BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

Though his recorded output in the field of rock ‘n’ roll is limited to the sides he cut as the leader of the house band for Freedom Records from 1949-1951 as Conney’s Combo, arguably few musicians who earned a paycheck in rock have a legacy as diverse and as richly rewarding as Conrad O. Johnson.

Born in 1915 in Victoria, Texas, his family came to Houston when he was nine years old. Three years later he sold enough cans of salve for a beauty product company to win a saxophone and was disappointed to learn that it was merely a cheap toy. Nevertheless he used it to learn the basics of the instrument and when he got to high school was instructed by his father, a dentist who was also an accomplished musician on trumpet and flute and who led the school’s band.

Johnson enrolled in college while playing on the side with the cream of the up and coming crop of Texas musicians at the time and upon graduating, rather than go out on the road to earn his living playing music, Johnson took a job teaching music in high schools starting in 1941 which would be his main occupation for the remainder of his life.

His own skills didn’t go unnoticed in the larger music world however, as he was invited by jazz great Erskine Hawkins to join his band, but married with four children and with a job he loved Johnson turned him down. In 1949 however he agreed to put together a band for the newly formed Houston label Freedom Records which specialized not in the jazz he was most familiar with, nor even the blues which was the common musical vernacular of that time in Texas, but rather rock ‘n’ roll, a much rawer upstart brand of music which required more looser arrangements and more aggressive playing.

Johnson’s ability to quickly adapt to this helped to make Freedom’s output some of the best of its era with classic sides cut by Goree Carter, Lonnie Lyons, L. C. Williams and Big Joe Turner, though few of the sides they cut became hits which was due more to the lack of distribution and promotion know-how by the company.

But his writing and recording duties at Freedom were still only a sideline for his primary love, teaching, and in 1969 upon moving from Booker T. Washington High School to Kashmere High School he finally began to garner widespread acclaim for his work as the stage band he oversaw won a remarkable 42 of 46 competitions, including earning the national award in 1972 for Best Stage Band.

Not only did they thrive in that setting but Johnson used his experience recording to start his own label, Kram Records, which released eight albums featuring his own compositions which artfully combined big band jazz, soul and funk, all of which was played by his high school students. This exposure led to international tours for the kids and in years later one of their tracks, “Kashmere”, was sampled by DJ Shadow, turning yet another generation onto the musical legacy of Conrad “Prof” Johnson, as he was known to his students.

Upon his retirement from teaching in 1978 Johnson continued to give private lessons and conduct workshops, was inducted into the Texas Bandmasters Hall Of Fame, had the school’s art department named in his honor and had a documentary made about him called Thunder Soul which was produced in part by Jamie Foxx and which won the Audience Award at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Festival in 2010.

Just one day after the filming of the emotional reunion concert of many of his former students which formed the centerpiece of the documentary Conrad Johnson died at the age of 92, mere hours after discussing the release of further work with another record label.

The rock chapter of Johnson’s life may have been a short one but the book it was housed in covering his full remarkable career was as impressive as virtually any more famous musician could claim.
 

CONRAD JOHNSON (CONNEY’S COMBO) DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

I DON’T WANT YOUR BABY
(Freedom 1501; March, 1949)
Strong backing of vocalist L.C. Williams as the group’s atmospheric playing adds immeasurably to the mood, though they’re not asked to do much to stand out. (5)

ROCK AWHILE
(Freedom 1506; April, 1949)
As sideman… behind Goree Carter as The Hep-Cats. One of rock’s most explosive records and stylistically a portend of things to come. ★ 10 ★

BACK HOME BLUES
(Freedom 1506; April, 1949)
As sideman… behind Goree Carter as The Hep-Cats.

FLYCHICK BOUNCE
(Freedom 1507; May, 1949)
As sideman… behind Lonnie Lyons. The session players step out front with pianist Lyons getting the artist credit for a storming cut that shows off the group’s skills perfectly. (8)

FAR AWAY BLUES
(Freedom 1507; May, 1949)
As sideman…

SHOUT IT OUT
(Freedom 1508; May, 1949)
The best parts – two sax led instrumental breaks with slamming drums – are first rate and the lyrics are spot-on too, but Babe Johnson’s under powered if enthusiastic singing and an uncharacteristically weak closing drag this back down slightly. (5)

UGLY MAE
(Freedom 1508; May, 1949)
Better than expected stab at humor, largely because it lets the story be funny naturally without trying to overdo it, then has the good sense to let the musicians, including Goree Carter on guitar, do the rest and make this worth hearing even without the laughs. (6)

THAT’S ALRIGHT
(Freedom 1510; June, 1949)
Backing vocalist L.C. Williams, though credited to Conney’s Combo, the group plays some clever parts behind Williams but hardly attempt to define the style going forward. (4)

I’LL SEND YOU
(Freedom 1511; June, 1949)
As sideman… behind Goree Carter as The Hep-Cats.

NEAT AND SWEET
(Freedom 1512; June, 1949)
As sideman… behind Lonnie Lyons.

LET’S HAVE SOME FUN
(Freedom 1513; July, 1949)
As sideman… behind Jesse Thomas.

HOY HOY
(Freedom 1516; July, 1949)
As sideman… behind Goree Carter as The Hep-Cats.

I JUST THOUGHT OF YOU
(Freedom 1516; July, 1949)
As sideman… behind Goree Carter as The Hep-Cats.

SHOUT BABY SHOUT
(Freedom 1517; August, 1949)
As sideman… behind L.C. Williams. More rip-roaring work by Conney’s Combo in support of Williams’s most explosive rock release. (8)

SHE’S JUST OLD FASHIONED
(Freedom 1518; August, 1949)
As sideman… behind Goree Carter as The Rocking Rhythm Orchestra. An unbeatable combination of Carter’s nitro-fueled leads and the group’s tight backing results in another winner. (9)

IS IT TRUE
(Freedom 1518; August, 1949)
As sideman… behind Goree Carter as The Rocking Rhythm Orcestra.

DOWN IN THE GROOVY
(Freedom 1519; August, 1949)
As sideman… behind Lonnie Lyons.

HELPLESS
(Freedom 1519; August, 1949)
As sideman… behind Lonnie Lyons.

SHE’S MY BEST BET
(Freedom 1522; October, 1949)
As sideman… behind Goree Carter as The Rocking Rhythm Orchestra. More inspired work behind Carter’s hell-bent leads especially Conrad Johnson’s work on alto during the opening. (9)

WHAT A FRIEND WILL DO
(Freedom 1522; October, 1949)
As sideman… behind Goree Carter as The Rocking Rhythm Orchestra.

SNEAKY JOE
(Freedom 1523; October, 1949)
As sideman… behind Lonnie Lyons.

BETRAYED
(Freedom 1523; October, 1949)
As sideman… behind Lonnie Lyons.

JELLY ROLL
(Freedom 1524; October, 1949)
As sideman… behind L. C. Williams.