.
Right after Pete left for Europe a letter came from George Wein asking him to play the Newport Jazz Festival. It was an opportunity that would appeal to him, so the message was relayed to him in Amsterdam and he made the Newport thing. He was to accompany Joe Turner only. However, Big Maybelle's pianist didn't show so he played for her and Chuck Berry.
Back to Buffalo and (where else?) Johnny's Ellicott Grill. That lasted until August or September; then Pete became ill with a heart condition and diabetes, followed by several strokes. He's lost his co-ordination but still hopes to regain that as well as his strength, dexterity and normal speech. With his will, determination and the good wishes and prayers of his friends, he just might do that!
A few weeks ago, his friend Carroll Hardy came to the house and did a taped interview with Pete, which he played on his WEBR radio program along with some of Pete's records. It was a relaxed and well done hour.
This article is actually only a smattering of events in Pete's life. Like for any musician, it would take a book and a year's steady work to write it all.
I wonder what his career would look like if the ups and downs were traced on a graph. Would there be more slumps than peaks? Anyway, Pete looks back and knows he's had a good life with all the ups and downs. To quote him quote an old saying: "I used to be something, I wasn't much, but I'm nothing now". Anyone who knows Pete won't believe he's nothing now, and that someday, with God's help, he will be back "In Person"!