Joseph “Smokey” Johnson occupied the drum stool in Fats Domino’s band for 28 years and his powerhouse beats can be heard on hundreds of local productions recorded during the ’60s and ’70s by Dave Bartholomew, Wardell Quezergue and Eddie Bo. But it was his own records, such as “Tippin’ Lightly,” “Dirty Red” and 1964’s ingeniously infectious street anthem “It Ain’t My Fault,” that literally foretold the future of funk.
“Wardell and me came up with the melody to that song,” Smokey says of “It Ain’t My Fault,” “but the rhythm is a drum cadence that I wrote in high school. All the drummers had to write their own drum cadence. Miss Yvonne Bush, our music teacher, made us do that. I went to Clark and she taught at Clark and Booker T. but I was taking lessons from her before I went to Clark, she used to be my next door neighbor. She taught John Boudreaux, James Black, Nat Perrilliat, Warren Jones—better known as Porgy, Herlin Riley, a lot of cats. I mean, most of the cats in town, she taught. She was a trombone player and trombone was my first instrument. But her sister Dolores was a drummer and I used to play on her drums a lot. I always did dig drums but I didn’t have any until my grandfather bought me a set. I started playing when I was about 12 or 13.
“At Clark I was the only freshman to make the senior band. They didn’t let any freshmen play in the senior band, you had to be there at least a year. But I went right in because Miss Bush already knew I could play.” It was during his high school years that Smokey began to play professionally. “I was going to school and makin’ money; more money than my daddy. I wanted to quit but he wouldn’t let me!”
After graduation, Johnson played R&B with Sugarboy Crawford’s Chapaka Shawees and jazz with Red Tyler before joining Dave Bartholomew’s big band. “I did a lot of recording with Dave on Imperial,” says Smokey, who is often noted as the drummer on many of Earl King’s early ’60s classics, including the all-encompassing “Trick Bag.”
It was around this time that Johnson took part in one of the most interesting—and least talked about—chapters in the history of New Orleans music: a mass exodus to Detroit orchestrated, and, depending upon who you ask, sabotaged by local music biz hustler Joe Jones. Johnson wound up benefiting from the trip when he was hired by Motown as a session man.
“A bunch of us went up there,” Smokey remembers, “Earl King, Kidd Jordan, George French, Johnny Adams, Wardell Quezergue, Esquerita. Let me tell you what happened. We thought we were going up there to record but when we got there we actually found that we were going up there to audition.” The New Orleans musicians knew their worth and were understandably dismayed that Jones had led them on, relates Johnson. “Well, we weren’t gonna go up there and do no auditions. But after Berry Gordy heard what we had—we went up there with a lot of original tunes, especially Earl—after he heard that band, he was ready to start recording then and there.
“And I’ll tell you another thing, this ain’t no brag. Gordy used to use two drummers on a recording session because them cats didn’t play no bass drum. But after he heard the New Orleans stuff I was laying down, he didn’t need but one. I’d be sitting behind the drums messin’ around and they’d be recording that stuff. I tell you what we were doing. I was recording from like nine o’clock in the morning every day ’til five o’clock in the evening. I can’t remember all the stuff I was playing on ’cause they were recording 24 hours a day. Them cats used to make their own materials and machines to record with. They had a room, and when the kids would get out of school, passing the place, they’d go in there and let ’em hear the things that we’d played, right? The things that the kids liked, that’s what they put out there. I worked up there for a little while until I got homesick. It was good.”
Back in New Orleans, Johnson continued as a session man extraordinaire, picking up gigs along the way. “I used to work for Carlos Marcello at the Sho-Bar on Bourbon Street playing behind Rita Alexander, the Champagne Girl. She used to dance to that tune ‘Goldfinger’ with two champagne glasses on her titties. I was the only brother in the band. We had Don Seward on alto, he used to sound like Charlie Parker. He was a hell of a player, he was bad. That was some fightin’ hours way back then. Bourbon Street ain’t the Bourbon Street I remember. When I was playing down there, they had the dancers out on the street. If a black dude walked by the joint the barkers closed the door where he couldn’t see in there. I mean, I’d be goin’ on my gig but the cats would close the door when I passed by! Man, that was some crazy stuff.
“I started playing with Fats in ’73. I quit that band about three or four times and went back; I had to quit for a raise ’cause they wasn’t gonna just give it you! There were cats in that band like Herb Hardesty, Lee Allen, Fred Kemp, myself, we got paid. We knew what we were gonna get before we left. Dave Bartholomew hipped me to that years ago: don’t leave town unless you know how much money you’re making and where you’re going. Dave is like my father, we traveled a lot together with Fats. They used to put me in the middle, Fats used to say, ‘How’s your Pa?’ Then Dave would ask me, ‘He payin’ you right?’ I had some fun with both those cats.”
In describing his approach to drumming, Johnson points to his experience in laying down the beat behind this month’s cover subject, Eddie Bo. “You gotta play behind Eddie. You can’t be back there, like he’d say, ‘shuckin’ and jivin.’ You’ve gotta be on fire behind him because he works hard. You’ve gotta push. I used to do that behind Fats. I’d put it on him. That’s what he likes. But I never was a showoff. I’d just do what I know how to do. Look, I played with Fats’ band all them years. When I got ready to play some be-bop, we did that on Sundays when we were off the road. Edward Frank, myself, Fred Kemp and Erving Charles, we used to get down on Sundays but I never played that kind of stuff behind Fats. When I was in the band with him I played his music. I put it like I used to tell them cats: I didn’t have to back up for my money. That’s it, ’cause I did my job.”