The Chicago of the 1920s must have been a rough and tumble sight for a country boy from rural Louisiana. By the time Eddie had passed into his teenage years he was determined to become a working musician, and quickly sought like-minded souls at Englewood Technical Prep Academy where he matriculated.
He formed a vocal harmony band in high school that tried to sound like the Mills Brothers but young Eddie did not begin to gain traction til, at the behest of his uncle Joe “Doc” Poston, he picked up the tenor saxophone.
“The basic warmth for a sound was instilled in me by my uncle,” Johnson related in an interview he gave in 1981 shortly after he retired from his job with the City of Chicago.
The tenor man continued: “He gave me my first horn, and he taught me. And every time I was listening to Prez (Lester Young) and popping my fingers, he said, ‘No, I want you to listen to Hawk (Coleman Hawkins,) this is the sound I want you to get.’
After earning his sheepskin at Englewood, the young player was recruited by Kentucky State College to take his and his band’s talents to Frankfort, the capital of the Bluegrass State. In that long-ago time colleges and universities would recruit musicians just like they did athletes. Anything to add to the school’s enrollment.
One imagines it was quite the culture shock to be uprooted from the big city of Chicago to a small town in 1930s Kentucky.
“I only stayed there about eight months, but we put them on the map,” Johnson remarked. It’s not hard to imagine that a group of street-wise black kids who were bopping Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins-style jazz could make a decent impression in backwater Kentucky
After returning home to Chicago, the suddenly-hot Johnson joined Johnny Long’s Orchestra at Swingland, a Southside cabaret.
Following Pearl Harbor, Eddie joined Coleman Hawkins octet band at White’s Emporium where he played sideman to the legendary Hawk. Mr Coleman was a restless soul and had taken to the bottle to alleviate the torpor.
Like most musicians Eddie Johnson was peripatetic and in short-order played with the Johnny Long Sextet as well as the Milt Larkin band
Charlie Glenn, entrepreneur, car dealer, and business partner of the Brown Bomber Joe Louis, approached Johnson next and recruited him to join his “dream band” for a series of performances at the Rhumboogie Club. Once again Eddie was in high cotton but his strong personality barely allowed him to stay in the outfit long enough to play with Charlie “Bird” Parker, and make his recording debut.
Johnson finally, at long last, gets a shot at national exposure with x-Duke Ellington cat Cootie Williams. It was 1946. Next stop for the vagabond sax man? Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, the man who some people claim is the father of rock n roll.
Eddie: “I was newly married, and Louis was paying what for the time was big money.” He does not mention what his pay rate was. Johnson’s work with Jordan is well worth seeking out, and if you want to hear the man on a sax solo check out Every Man To His Own Profession.
Thankfully Johnson stuck around with Louis long enough to back Ella Fitzgerald on some recording studio dates. I was not able to find out if that outfit performed live.
Eddie Johnson was playing with Lewis “Bill” Ogletree as the legendary Savoy Ballroom was in its death throes. In an interview Ogletree mentioned “We were getting $11.58 per man for that job.” The Savoy would go out of business in 1948.
Leonard Chess would take a liking to Eddie next, and in need of replacing the departed Gene Ammons, Chess put out Walk Softly backed with Cold Cold Heart.
It was Eddie Johnson’s first single, and he was 31 years old.
While it seemed like Johnson was finally about to get the big push from Chess and become a band-leading superstar, fate struck the country boy from Louisiana as he was hospitalized with tuberculosis.
The doctors removed half a lung, and by the late fifties Johnson took full-time employment in a square job working for the City of Chicago as a tabulating machine trainee. His shot at stardom had passed, and he dedicated himself to the nascent world of computers. That didn’t stop him from playing live on the weekends for pleasure, and a bit of side money.
Perhaps most notably, he recorded four tracks on the Mary Poppins LP with Duke Ellington in 1964. As the late sixties and early seventies rolled along Johnson performed on the weekends with the much respected Red Saunders. Eddie took the latter part of the seventies off before polishing up the brass and wading back into the fray in 1979.
His return would be well-rewarded as he signed a deal with Nessa Records and took to P.S Recording Studios on E.23rd Street on June 24th and July 2nd 1981 to record his first LP; Indian Summer. It’s excellent, and quite a score for crate-digging jazzbos.
Later that year, Eddie Johnson played Chicago Jazz Fest. Sun Ra was also in the lineup but I can find no mention as to whether their paths crossed.
As the eighties flew by, Johnson had steady gig work, and drew good crowds at Andy’s Jazz Club in downtown and the Moosehead on Harrison.
Eddie Johnson would take a band into Riverside Studio at 4121 N. Rockwell St, on January 6 and 7, 1999 to record his second and final LP for Chicago’s Delmark Records at the age of 79 .
The weathered tenor man still swung from the rafters. It’s on Youtube if you take a notion to hear this document of the player’s life.
His last publicized performances were with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra on March 29 and 30, 2003.
Eddie Johnson was born on November 12th 1920 in Napoleonville, Louisiana.
He passed away on this day back in 2010. He had been retired from jazz for six years due to emphysema. Johnson was renowned as the tenor sax king of both Napoleonville an hour up the Mississippi from New Orleans and the City of Big Shoulders, Chicago.
To this day he’s referred to as “the patriarch of jazz in Chicago.”
Enjoy the article? I’ve worked on this site 7 days a week for the past 10 years
My Venmo is @Russell-Reeves-6 if you’d like to make a small contribution