The Troy Street Observer

August 11 1934: Drummer, Vibraphonist Johnny Rae Born

Cover of LP Opus de Jazz, Vol. 2
Johnny Rae’s only date as leader produced Opus de Jazz, Vol. 2 (Savoy MG 12156)

Johnny Rae (born John Anthony Pompeo) was born in Saugus, Mass. on August 11, 1934, and he left Boston at age 21, so he’s another guy whose status as a Boston jazz musician is debatable. He might have been a short-timer, but he was a very busy drummer and vibraphonist while he was here.

Rae studied piano at the New England Conservatory, timpani at the Boston Conservatory, and drums at Berklee, but didn’t graduate from any of them. He was too busy playing.

Rae was 17 when he joined Herbie Lee’s R&B band in 1952, and he traveled in fast company outside the Lee band, too, working gigs with Slim Gaillard and the Milt Buckner Trio. He played drums and vibes with Al Vega in late 1953 and again from July 1954 to January 1955. In between, he was with Jay Migliori, and the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz also has him with Herb Pomeroy’s big band. That’s clearly an error, as that band didn’t exist during Rae’s time in Boston, and Pomeroy himself was on the road with Lionel Hampton.

Recommended by John Lewis of the MJQ, Rae joined the George Shearing Quintet as vibist in January 1955. Shearing had an exciting band in 1955-56, with Toots Thielemans on guitar, Al McKibbon on bass, Rae on vibes, and three Latin percussionists, including conguero Armando Peraza, who taught Rae to play timbales. Shearing had played mambo before, but this band really played mambo. Rae soaked it all up.

Rae left Shearing in October 1956, when Capitol Records began matching the Quintet with strings, orchestras, and vocal choruses—it was the dumbing down of the Shearing Quintet. Rae landed in Herbie Mann’s group in 1959, just as Mann was making his first forays into Latin music. He played vibes and marimba on Mann’s groundbreaking Flautista! Herbie Mann Plays Afro Cuban Jazz.

Rae jumped again in 1961, to Cal Tjader’s group, at a time when Tjader was exploring Latin music beyond Afro-Cuban. He played drums on Tjader’s 1964 classic LP, Soul Sauce, again with Peraza on percussion. Rae stayed with Tjader for five years, and after a few years freelancing, rejoined for two more.

Rae spent almost 15 years with Shearing, Mann, and Tjader, non-Latin bandleaders who incorporated Latin rhythms into their music and Latin musicians into their groups, and their impact on him was permanent. Although Rae played in many different contexts in the 1970s and 1980s, he never wandered too far from Latin music. Tjader died in 1982, and Rae, then residing in San Francisco, assembled a tribute band, Radcliffe (Tjader’s middle name), which he led until his own death in 1993.

For all of his being in the right place at the right time, Rae’s career was a quiet one. In fact, Wikipedia and the many sites that copy it have not yet reported Rae’s death.

Rae recorded one LP as a leader, Opus de Jazz, Volume 2, for Savoy in 1960, with an all-Boston rhythm section of Steve Kuhn, John Neves, and Jake Hanna. A second recording, African Suite, was released under Rae’s name, but he was only fronting Mann’s band for contractual reasons.

To the music. What could be better than Tjader’s “Soul Sauce”? (The original title was “Guarachi Guaro,” composed by Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie.) Rae plays drums, and Peraza, Willie Bobo (William Correa), and Alberto Valdes star on percussion.

Here is an udated video of Radcliffe, Rae’s Tjader tribute band, playing Baden Powell’s “Samba Triste.”

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