Born Raymond Johnson, 30 April 1930, New Orleans, Louisiana
Pianist / singer.
Ray Johnson is the older brother of saxman Plas Johnson (born 1931). Theirs was a Creole family that included other fine musical talents, like singing sister Gwen Johnson and cousins Renald Richard (who co-wrote "I Got A Woman" with Ray Charles), Don Vappie and Michael White. Their father, Plas Johnson Sr., was a musician who played multiple instruments, saxophone, guitar and banjo.
Ray and Plas attended grammar school in Thibodaux and later Dillard University, a private liberal arts college in New Orleans. Ray played saxophone and drums in his school bands, but he settled on the piano when nightclub owner Ernie Stovall hired the brothers, with Plas playing a b-flat soprano sax, for their first gig when they were 13 and 12. They continued to play nightclubs whenever they could and by the late 1940s the teenage Johnson Brothers Combo was a respected band in New Orleans, playing shows at various clubs, including the Dew Drop Inn. Paul Gayten recognized their talent and recorded them for DeLuxe Records in 1949.
Ray mentions Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and, most of all, Charles Brown, as his idols from that period. The Johnson Brothers broke up temporarily when Plas joined Charles Brown's band in 1951. Soon both he and Ray were drafted into the army. Upon getting out in 1953, Ray returned briefly to New Orleans. That is when and where he recorded his four Mercury sides (clearly influenced by Charles Brown), which were released on two singles and have just been reissued by Bear Family on the 2-CD "The Mercury Records New Orleans Sessions 1950 & 1953".
In 1954, he rejoined Plas who had moved to California where he would become one of the busiest session men on the L.A. music scene. Though it took some time, Ray also became an in demand session player, like his brother and other fellow New Orleans expatriates Earl Palmer and Rene Hall. He played piano on the doowop hit "A Casual Look" by the Six Teens (Flip 315, 1956) and also had two solo releases on Flip. He worked with Earl Palmer at Aladdin, for which he recorded two further singles, and had also singles released on Dot, Glam, Liberty, RCA, Imperial and Acclaim. In November 1959 Ray became Ricky Nelson's regular session pianist (succeeding Gene Garf) and Ray can be heard on such hits as "Hello Mary Lou", "Travelin' Man" and "A Wonder Like You". Later he played on albums by Bobby Darin, Nat King Cole ("Ramblin' Rose"), Canned Heat and T-Bone Walker. Ray is the pianist on the first LP ("Let's Go") by the instrumental group The Routers. The flip of their hit "Let's Go" was "Mashy" and I had owned that single for 40 years when I bought the Buena Vista CD release of "Let's Go / Charge + Bonus Tracks "in 2003. On that CD the piano on "Mashy" is mixed much more to the fore than on the single and it shows Ray's piano skills as a sideman at its best. Ray also did television shows, including "The Johnny Otis Show", "Shindig" and "The Rosy Grier Show" in L.A., along with commercials. He has made more than a dozen trips to Japan where blues piano balladeers ar very popular. Today is he still working in the neighbour- hood bars and plans to put out a reunion Johnson Brothers CD.
Not much is available by Ray on CD. Apart from the four Mercury sides mentioned above, three Flip tracks by the Ray Johnson Combo were recently reissued on "Flip Hits! Plus Flip Misses" (Ace 1086) and "Itty Bitty Bee", recorded for Johnny Otis's Dig label and originally unissued, has been included on "Dapper Cats, Groovy Tunes And Hot Guitars" (Ace 351). In 2000 Ray recorded the CD "Ray Johnson Bluz" for the Goad label : http://cdbaby.com/cd/rayjohnson and there may be other recent releases on Goad, which are probably hard to get.
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