He immediately recognised the feel she was looking for. It took a little longer for him to realise that he knew the song; and it eventually dawned that he had played the solo himself, 37 years earlier.
Johnson recorded on thousands of tunes for small Los Angeles labels like Specialty, Modern and Aladdin in the 1950s. He is the tenor sax on R&B classics like The Teenqueens' 'Eddie My Love' The Cadets' 'Stranded in the Jungle', and on many of Little Richard's early records. He played on The Coasters' and The Platters' West Coast sessions, and provided the out of tune piccolo for Bobby Day's 'Rockin' Robin'. When R&B had become rock'n'roll, and the mainstream record industry realised it wasn't going to go away, he was called in on sessions for Nat 'King' Cole, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee.
'The record companies still needed the authenticity of the black players,' he says, 'and the hardest sound to duplicate was the saxophone. There weren't any white R&B sax-players around.' He did movie work, too, originating the sax solo for Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme, and later rock sessions including the gorgeous tenor solo in Rod Stewart's 'Tonight's the Night'.
In Britain earlier this month for the Birmingham Jazz Festival, Johnson - a quiet, scholarly- looking man with a New Orleans accent (he was born there 60 years ago) - is still doing session work. His recent gigs have included albums by Lyle Lovett and Neil Diamond. He only does the sessions he wants to do now, and throughout his career, he says, he would rather have played solely jazz. He and his fellow session-musician friends refer to themselves as 'the Hollywood whores'.
The Neville album took a year to record. Things have come a long way since the 1950s when Plas Johnson used to cut three or four tunes in an afternoon. The numbers would have to be completed by the end of the three-hour session or the musicians would down tools, complying with a local Musicians' Union ruling. There were usually no written arrangements. Little Richard, say, would sit down at the piano and go through the tune and the musicians would supply their own head arrangements. When the time came for the sax solo, without the benefit of over- dubbing, the pressure on Johnson to get it right first time was intense.
Now, producers get him to record five or six variants of a solo on separate tracks and often patch the completed version together by mixing and matching between them. The talent Johnson developed was that of a miniaturist. 'I'm good at getting hot in eight bars,' he says, 'and very hot in 12. I'm a good utilities player.'
His gift was honed by playing on the road with such rhythm and blues singers as Charles Brown. 'To be a good R&B sax-player in a group with a singer you had to be succinct. You would get 24 bars for a solo if you were lucky, and more likely 12 bars with a bit of tail-gating on the end.' Even now, since he has started doing jazz gigs on the European festival circuit, he doesn't do long solos. 'I do effective short solos. Charlie Parker seldom did more than 32 bars on record. More than that can become indulgent . . . Good construction of a solo demands not just playing everything you know. You have to learn to quit while you're ahead, to know when you've milked the bone dry.'
Johnson left New Orleans, where he had a band with his pianist brother Ray, to go on the road with Charles Brown, at the age of 18: 'We played blues one-nighters for 30 days a month, right across the chitlin' circuit in the South.' The venues were usually all-black clubs, but occasionally, as in Little Rock or Oklahoma City, they would play the city auditorium and white kids would come to see them. The job paid good money for a young man: Brown gave him dollars 35 a night. Race records, as they were still called, were selling in their millions, but royalty payments for the artists were rare. When contract-renewal time came around Brown would get the occasional Cadillac by way of 'royalty advancement'. The money in the studios was even better than on the road - dollars 41 for a three-hour session at a time when Johnson's rent was dollars 50 a month - and after serving in the army, he soon made a name for himself as a reliable session man.
Johnson has stayed in the studios ever since, though he has always played jazz for pleasure. He could have been one of the greatest jazz tenor saxophone players of his generation but he escaped the uncertain living and jazz-related health problems of contemporaries like Frank Morgan and Sonny Criss through steady work in LA. 'But you can come away from many well-paid jobs feeling depressed,' he says. 'It's commercial music and we do anything for money. If you're too sensitive about it you can't do the work.'
Another reason for his lack of ambition was a crippling shyness. 'I never had the gift of the gab with an audience,' he says. 'I would just freeze up. It prevented me from being a singer, I just never had that outgoing personality. The singer says 'please like me' and I guess I just said 'I can play this horn, I don't care whether you like me or not'. Many horn players are very shy people and that's their way of expressing themselves. Just being on stage helped bring me out of my shell.'
He is very much enjoying his belated career as a leader, even if it means playing with local rhythm sections. 'You are what you do and I realise that what I'm doing now I put on hold for so many years; playing in the style I feel like playing and trying to be a little more creative.'
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