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DELUXE 3227; AUGUST, 1949



Until Marvel movies came along giving audiences reasons to remain seated, patiently watching the screen through the endless roll of credits so they wouldn’t miss the post-credits teaser there were very few people conscientious enough to study the names of all the behind the scenes contributors to the film they just watched.

Yet without those people doing those jobs movies wouldn’t be nearly the same experience. Though the camera operators, sound crew and film editors aren’t recognizable stars their work is crucial in making the stars on screen come off looking good and while their skills are valued greatly by those in the industry who benefit from their work their careers will likely never be widely admired by the public who remain largely unaware of who they are and what they do.

It’s a strange phenomenon in life where you can rise to the top of a profession that brings joy to millions of people and yet still be viewed as an interchangeable nonentity by the fans of the work that profession churns out.

Just as in film, the music world has many of the same problems when it comes to properly bestowing credit to the vital characters working in the shadows. While a handful of positions have managed to get a bit more attention thrown their way – a few self-aggrandizing producers, some non-performing songwriters at times, even an engineer or two – the actual session musicians working on track after track have always faced an uphill struggle to be acknowledged for their contributions.

So whenever we get the chance to shed some light on those earning just a few paltry dollars playing on records that sold millions then we’re going to take it, even if at times the records with them at the forefront aren’t half as good as those they performed on while toiling away anonymously in the background.


I’ve Been Longing To Meet
The two figures who step into the forefront here a month after backing Erline Harris on her two-sided scorcher, Jump And Shout and Never Missed My Baby, are The Johnson Brothers, pianist Ray and saxophonist Plas Johnson, two figures who’d go on to long, acclaimed careers in all types of music, rock included.

Like so many of the best musicians in this field at this time they were from New Orleans – actually they were born about sixty miles north – but with their musician parents playing all around the region it meant they had firsthand backgrounds in both jazz and – when they came of age anyway – the emerging rock ‘n’ roll, something which in time will certainly help them in getting work but on this song might hold them back a little.

But we’ll get to that. First those introductions. At 19 Ray Johnson was a year older than Plas when this was released but despite their relative youth both had been professional musicians for almost half their lives! Their first paid gig came – get this – when Ray was 13 and Plas was 12. No paper route or mowing lawns on weekends to earn a few bucks for these precocious kids!

Ray had started off playing saxophone and drums before switching to piano, which he learned from his Mom, while younger brother Plas was always a saxophonist like his father, starting off on a used soprano sax his old man had purchased for $16 from a pawnshop. Both brothers were attending Dillard College (just an aside but it’s amazing how many musicians from New Orleans were college educated in an era when most Americans in general, and most African-Americans in particular, were not) and they quickly became one of the hottest local bands in New Orleans, playing the thriving club scene in their teens and getting scouted and signed by Paul Gayten for DeLuxe in early 1949.

When DeLuxe’s founders, The Braun Brothers, lost their label around this time to Syd Nathan of King Records they managed to take the majority of the roster with them to their new imprint Regal Records, but some of the last sides cut when the artists were still under the DeLuxe auspices – including Mello Mama (later referred to as Mellow Woman Blues for some reason) – were issued on DeLuxe which meant it was almost sure to be treated as unwanted leftovers by Nathan.

Sure enough it failed to make an impression and it’d wind up being their only appearance for the label before embarking on careers that placed them largely in the service of other artists.


I Think That Your Lovin’ Will Do
Maybe it’s a good thing we had lengthy introductions to make before getting into the record itself because while it’s certainly interesting and well played, it’s also a bit of an awkward fit in rock now that the boundaries of the genre are becoming more well defined.

That’s not to say that Mello Mama would fit easily in another genre either, there’s too much cross-cultural pollination going on here to satisfy any one set of ground rules, but because of that it’s a record that has distinct elements that hint at certain rock developments down the road while not conforming to a larger stylistic trend still to come.

What stands out right away is their interplay, slinky and jazzy though it is, with Ray’s hypnotic piano getting you swaying while Plas’s more sensuous horn lines puts you in trance. What you DON’T expect (well at the time you didn’t know who these guys were so you didn’t expect anything I suppose, so this is from the perspective of someone in the present looking back and knowing their reputations as instrumentalists) is for Ray to start singing.

He’s got a limited voice but not without some charm, especially as he’s not asked to do too much here. He’s singing in a half-wheezing croon with an eccentrically seductive quality to his manner. Like the instruments his role seems to be to get your eyes to droop – in fact if they had a confederate picking your pocket as you went under their spell I wouldn’t be surprised – and he’s pretty effective in that role.

When he switches up his technique slightly Ray shows he’s got a decent rhythmic quality to his singing as well and though of course his tone is much different it’s actually got some of the same stuttering breathy mannerisms that will become more commonplace a few years down the road in rockabilly, which might point to the fact that in spite of its image even that style was more regional than racial in origins.


Where The Lights Are Low
But since singing wasn’t their primary means of connecting with listeners musically it’s left to their instrumental skills to put this across and here’s where their mixing between sources has a tendency to undercut what works best in a rock setting.

There’s two horns at play here, a trumpet and Plas’s saxophone and while nobody around these parts needs to be reminded yet again of the trumpet’s struggles to fit into a rock mindset we can actually say it’s not garishly inappropriate on Mello Mama. But that doesn’t mean it exactly blends well with the saxophone either though and therein lies the bigger problem.

The trumpet is sticking to emphasizing the rhythm with quick bursts, which in theory is a good idea. But in reality the higher tone of that horn clashes with the warmer, more rounded tones of Johnson’s sax and their quick trade-offs don’t elevate the excitement as much as they add to the confusion. What we want – and have to come to expect on rock songs – is a gritty sax solo to satisfy our illicit musical cravings.

Unfortunately this isn’t quite gritty enough to suit our needs, though it is varied enough to at least be interesting as he drops down for one low honk and spirals up into alto range after that. But riding shotgun is that damn trumpet and it not only distracts us but it also leaves less room for Johnson to improvise and so rather than get more carried away as he goes he has to rein himself in order to keep the trumpet within hailing distance.

The obvious solution to this wasn’t to give the trumpet player the wrong address of the studio so he doesn’t make the gig, but rather he just needs to be told that he’s sitting out the solo. He can still add to the group horn work behind the vocals but he needs to put his horn down when Plas starts to blow. In his place simply let Ray answer his brother with a few two-fisted transitions on the keyboards, or have the drummer toss in a fill or two of his own, and leave it at that.

But of course they did no such thing and so instead Ray returns to bring this full circle, both musically and in terms of the brief sketch of a story they came up with, which isn’t half-bad as generic odes to girls go, even managing to come onto the girl without seeming crass about it.

A Solid Beat
Now it’s hardly any shock that something as quirky as Mello Mama didn’t become a hit in the rock field when so much of what was connecting at the time would send something this mellow scurrying for cover. But as we keep saying variety is ultimately a good thing for the prospects of any musical genre and so for those looking for something a little different while still retaining just enough of the familiar in rock to date this might do the trick.

As might be expected considering their age and relative inexperience with the inner workings of the industry The Johnson Brothers would struggle to get established for the next few years. In 1951 when Plas broke off their working arrangement to accept a prime gig working with Charles Brown, something perfectly understandable.

Soon after though both Ray and Plas were drafted into the Army and when they emerged – though they’d frequently play together for the rest of their lives – more often than not it was while playing behind others as they each settled comfortably in to session work which is ultimately where they made their names…

Or should we say where they made their reputations for those who weren’t stuck on only focusing on the names on the labels.


(Visit the Artist page of The Johnson Brothers’ Combo for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)