December 3, 2012
Roll ’em, Pete
Blues pianist Pete Johnson is often spoken of for his performances with the mighty Joe Turner – one of the very best blues singers. Rightly so, because the recordings of Pete and Joe together are among the most sublime duets in jazz history. Then there are references to Pete’s role as one of a trio of boogie woogie masters. Once again, his role in jazz and blues piano is shaded by the implication that Pete was not entirely his own man. This is demonstrably unfair, because Pete was a hugely gifted soloist and an outstanding blues piano player and should not be forgotten for his other work.
Pete Johnson was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on 25 March 1904, and as a teenager started out in music as a drummer. From time to time he also played piano, but he was 22 years old before he gave up the drums and concentrated on piano. Soon, he was recognized as a master of the blues and during the late 1920s and early 1930s he played at numerous clubs in his home town, then the heated centre of jazz. He became known and respected as accompanist to several blues singers, notably Joe Turner. The pair performed at various KC clubs, in particular the Sunset Café, and it was during one of these engagements that they were heard by John Hammond Jnr. Always eager to promote new talent, in 1936 Hammond brought Pete and Joe to New York City to play at the Famous Door. They were not as successful as hoped, and soon they were back home in KC. Fortunately, Hammond did not give up and later in the decade, when staging his Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall, he brought Pete and Joe back to the city.
This time, they made their mark and after their appearance at Carnegie Hall, Pete decided to stay on in New York and, in collaboration with Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, he formed the Boogie Woogie Trio for club and record dates.
The popularity of boogie woogie proved to be short-lived but it was a successful time for Pete who played not only in the trio, but also in duo with Ammons or Lewis. He also continued performing and recording with his old friend Joe Turner, and during the 1940s worked as a solo act .
Pete continued his career through the 1950s, mainly as a soloist but he regularly appeared with Joe and he also teamed up with another blues singing giant, Jimmy Rushing. These years were especially good times for Pete. Now resident in Buffalo, New York, he played club engagements, toured nationally, and in 1956 he and Joe recorded the classic album Atlantic Records album, Boss Of The Blues. Never out of print, and in later years available on various labels, it deserves (make that ‘demands’) a place in every collection.
Unfortunately, fate was waiting to deal Pete a savage blow. Although poor health restricted him, he began 1958 well, visiting Europe with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic and then playing at the Newport Jazz Festival. Later in the year, however, while still very much at the height of his blues-playing powers, Pete suffered a crippling stroke. He tried to continue, but his health was now too bad and although he did make a tentative return to recording in 1960, Pete dropped out of public sight and was soon beset by financial troubles.
That might have been the end of the story, but an anniversary concert was held celebrating John Hammond’s Spirituals To Swing. At Carnegie Hall, Pete, walking with difficulty, was helped onstage where he received a huge ovation. He took a bow and was being led off when the band swung into his best-known composition, Roll ’Em Pete, and as his old companion, Joe Turner, prepared to sing, Pete decided that he too was in a mood to celebrate.
As Pete reached the piano, he unexpectedly sat down alongside Ray Bryant and began picking uncertainly at the keys with his right hand. Delightedly responding to Pete’s impulse, Ray promptly laid down a solid left hand. His hesitant playing strengthening with every note, Pete showed that, for all his frailty, the spirit of blues piano still burned bright inside him. Emotionally, it was a highly-charged moment that became, in retrospect, even more so when, two months later, on 23 March 1967, Pete Johnson died in Buffalo.
On boogie woogie pieces, and especially playing the blues, Pete Johnson is always a joy to hear. When teamed with his old friend Joe Turner, these two musical giants create some of the most memorable moments in the story of jazz and the blues.