Nice to Meet and Hear You, Smokey Johnson

SKF NOTE: There’s always one more drummer to learn about, isn’t there? This morning, scrolling through online news I stop at this provocative headline about New Orleans drummer Smokey Johnson: “His playing wasn’t just hot; this New Orleans drummer was smokin’.”

Smokey who? His name is brand new to me and I don’t recall ever hearing him on record. The news article continues with another eye-popper, one more I-played-drums-on-Motown-records claim:

This ain’t no brag: (Motown founder Berry) Gordy used to use two drummers on a recording session because them cats didn’t play no bass drum. But after he heard the New Orleans stuff I was laying down, he didn’t need but one. I’d be sitting behind the drums messin’ around and they’d be recording that stuff.”

Who knows! Years ago, interviewing several musicians, songwriters, hearing many claims, rebuttals, and cross claims about who played on which Motown records, my conclusion is with some exceptions we may never identify the players on all of Motown’s records.

That’s true of other recordings as well.

I did some extra digging and listening this morning to Smokey Johnson. As these two recordings prove — the man could definitely play drums. Here we can listen to Mr. Johnson playing straight ahead big band jazz (with NOLA spicing), and also, one his well-known NOLA drumming records, “It Ain’t My Fault.”

There’s always something to learn. That’s one of the reasons I love drumming and drum history.

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His playing wasn’t just hot; this New Orleans drummer was smokin’
Posted May 24, 5:00 AM

“This ain’t no brag: (Motown founder Berry) Gordy used to use two drummers on a recording session because them cats didn’t play no bass drum. But after he heard the New Orleans stuff I was laying down, he didn’t need but one. I’d be sitting behind the drums messin’ around and they’d be recording that stuff.” — Smokey Johnson, in a 2004 interview with Offbeat magazine

In 1963, he and a number of New Orleans musicians — including Wardell Quezerge, Earl King and George French — traveled to Detroit for what they thought was a job with Motown Records but which was in fact more of an audition. Johnson would stick around for five months, reportedly at the urging of Motown honcho Berry Gordy himself, after which Johnson said he played on more recordings than he could remember — and which some have credited with spreading the New Orleans sound to the Motor City.

Full story

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