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APOLLO 791; JULY 1949

 
 

 

One of the questions we keep bringing up around here when encountering a really great artist whose commercial success never quite lived up to their talents is: How is it when they were so good did they never become a star?

It’s really an unanswerable question, one with lots of components factoring into things, not the least of which is the maybe the most enduring truisms of popular culture – audiences are fickle.

But here at last we have an answer to that unanswerable question when it comes to one such supremely gifted musical figure, Pete Johnson.

The reason he never became a full-fledged star – not in rock ‘n’ roll, not in blues, not in jazz, and not in polka or Cajun zydeco either for that matter – is quite simply that the records he made, no matter how well he played on them, all seemed somewhat indistinguishable from one another at a glance, which leads to another question, maybe not so unanswerable as the first…

Just how many roaring piano boogies do you need in your collection?
 

 
Boogie On The Side
Some guys are born to be sidemen. It’s a statement that appears on the surface to be a knock against someone’s talents, but in fact it’s a testament to their talents rather than a criticism.

Those who survive for decades in something as tumultuous as the music industry without ever becoming a star are in many ways MORE impressive than those who become an immediate star, burning brightly for a few hits but who then quickly fade away. Endurance is hardly a quality that springs to mind when recounting why certain artists could be considered great, yet it’s a quality that is rare indeed, especially during the era that Pete Johnson plied his trade.

He’d come up in the barrel house scene of Kansas City of the early to mid-1930’s and then reached his highest level of acclaim following his New York debut at the From Spirituals To Swing concert in late 1938. He followed that by entrenching himself as a must-see live act, often with fellow piano players Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, but more often than not with his old pal from Kansas City, vocalist Big Joe Turner.

Along the way he made records, many of which were backing Joe, but he certainly cut some on his own, and not only did he get substantial credit for helping to launch the entire boogie woogie craze that swept the country at that time but he was widely seen as the best practitioner of that style.

Hold on, you’re probably saying. I thought you said that Johnson was never a star!

Well, that depends on how you define star. Or rather how WE here define it for our purposes when charting recorded music history. Not even confining it to merely rock ‘n’ roll, what we’re looking for in our definition of star is a commercial reliability based on the consistent interest of the public for an artist’s recorded work. In other words, when a record comes out with their name on it is it guaranteed a certain level of sales, something that will result in national hits.

Every single release doesn’t have to be a hit, but enough of them do in order to make their name widely known to those who never stepped foot in a club where he held court.

Pete Johnson never quite reached that and certainly didn’t reach that in the rock ‘n’ roll era, despite his playing being what laid much of the foundation for that style.

So surely you must think that the reason he didn’t graduate from lauded innovator with a briefly rabid club following in the early 1940’s to rock ‘n’ roll recording star in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s was that like many who came of age in an earlier time, he wasn’t able to adapt to the mindset of the younger cultural viewpoints that embraced rock when it came along, or that his musical ideas themselves were outdated.

Nope, that’s not the case at all. Much like his buddy Big Joe it wasn’t the newer audience or their different perspectives that was the problem, it was the fact that for all of his genius Pete Johnson could no more do what any OTHER boogie woogie king, before or since, had been able to pull off… he couldn’t invent a new way to play something as rudimentary as boogie woogie.
 


 

The Formula For Stardom
No matter what musical styles come and go over the years and no matter what instruments step into the forefront to play those styles, the boogie is something that is bound to endure.

Though relatively unchanging in its structure, it’s surprisingly adaptable in many ways as well. Johnson of course was the foremost boogie woogie pianist of his time, maybe of all time, but guitarists soon picked up on it and brought it to new audiences – particularly country music – as a result of the shift in instrumentation. Jazz had adapted it to their horns in the big band era and rock ‘n’ roll of course would pick up on it as well. All of those styles utilized it to great effect at times, but none of them were built upon it.

The reason is there’s a difference between songs with a boogie beat and songs that are nothing BUT a boogie… with no vocals that is and few, if any, other instruments, especially other soloing instruments to give it the variety needed to connect with a wider audience.

That was the problem that Pete Johnson faced when looking to become a star in his own right rather than backing somebody else and helping to turn them into a star. No matter how intoxicating the rhythm was, no matter how deftly he played that rhythm, no matter how much it got you to move and groove when hearing it… unless his records had an identifying feature to it to give it some sense of uniqueness, some distinguishing characteristic of its own separate from other piano boogies, then Johnson was going to remain on the outside looking in when it came to stardom.

The same can be said of other instrumentalists in rock, at least to a degree. By 1949 plenty of honking saxophonists had scored with huge hits but how many of those guys were destined to be long term stars? The fact is it just wasn’t easy to stand out without a voice, without lyrics, without a personality those things gave you. Stardom, especially lasting stardom, relies on versatility and when you subtract one of – or rather two of – the prime components for showing off versatility, lyrics and vocal technique, then you’re facing an uphill battle. For every Big Jay McNeely who could reasonably pull it off there were a dozen Wild Bill Moores, Red Prysocks and Frank Culleys who couldn’t, not because they didn’t have the talent, but because their instrument almost ensured a certain level of anonymity, and the sax had far more variation to how it could sound than the piano did!

The same would be true for guitarists who stuck largely to the instrumental route. Yeah, we remember a handful of great songs, big hits led by a guitarist, even by fairly obscure names like Jorgen Ingmann and Davie Allan, but without vocals to give their catalog more of an identity stardom just wasn’t going to be in the cards for them. You might have a few guys who managed a really good career, Dick Dale, Jeff Beck, Steve Vai among them, but all of them, and most anyone else you want to throw in the ring who released instrumentals under their own name, probably falls short of being considered a true star.

That’s why bands flourish by comparison. Keith Richards might have sang on a few records with The Rolling Stones and even took lead vocals on one sizable hit along the way, but his stardom was assured by being part of a band that had a charismatic lead singer. The same can be said for Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen and Slash. Vocals ensure each song sounds different, has different lyrical touchstones and thematic variance and so you always feel as if you’re getting something new with each new record.

Pete Johnson DID play on some hit vocal records and even received label credit for many of them but that didn’t help him much when it came to widespread public recognition. Johnson’s gifts were prodigious but he was a supporting player in a period of time before they gave bands colorful names promoted through organized marketing, magazine covers and world tours. Had Joe Turner’s records been credited to The Kay Cee Rockets or something, maybe it’d be another story.
 
 

 
 

Rockin’ Boogies Never Go Out Of Style
All of which is a way to ease you into the difficult task of finding a way to fairly judge a stellar performance that had virtually no chance of becoming a hit, or of making an impact on the course of rock ‘n’ roll in general.

Now to be fair Hollywood Boogie was a record cut way back in 1947 but not released until the summer of ’49, which might normally be reason to excuse its failure to connect with an audience who viewed two years in the past as another lifetime ago. But as already stated the nature of the boogie woogie is that it endures. No matter the date, no matter the context, rocking boogies seem to be rather timeless…

Ahh, but fitting in any style is one thing, standing out in that style is another thing altogether.

We know what it DOESN’T contain to give it a personality, namely a voice singing words we can then attach to it as an easy reference point anytime we want to think of it, so let’s focus instead on what it DOES have that will need to pick up the slack in order to make a lasting impression.

For one thing it’s got a guitar, which might not have been the most commercial sound in rock itself at this point, but if nothing else it gives the song some contrast it’ll need if it wants to stand apart from a thousand and one other piano boogies. But while Chuck Norris adds a certain distinct feel to the song, he never fully takes it over. The few moments the guitar gets to shine it’s almost as if Norris is being careful not to step on Johnson’s toes. The sonic textures themselves are nice but far too discreet. Just once you’d like to see him forcibly wrest control from Johnson. He wouldn’t have to play in a more raucous style, tearing off blistering runs that would mark it as something well ahead of its time, but at least play with more assertiveness to ensure it got noticed and to give it more of a contrast.

Johnson could help in this regard too by merely stepping aside to let Norris get off a more proper solo. As it is Pete never lets up on the keys and while he’s definitely not clashing with the others, he’s also not giving them quite enough room to breathe and so the guitar and everyone else picks their spots gingerly and have to be content with merely adding some shading to the overall sound rather than taking it in a new direction.
 

All The Biggest Stars Are Out In Hollywood
But this IS Pete Johnson’s record after all, and thus HIS chance state his claim for something more than hushed reverence among the hipsters who love celebrating somebody otherwise under the radar.

Everything Johnson was known for is in evidence here, namely a strong foundation, precise technique and an admirable sense of balance, all good qualities but hardly the stuff to get you headlines.

Johnson starts off with a strong right hand in the mid-range before letting his left establish the bottom as the others fall in behind him. In fact most of this sticks to the middle of the keyboard rather than the higher notes which is somewhat rare for these kind of songs. Normally in order to provide contrast with the rock solid left a pianist will lean heavily on the upper register, hammering the extreme high notes with a demonic intensity. But while Johnson does dance around that range from time to time here he never lets it dominate the proceedings which gives Hollywood Boogie an inviting ambiance it never really relinquishes.

Wait a minute… what kind of a critical review IS this anyway? I thought you said this was going to be some sort of a repudiation of his talents, or at least one that was taking him to task over the record’s shortcomings. But this has been mostly complimentary so far! Next you’ll say that Johnson manages to come up with a rather inventive bridge along the way, something unexpected and engagingly idiosyncratic.

Well, I was just getting to that actually. He DOES reel off a pretty quirky riff around the two minute mark that manages never to fall into predictability and gives this more of a varied feel to it than a lot of storming piano workouts. But I see what you’re saying. Now that you mention it I suppose everything we’ve touched upon so far is certainly giving the impression that Hollywood Boogie is a pretty decent record. Maybe even one that deserved to be a minor hit, or at the very least one worthy of being heard and appreciated by a bigger audience than it reached at the time.

But while it IS quite well done at that, the truth is it was pretty obvious that this had no chance to really connect commercially with the rock fan, or any other fan for that matter, be it jazz or blues, in order to elevate him to a headliner.
 

 
How can this be? How can a good record where all the parts fit, where the musicians playing are first rate and handle their business with minimum fuss and understated grace, be anything less than recommended? Maybe even championed if we’re feeling particularly generous to a highly regarded and widely under appreciated figure like Pete Johnson?

Well it comes back to the overriding theme of the review, the appropriateness of the record for the intended audience at the time. It doesn’t matter if they cut this thinking it’d fall into a blues bag, or that jazz aficionados would pick up on it, rather than the still gestating rock movement. The fact is the boogie woogie, even when it’s as well played as this is, was always destined to be a sound best suited for the bandstand, not the jukebox… for ambiance rather than commanding the spotlight… for backing others rather than soaking in the acclaim itself. When there’s no melodic distinction to separate it from a thousand and one other piano workouts it merely becomes atmospheric and atmosphere is just not what makes hit records and hit records is what makes stars.

That’s the nature of boogie woogie in a nutshell and when it comes to the big picture in music, where star power is the ultimate factor in determining who commands our attention. That unfortunate quirk which on one hand makes the boogie so adaptable also makes it so anonymous is ultimately what conspired to relegate Pete Johnson to the margins in the long run.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Pete Johnson for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)