May 20, Buddy & Ella Johnson (A tribute by Planet D Nonet w/ special guests Leonard King & Camille Price)
Buddy & Ella Johnson formed one of the most successful brother-sister teams in the history of rhythm & blues and big band music. Although their music is unfamiliar to many blues and R&B fans today, they were a top national attraction during the 1940s and ’50s, when the Buddy Johnson orchestra was the most tireless touring unit on the chittlin’ circuit.
The Johnsons, best remembered for the silken ballad «Since I Fell For You,» scored a number of hits on the Decca and Mercury labels, including some that reappeared in the records of Chicago bluesmen, such as «I’m Just Your Fool» (covered by Little Walter) and «That’s the Stuff You Gotta Watch» (recorded by Muddy Waters).
Pianist Woodrow Wilson «Buddy» Johnson composed most of their songs as well, and was one of the few bandleaders to keep a big band working into the 1950s when most such orchestras had to disband or downsize. The Johnson band even thrived as a rock ‘n’ roll act, appearing on many bills with Bill Haley & the Comets, Chuck Berry, LaVern Baker, and others. Ella’s vocals were always a popular feature, and various male singers, most notably Arthur Prysock, also worked with the group. The Johnsons were born in Darlington, South Carolina (Buddy on Jan. 10, 1915, and Ella on June 22, 1917); Buddy moved to New York City in the 1930s and was joined there by Ella in 1940.
Buddy claimed that he preferred to play the classics, but when he began touring and recording, he realized that blues-based material was his bread and butter, especially in the South. His catchy dance beat was often advertised as «Walk ‘Em rhythm,» after one of his popular Decca tunes. He directed his shy sister’s career to such an extent that after he retired, she chose to quit also. Buddy died on Feb. 9, 1977, Ella on Feb. 16, 2004.