Born Plas John Johnson, Jr., 21 July 1931, Donaldsonville, Louisiana
To say that tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson was among the most in-demand session musicians of his day would be putting it mildly. Especially during the years 1957-60 he spent almost every day in the studio. Though a jazzman at heart, he has played on countless rock n roll and R&B records. Even if you have never heard his name, you have heard him on record, unless you have spent the past 60 years on a desert island.
Johnson’s first instrument was the soprano saxophone, which was taught to him by his father, Plas Johnson Sr., a professional musician who played multiple instruments - sax, guitar and banjo. Soon Plas Jr took up the tenor sax as well, which became his preferred instrument. His older brother Ray Johnson (1930-2013) also played sax in high school (and drums), but he settled on the piano when nightclub owner Ernie Stovall hired the brothers. By the late 1940s the Johnson Brothers Combo was a respected band in New Orleans, playing shows at various clubs, including the Dew Drop Inn. Bandleader Paul Gayten recognized their talent and recorded them for DeLuxe (“Our Boogie”/“Mellow Mama”, 1950), although the single went nowhere.
Plas went on the road with the Charles Brown band before he was drafted into the army. After getting out of the service, Johnson moved to Los Angeles in 1954, where he would become one of the busiest session players on the West Coast. But first he attended the Westlake School of Music in L.A. for a year and a half.
Before we take a look at his work as a session saxophonist, let’s have a brief glimpse of his solo recordings. In 1956 Johnson had the first release under his own name, “Blue Jean Shuffle”/“Plasma”, on the Tampa label. His best rock n roll single, in my humble opinion. Augmented by six other Tampa recordings, these sax instrumentals next appeared on an LP called "Bop Me Daddy”, which was also released in the UK (London HBU 1078, 10-inch, 1957). From 1957-60 Plas recorded for Capitol. Eight singles were released (mostly rock n roll) and two jazz LP’s. The first seven Capitol singles were assembled in 1985 by the French label Pathe-Marconi, on an LP called “Rockin’ With the Plas”, which can be heard in its entirety on YouTube. Unfortunately, the album has not been reissued on CD.
The “Tequila”-inspired sax instrumental ”Cerveza” was credited to Boots Brown (Shorty Rogers), but was actually a Plas Johnson recording. It went to # 23 in 1958, on RCA. The year 1963 brought Plas another chart entry as a soloist, but again not under his own name. The jazzy “Sax Fifth Avenue”, credited to Johnny Beecher and his Buckingham Road Quartet, reached # 65 on the Billboard Hot 100 on Warner Bros (picked up from a 1962 album on the Charter label).
Plas made an appearance in two classic rock n roll movies from 1956 : “Rock Around the Clock” (as a member of the Ernie Freeman band, backing the Platters) and “The Girl Can’t Help It” (as part of Fats Domino’s band). In the 1960s his film and television work increased and his work (though not his name) became known to millions when he was featured playing the main title on the soundtrack of “The Pink Panther”, credited to Henry Mancini and his orchestra (a # 31 hit in 1964). Johnson briefly returned to Capitol to re-record “The Pink Panther” under his own name.
From the mid-sixties on, Plas concentrated more and more on jazz. This biography will focus on his contributions to rock n roll and R&B.
Johnson’s first session work was done for Capitol, in October 1954, on a session by the Nuggets, with Van Alexander and his orchestra. Soon thereafter he was featured on several sides by Big Dave (Dave Cavanaugh) and his orchestra, with whom Plas also played on Frank Sinatra’s # 1 hit “Learnin’ the Blues” in March 1955. The next label to request his services was RPM/Modern, in late 1955. Their A&R man, Maxwell Davis, was looking for someone to take over his sax duties, so that he would be able to concentrate on arranging and producing. Among the 1956 RPM/Modern recordings that feature Plas are “Stranded In the Jungle” by the Cadets (# 15), “Bim Bam” by B.B. King and “Here Comes Henry” by Young Jessie. Soon he was also doing sessions for Aladdin, Specialty, Class and by 1957 for a whole bunch of West Coast labels. Dave Cavanaugh was partly responsible for Plas signing with Capitol, where - besides cutting his own solo recordings, see above - he played on most of the Johnny Otis sides, along with his brother Ray and Earl Palmer. Some of Johnson’s most famous solos include those on “Bony Moronie” (Larry Williams), “Buzz Buzz Buzz” (The Hollywood Flames), “Jennie Lee” (Jan & Arnie), “Say Mama” (Gene Vincent) and “Rockin’ Robin” (Bobby Day, featuring Plas on piccolo). On his own website, Johnson offers (far from complete) lists of his contributions to rock n roll : http://plasjohnson.com/Biography/Discography/plasRandRoll.htm and R&B : http://plasjohnson.com/Biography/Discography/plasRandB.htm but these have to be taken with a grain of salt. For instance, Plas claims to play on some of the records by the Piltdown Men, which goes against the existing evidence.
Together with guitarist Rene Hall and drummer Earl Palmer, Johnson was involved in several instrumental projects, for instance The Pets (“Cha-Hua-Hua”, # 34, 1958), the Ernie Fields Orchestra (“In the Mood”, # 4, 1959), and, in the 1960s, B. Bumble & the Stingers, Billy Joe and the Checkmates, the Routers, the Marketts and others. If these records were successful, a touring group would be put together and sent on the road, consisting of musicians who had not played on the original records. The Hall-Johnson- Palmer trio was far too busy in the studio and didn’t like touring. The three men also played on most of the Imperial recordings by the Ernie Freeman Combo (with Irving Ashby on guitar instead of Rene Hall) and the Class recordings of the Googie Rene Combo. Johnson alternated with Jackie Kelso (who could reproduce Johnson’s sound to a tee) as the sax man on the prolific output of drummer Sandy Nelson.
Plas Johnson continued to record (both solo and as a session man) well into the 21st century, but his later work is not interesting for rock n roll fans. Now in his eighties, Johnson is currently working jazz cruises on board various ocean liners.
Official website : http://www.plasjohnson.com
Further reading : Stuart Colman, Repeating Echoes With Plas Johnson, Now Dig This 215 (February 2001), page 9-12.
Acknowledgements : Stuart Colman, the official website.
Dik, September 2015
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