Sunday, October 11, 2015


Plas shakes the world in 1958.

Perhaps the Casual Citizen has heard Plas Johnson play, even if the Casual Citizen hasn’t heard of Plas Johnson, by name. The sinuous tenor saxophone soloing that established the mischief of “The Pink Panther Theme” belongs to Plas. He contributed to other famous scores, such as “Peter Gunn” and “The Odd Couple”, backed a galaxy of elite singers and musicians, including Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Quincy Jones, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, and Ray Charles, and cut a number of hot and bluesy records as a leader, but I get ahead of myself.

I discovered the great Plas single, “Downstairs”, as part of my ongoing jump blues project. Not many would consider “Downstairs” a jump, although the spacious crown of its honking inherits plenty from the bar-walkers. Plas endows the song with a brand of vigorous elegance even as he envisions a world of contours rather than a world of propriety. The slant on “filthy” applies in all the best ways. “Downstairs” becomes a destination and genesis, both, compelling the listener to effect a neat clip down stairs toward a sultry rendezvous that will confirm all the speculation.

In other words, I really dug it, but even then, I didn’t pursue a deeper understanding of Plas, or so I thought. The jump blues project drifted into other genres, some affixed to jump with more obvious lineage than others: early R&B, early rock, rockabilly, surf, garage. I began to admire numbers like Googie Rene’s “Wiggle Tail”, Rene Hall’s “Twitchy”, Duane Eddy’s “Some Kind-A Earthquake”, The Hollywood Flames’ “Buzz, Buzz, Buzz”, and Sandy Nelson’s “Let There Be Drums”, for example. According to many discography sources, Plas played all those dates.

Thus, I awoke to an expanded order in which the constellation contained many more stars than I had originally imagined. Plas recorded “Downstairs” in 1958 on Capitol, which released the tune along with the compelling “In the Loop” the following year. (Some sources suggest that “In the Loop” appeared as the A-side.) Additional Capitol tunes, including the great “Hoppin’ Mad”, may be found on vinyl, as Rockin’ with the Plas. A compilation of earlier band-leading—Bop Me Daddy, on the Tampa label, featuring “Blue Jean Shuffle”—can be found in digital format.

A fellow named Johnny Beecher—leader on “Jack Sax the City” and other New York-themed instrumentals—turns out to be Plas. You may have just heard Plas Johnson on a Benny Carter, Oliver Nelson, or Jimmy Smith record. Many people can recall the Bobby Day hit, “Rockin’ Robin”, but don’t know that Plas Johnson played that tune’s birdcall on a piccolo. We can admire the man’s many appearances as part of the Merv Griffin orchestra and forgive him, generously, for his forays with Steely Dan, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, and The Monkees.

In terms of his playing, Plas Johnson easily belongs in the company of the greatest jump blues and R&B horn players. Listeners should revere “Downstairs” as they might revere Big Joe Houston’s “All Night Long”, J.C. Davis’ “The Splib, Part 1” (or Part 2), Herb Hardesty’s “Perdido Street”, Johnny Sparrow’s “Sparrow’s Nest”, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’ “Ravin’ at the Haven”, among other saxophone workouts (see comments, below). But owing to the sheer number of sessions and genres in which Plas operated, what title can I bestow upon him? He may be The Most Versatile saxophone (and piccolo) player in the history of American popular music.

Sources of information:
Bebop Wino (blog) “PlasJohnson – Rockin’ with the Plas”
Home of the Groove (blog) – “Plas Plays It Pulpy”
Wikipedia entry for Plas Johnson
In the Can online discography, November 1958
YouTube (various songs and albums, including Johnny Beecher channel)
Allmusic Guide main entry for
Plas Johnson
Plas Johnson web site
Discogs main entry for Plas Johnson
Space Age Pop entry for Plas Johnson
Taming the Saxophone entry for R&B saxophonists



Jump and R&B enthusiasts should seek out Big Jay McNeely’s “Roadhouse Boogie”, Charlie Singleton’s “S.O.S.”, Freddie Mitchell’s “Sugarfoot Rag”, and Sil Austin’s “Hey! Eula”, not to mention other honkers by the likes of Paul Gayten, Big John Greer, Rusty Bryant, Noble “Thin Man” Watts, Eddie Chamblee, Big Al Sears, Chuck Higgins, Bull Moose Jackson, Earl Bostic, Louis Jordan, Lee Allen, Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson, Hal Singer, King Curtis, Big Bo Thomas, Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams, and Sam “The Man” Taylor, to name quite a few of the best.



Likely personnel for “Downstairs”: Plas Johnson (tenor sax); (Plas’ brother) Ray Johnson or Ernie Freeman (piano); Jewell Grant (baritone sax); Rene Hall, Irving Ashby or Bill Pittman (guitar); Red Callender (bass); Raymond Martinez or Earl Palmer (drums / percussion).