Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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JOHNSON, Eddie

(b 11 December 1920, Napoleonville LA; d 7 April 2010, Chicago) Tenor saxophone. To Chicago age two; sang on radio age 12 with two other boys, a 15-minute daily spot sponsored by Hoover vacuum cleaners. The Harmony Hounds sang at the Chicago World's Fair '34, then their voices broke. Eddie took his brother's sax from the closet and had lessons from his uncle Joe Poston (see Jimmy Noone). He played with the local Danny Williams band: the entire band was offered a music scholarship to Kentucky State College, which had decided to imitate Alabama's 'Bama State Collegians. Eddie played with Johnny Long, then Horace Henderson, Moral Young (local bandleader, later music director of I Love Lucy TV show).
      His Chicago colleagues during this era included singer Joe Williams, pianist Jimmy Jones (b 30 December 1918, Memphis TN; d 29 April 1982, Burbank CA; longtime accompanist for Sarah Vaughan, later Ella Fitzgerald; led own trio, also prolific freelance arranger). Influenced by both Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, he leaned toward Young; he played in a Hawkins octet In Chicago '41, the Rhumboogie Club house band '42; he had offers from Duke Ellington and Louis Jordan '46, and went with Jordan because he was newly married and the money was better.
      Johnson recorded for Session, then Capitol and Majestic with Cootie Williams, on Decca with Jordan, and on Chess under his own name as well as with others including Eddie South, the 'dark angel' of the violin, spelled 'Eddy' on the labels, and baritone saxist Leo Parker. Chess wanted him to be their tenor sax/bandleader because Gene Ammons had gone on to bigger things, but Johnson's career was crimped by a spell of poor health: he was treated for tuberculosis c.1953-5. He recorded with Johnny Pate on Federal '57 and sporadically on small Chicago labels after that. Johnson had been called to dep for Ben Webster in the Ellington band a few times in the 1940s, and later when Paul Gonsalves had to take time off on account of his addictions; he sat in on Ellington's Mary Poppins session mid-'60s. He worked day jobs for many years, and eventually retired as a post office computer engineer: retired to music, that is (as well as being a keen golfer).
      His first album as a leader was the lovely Indian Summer '81 on the Nessa label, with an excellent Chicago combo of Paul Serrano, trumpet; John Young, piano; Eddie de Haas, bass; George Hughes, drums. He played on Jodie Christian's Front Line '96, on Kurt Elling's The Messenger '97, then came his own Love You Madly '99, with the same rhythm section as on the Nessa album. The sly humor in his playing complemented his personal modesty. There were various other recording projects; there's a good discography here. The Nessa album was to come out on CD in May 2011.