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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.
 

 

Since You’re Mine Now
Considering that most songs have two main components – vocals and music – and not all of records even contain the former, you’d think that there’d be no shortage of acclaim for those actually playing the music itself.

You’d be wrong.

Oh there definitely is in jazz, where musicians get more love than vocalists for the most part, but in rock it’s the other way around. Even those who are absolutely revered for their instrumental ability, like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Bo Diddley on guitar, Bootsy Collins and Paul McCartney on bass, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard on piano, Maurice White on drums and Prince on every instrument under the sun, all are singers as well and that goes a long way to broadening their appeal.

Now before anyone starts throwing out names of non-singing musicians who are just as widely known take a look at the context in which they’re known… I’m guessing that most of them are in a famous band. Drummers Keith Moon in The Who and John Bonham in Led Zeppelin, sax player Clarence Clemons in The E Street Band and virtually every hot-shot lead guitarist from Jimmy Page and Nile Rodgers to Keith Richards and Slash. Without fail it’s the band’s fame which elevates the stature of the non-singing members.

But when it comes to musicians who never were a permanent band member it’s much harder to get recognition even though the work they’re doing sometimes surpasses even the most successful group, merely because as sessionists they play on far more hit records made by a much greater cross-section of artists appealing to an even larger scope of the listening audience.

When recognition does manage to come to those who never saw their own name appear on a record it usually happens long after the fact when a few stalwart historians try and right those wrongs and often their success in doing so is the result of the promotion of a group name – The Funk Brothers, The Wrecking Crew – rather than merely ticking off the names of the musicians themselves.

In one sense you could pass this off to the willing ignorance of the majority of casual music fans, those who merely like their music in passing and aren’t concerned with its particulars. Like coffee drinkers who don’t care where the bean comes from, there are plenty of music listeners who treat it essentially as background music, never caring to delve too much deeper into it and having little or no curiosity about the songs they’re actually fans of other than knowing the primary artist credit just so they know who to reference when bringing it up.

But while that may be the case for many, it’s not representative of ALL music lovers and that’s where the neglect really takes hold, with the more astute fans who follow suit when it comes to rarely looking beyond the main artist credit on the record label.

So in an effort to counter that trend many musicians who otherwise would be perfectly happy earning their living backing others will occasionally step out front and try and gain a little credit for themselves by cutting records under their own name. Mello Mama (later referred to as Mellow Woman Blues on compilation albums like the one pictured below) may not have helped The Johnson Brothers become household names – quick, give me their first names without reading any further! – but the mere fact they were giving it a shot is a sign they had the same aspirations of stardom as everyone else in this game.
 


 

I’ve Been Longing To Meet
So, for those who’ve forgotten about their contributions on last month’s two-sided Erline Harris scorcher, Jump And Shout, in which their role matches her fire throughout, and its flip-side, Never Missed My Baby, where Harris is excellent but they drop the ball somewhat, although to be fair more of the blame can be placed on the trumpet, we’re now presenting the official introductions of Ray and Plas Johnson.

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.

Now here’s where we come into some intrigue that we’ve gone into in quite a bit of depth before. DeLuxe was in the process of being stolenumm, being “legally appropriated”… by Syd Nathan who’d bought a controlling share the previous summer when the Braun Brothers who’d founded it ran short on cash and immediately began to throw his weight around and in the winter of 1949 things came to a head. The Brauns filed suit, left the company and promptly started Regal Records and managed to take most of the New Orleans artists they’d signed for DeLuxe with them, Gayten included.

But the sessions they were cutting into the spring were technically still being done under the auspices of DeLuxe and though Erline Harris’s sides would come out on Regal the sides the Johnson Brothers cut on their own at the same session would be released on DeLuxe. This turned out to be a rather bad break for them because while Nathan did put them out I can’t imagine he was eager for more of the hybrid instrumental sound they came up with on Mello Mama and consequently it’d wind up being their only appearance for the label.
 

I Think That Your Lovin’ Will Do
Maybe it’s a good thing we had so much to cover 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.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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