You often hear band people say a variation of this: “You’ll really like his drumming. He’s a very musical drummer.”
It’s one of those seldom-defined, shorthand phrases like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famed definition of pornography. I can’t tell you what a musical drummer is, but I know one when I hear one.
Hell, maybe I can tell what a musical drummer is: a drummer who knows that rhythm is melody, and what’s more, can act on that knowledge with style.
Funk pioneer Joseph “Smokey” Johnson, who quit playing after a stroke in 1993, is perhaps the most musical drummer I have ever heard. A New Orleans native, like so many of my favorite drummers, Johnson broke on to the scene as Fats Domino’s drummer during the 1950’s and ‘60s.
Johnson took over that chair from his mentor Earl Palmer, a guy who played with Sinatra and whose drums are heard on “Tutti Frutti,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and “I Hear You Knockin’,” among many other hits. Palmer also furnished Johnson’s nickname. On seeing him in a club, he remarked that smoke was coming from Johnson’s bass drum.
Backing Domino was a fairly confining role, though, and you have to look elsewhere to hear his genius. The first example came in 1961, with New Orleans producer / arranger Wardell Quezergue looking on, Johnson provided the hissing high-hat and crisp, syncopated second-line snare/kick-drum beat behind Earl King’s primordial funk jam “Trick Bag.”
A little later, Johnson and an entourage of fellow New Orleans natives headed up to Detroit to audition for Berry Gordy at Motown. Johnson blew Gordy’s mind; the exec is said to have remarked that Johnson could play as well as any two of the drummers he had on hand. Motown passed on all the New Orleanians, but Johnson was offered a slot on the hit factory’s assembly line. He stayed up there only a few months before getting homesick, but before he left, all the Detroit drummers studied his technique.
In 1964, Quezerge hired Johnson to be the house drummer for the Nola label, which Quezerge part owned. There followed the recordings on this CD, only one of which – the Mardi Gras anthem “It Ain’t My Fault” -- I had heard until recently, and that as a brass band cover. It also forms the hook of Silkk the Shocker’s rap hit of the same name, and a sample also surfaced in a Mariah Carey song.
You often hear Ziggy Modeliste of the Meters described as being utterly unique. He is nothing of the kind. It’s crystal clear that Smokey Johnson taught Modeliste everything he knew, and at his prime, he may even have been better than Modeliste. In fact, in the early days of the Meters, keyboardist/bandleader Art Neville would often kick the green Modeliste off the traps so Johnson could show him how it was supposed to be done.
This is no knock on Modeliste – he remains a god of rhythm to me. What’s more, he wasn’t the only one in his band copping his style from Johnson. Check out “The Funky Moon” on this record and see if that doesn’t sound exactly like the template not just for Modeliste but also for Neville and their other two bandmates George Porter and Leo Nocentelli. And even then, only when they are operating at their level best, as on “Cissy Strut” and “Look-a-Py-Py.”
That’s just one highlight in a record full of them. There’s another proto-Meters jam in “Tippin’ Lightly,” the greasy harmonica funk of “Dirty Red,” and both the studio version and an extended live reading of “It Ain’t My Fault,” during which the band threatens to but never quite does break out into the Barney Miller theme. (I think they were not-so-subtly pointing out that the composer of that iconic ‘70s cop show theme may well have copped from Smokey. If true, a raid on New Orleans funk like that wouldn’t have been without precedent, as whoever it was that penned the Starsky and Hutch theme straight-up ganked it from the Meters.)
There’s also two grade-A party jams. “Whip it on Me, Parts 1 and 2” is merely great. “Did You Heard What I Saw?” is simply astounding, an all-time classic with the potential to ignite any gathering. Over a syncopated six-note guitar variation on the shave-and-haircut beat are layered ragged-but-right choruses, Johnson’s hellafied high-hat work, and James Rivers’s frenzied flute solos. Meanwhile, Johnson and a bandmate talk trash -- Bo Diddley vs. Jerome style -- on the order of the title and other Zen koans such as “Is you am what you ain’t?” It just plain makes you feel good – James Brown good.
In addition to Johnson and Rivers, the CD features the work of guitarists Wolfman Washington and George Davis and keyboardist James Berfect. But Johnson is the star here, make no mistake. Even though these songs come from before the day funk was officially invented, this stuff is so damn funky, so sly, inventive and clever, it almost doesn’t make sense. You’ll walk away humming the drums. – John Nova Lomax
Available online or at Sig’s Lagoon.
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New Orleans drum master Johnny Vidacovich performs the “It Ain’t My Fault” beat solo:
Smokey Johnson reminisces on Earl Palmer: