Of the unfortunate dwindling number of 1960s and ’70s New Orleans R&B recording artists, thankfully we still have Wallace Johnson to appreciate. He never had much more than a handful of neighborhood hits, but his small clutch of singles – and one great CD – were some of the best local R&B of the era.
Johnson was born Oct. 8, 1937, in Napoleonville, La., 65 miles southwest of New Orleans on Bayou Lafourche.
“When I was 13, I saw Roy Brown at a little town called Bertrandville.” said Johnson in 1998. “I stood in the front row and focused on nothing but him. This was when he had (big) records out like ‘Cadillac Baby,’ ‘Brown Angel’ and ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight.’
“I went in the service in 1954. I was stationed in Fort Lewis, Washington. One day at the service club, a guy asked me if I sang. I didn’t, but the next thing I knew, we had a five-member group. This was during the doo-wop era. We performed at talent shows and usually won.”
Johnson got married while in the service. After being discharged, he and his growing family moved to New Orleans, where he had several relatives. Still interested in music, Johnson enrolled at Houston’s School of Music under the G.I. Bill. He unsuccessfully auditioned for Dave Bartholomew at Imperial Records and later for Harold Battiste at Specialty. Battiste expressed interest, but Johnson was told Specialty was winding down its New Orleans activities. However, Batiste revealed he had another project in the works.
“Harold was going to start his own label, AFO. He said it was time for New Orleans musicians that make the music to make the money – not out-of-town companies that came here to record. That’s how I wound up on AFO.”
Johnson debuted on AFO in 1962 with “Clap Your Hands” / “Peace of Mind.” It was a great release, but Johnson got caught in a record-business trick bag. AFO briefly had a national distrubutor, Sue Records, that helped catapult Barbara George’s “I Know” to the top of the charts. Sue and AFO had an bitter split – in a nutshell – over George’s contract and services. That meant Johnson’s single had only local distribution, which meant limited sales and promotion.
“We cut that session at a little studio built behind Ric Records office on Baronne Street,” said Johnson. “That was the first time I met Allen Toussaint, but he couldn’t play on the session because he had a contract with Minit Records. But the rest of the AFO combo played on the record. I cut the session and moved back to Napoleonville after I broke my ankle. Later I found out the label folded and the AFO cats moved out to the West Coast. Then I started seeing Harold on the ‘Sonny and Cher’ show every week.”
Johnson began working weekends at the clubs along Bayou Lafourche. His marquee gig was opening shows for national acts like Ile and Tina Turner and Bobby “Blue” Bland at the Sugar Bowl in Thibodaux. Johnson moved back to New Orleans in 1965 and ran into Toussaint again.
“Allen had just got out of the service and became partners with Marshall Sehorn. This was right after Allen produced Lee Dorsey’s ‘Ride Your Pony.’ I wound up doing several singles with Allen.”
Johnson’s initial Toussaint-produced single – “Something To Remember You By” / “If You Leave Me” – appeared on Sansu and was distributed by Bell. Though it begged to break nationally, it stayed a local record, largely overlooked by the sudden explosion of British music in America. The follow-up, “I’m Grown” / “Baby Go Head,” was also distinctive, but it met a similar fate.
“None of those records were cut live,” recalled Johnson. “Allen would have the musicians record a backing track and then I’d come in and do the vocals. I thought ‘Something to Remember You By’ was pretty good. ‘I’m Grown’ was pretty arrogant song that told a different story. The last single I did with Allen was on RCA (in 1973). ‘I Miss You Girl’ and ‘On My Way Back’ were cut in Atlanta.”
The RCA single didn’t do much, and Johnson returned to Napoleonville, where he drove trucks and worked in a lumber yard to support his family. After his wife died and children grew up, Johnson moved back to New Orleans and worked for company that laid sewer lines. In the mid-1990s, Johnson re-encountered Toussaint and saw a revival of his music career.
“At the time I used to go by Allen’s house to shoot pool,” Johnson said. “I asked him what he thought of me cutting a demo. He said, ‘Go ahead.’ He said, ‘Get the musicians and you can use the studio (Sea-Saint) anytime.’ I met some guys that played with Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., and we did four songs.
“Allen heard the demo and came by my house a couple weeks later. He said, ‘I have some friends in New York are interested in starting a label’ and would I be interested in being involved? Of course I was. I wound up doing a CD ‘Whoever’s Thrilling You’ that came out on NYNO in 1996.”
The release set off a brief firestorm of activity, but Johnson eventually returned to driving a truck for a living. NYNO fizzled, and in 2000, Johnson moved to Atlanta to live with his daughter. His appearance at the 2010 Ponderosa Stomp this Saturday night will mark his first return to New Orleans in a decade.
Wallace Johnson – Clap Your Hands
For even more on Wallace Johnson- see this excellent Home of the Groove post.