No tags :(

Share it




Though it’s been awhile since we’ve seen him around here, the artist should need no further introduction for those who’ve been following us from the beginning. In the annals of American rhythm music, whatever its primary outlet at the time, jazz, blues or rock ‘n’ roll, few musicians cut as wide a swath as Pete Johnson.

While he’s made countless appearances on these pages to date only a few came as the featured artist.

Pete Johnson it seems was never destined for the spotlight. He was the quintessential sideman, a vital piece of a larger puzzle. That we as music fans don’t always afford those figures the proper historical attention is our fault, not theirs.

For one thing is all but certain… without Pete Johnson’s introductions way back when, Mister Rock might never have met Miss Roll in the first place, leaving us all the worse for the loss.


Back To Kay Cee
It’s almost impossible to mention the name Pete Johnson without also bringing up Joe Turner, so inextricably were they tied. The trails they blazed together over two decades helped to get us to where we are today.

Both were from Kansas City, with Pete seven years older than Big Joe and already ensconced as a pianist in local clubs when a teen-aged Joe Turner began working alongside him as a singing bartender, starting a song whenever the crowd’s buzz started to wear off to keep them from getting unruly and Johnson would immediately pick up on the cue and join in. No microphones were used and none were needed to hear Turner’s booming baritone and Johnson’s furious workouts on the keys.

The two became stars in the notoriously open town in the Nineteen-Thirties celebrating the nightly breaking of prohibition, then when that was repealed, flaunting whatever social mores that remained by urging wayward citizens to indulge in the glorious sins of the vibrant nightlife they ruled over.

In 1938 producer/folklorist John Hammond recruited the pair to perform at the inaugural From Spirituals To Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York, one of the more audacious, and successful, attempts to introduce the many rich veins of black music to white society audiences.

Johnson and Turner stole the show, Turner’s vigorous belting matched in skill and intensity by Johnson’s dexterous playing. Following the star-making appearance the two remained in New York headlining the Café Society, one of the hippest spots in the Big Apple, in the process launching a national boogie woogie craze built on Johnson’s piano abilities.

Whether playing alongside other pillars of the style, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons most notably, or sharing the stage with Turner with whom he shared an almost telepathic communication with, they were feted in New York as they’d been back in K.C. with audiences astounded at Turner’s ability to improvise lyrics for an hour or more without any let-up in Pete’s frenzied accompaniment.

But the boogie-woogie craze for all of its influence was just a temporary craze that alleviated the growing concerns of the World War that was brewing. Then as tastes shifted, in part thanks to the war-related melancholia needing to find an outlet in music at the time, Johnson’s time as a centerpiece was nearing its end by the mid-1940’s. So he consequently turned to session work and subordinated his own persona for the needs of whomever he was sharing a recording studio with, making him a perfect sideman in an ever-evolving musical landscape.

He got a few chances to make records on his own but with piano boogies being rather interchangeable, even when played by someone of Johnson’s ilk, his chances for a career revival were probably slim, especially when Rocket Boogie “88” languished on the shelf for over a year before Jack Lauderdale finally got around to putting it out.


Two Fer One
The record is a two-parter, though like Sonny Thompson’s Long Gone it seems more like two slightly versions of the same song which were then paired together to form one theoretical song.

Part One is what most people refer to when discussing this song, slightly longer, a little slower pace, a few more textures thrown into the mix including a ever-so-slightly distorted Tiny Mitchell guitar which had it been emphasized might’ve helped connect it with the current landscape better.

Despite what some foolishly believe, this record has absolutely nothing to do with Jackie Brenston’s similarly titled Number One hit from a year later, and though the Oldsmobile model that just came out may have influenced this song’s title, it’s clear that number in Rocket Boogie “88” is intended to signify the eighty-eight keys of the piano, all of which Pete pounds into frenzied submission throughout.

That Johnson doesn’t start off in high gear but rather eases into the song with a treble-based intro makes what is to follow all the more exciting, as we allow ourselves to gradually lose control and become unhinged as it goes along. The furious boogie he launches into doesn’t begin in earnest until a minute in, and only then after the horns, led by the great Maxwell Davis, have entered the picture playing a grinding riff that is seductively sinister.

Johnson hasn’t exactly been taking it easy until then by any means, but his playing early on is more measured, letting the pace quicken subtly as he goes. But at 1:04 he starts showing off his right hand, playing nothing tricky at all, but rather just insistent, and the effect is mesmerizing.

Then he stops, as in dead stop with the right hand, shifting his focus to carrying the rhythm with his left, aided by the drums, letting Mitchell’s guitar take center stage for a full thirty second interval after which his right hand reappears along with the horns, the two carrying the song to its climax, churning out competing riffs that work in lockstep harmony.


Part Two is the same basic framework, the guitar sounding a little less distant, though more biting, while the horns are louder and in front rather than shrouded in some haze.

To be honest I think it’s the same cut, just sped up a semi-tone and if so, good for them because it works either way. The first “version” is a little more seductive, the latter is more rousing, take your pick.

Neither one is altogether complex in theory of course but they don’t have to be because what they’re aiming for isn’t your brain, it’s your feet.. or your loins. The purpose is to get you out of your seat, onto the floor with your arms wrapped around somebody sporting different factory installed parts than your chassis is affixed with and in that regard it works just fine.


The End Of The Boogie
Undoubtedly this would’ve been slightly more potent on the scene back in 1949 when it was cut, but even then there weren’t many piano instrumentals burning up the charts.

Not long after the release of Rocket Boogie “88” Pete Johnson left music behind for the most part, not just that he stopped recording but he moved to Buffalo of all places where he worked “regular” jobs amidst a series of health issues.

He still played on the side in clubs but if you thought he wasn’t in the spotlight before when backing the likes of Joe Turner and others, it’s hard to imagine being more out of the spotlight than washing cars during the day and playing for the vibrant Buffalo club scene where they rolled up the sidewalks by 9 PM even on weekends.

Yet he was still Pete Johnson, one of the foremost pianists the world had ever known and in the late 1950’s he had something of a brief revival, touring Europe and then playing behind old friend Big Joe Turner at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

It would be his final appearance as a fully functional musician, as he suffered a series of strokes, losing feeling in his hands as well as his eyesight, making his final decade on earth a struggle no one should have to endure.

But the final curtain couldn’t fall on Johnson without one more standing ovation, the kind of late-life encore that would be too sentimental and contrived if it weren’t true.

In 1967 he appeared as a guest at the 17th From Spirituals To Swing concerts, where he was brought on the stage to take a final bow. When he did so Joe Turner emerged from behind the curtain, the two partners who began together so long ago sharing one more poignant moment in the spotlight together as Turner held his hand and dedicated their signature song that started all of this, Roll ‘Em, Pete to his friend.

As Johnson was being led from the stage he suddenly stopped at the piano, sat down, and despite not having been able to play for years, managed to handle the right hand part of a song he knew so well.

Two months later Pete Johnson died… Pianos haven’t been played the same since.


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