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Remembering Buddy Johnson, African-American Jump Blues Pianist

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In the 1940s and 1950s, Woodrow Wilson “Buddy” Johnson was a popular bandleader and recording artist whose compositions and arrangements helped him to become an important figure in the transition from the big band sound to Rhythm & Blues. His numerous hit singles earned his band a permanent spot at New York’s legendary Savoy Ballroom, and he was dubbed “King of the Savoy.” Johnson wrote the lyrics and music for “Since I Fell for You,” a sweet blues song performed by his sister Ella. The song was released in 1945 and quickly became a standard that was frequently covered. Lenny Welch’s 1963 version was a smash hit nearly 20 years later.

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Johnson was born into a musical family on January 10, 1915, in Darlington, South Carolina. Hiram, his brother, became a band manager, and Ella, his sister, became a singer. He began playing the piano as a child and has had a lifelong interest in classical keyboard literature.

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He moved to New York City after graduating from Mayo High School in Darlington County in 1933, where he found work with several bands. In the late 1930s, he toured Europe with the famous Cotton Club Revue. Soon after his return to New York in 1939, he formed the Buddy Johnson Orchestra and signed a contract with Decca Records that would last until the early 1950s.

Later Johnson would sign with several other labels, including Mercury (1953-1958) and Roulette (1959).

The Buddy Johnson Orchestra was well-liked in both New York and on tour. Johnson’s arrangements combined jazz with a “big” sound, reflecting his orchestra’s unusual growth to 17 musicians. Johnson’s music has been dubbed “New York Blues” and “Jump Blues.” “Let’s Beat Out Some Love” (1943), “Baby Don’t You Cry” (1943), “When My Man Comes Home” (1944), and “They All Say I’m the Biggest Fool” (1944) were among his 1940s hits (1946).

Johnson’s popularity faded as musical tastes shifted toward rock, but he continued to record for Mercury until the early 1960s. He died on February 9, 1977, at the age of 62, from a brain tumor and sickle cell anemia.

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