Jan 10, 2010: Remembering Dick Johnson
On January 10, 2010, reedman and bandleader Dick Johnson, favorite son of Brockton, Mass., died at age 84. Although his band Swing Shift was immensely popular locally, Johnson was best known to the national audience as the clarinetist picked by Artie Shaw to lead his revived orchestra in 1983. Said Shaw of Johnson’s clarinet playing in 1980: “He’s the best I’ve ever heard. Bar nobody. And you can quote me on that, anywhere, anytime!”
Dick Johnson spent six years on the road with Charlie Spivak and Buddy Morrow; enjoyed lengthy musical associations with fellow New Englanders Lou Colombo, Herb Pomeroy, and Dave McKenna; and released recordings on Emarcy, Riverside, and Concord. His final recording was Star Dust and Beyond: A Tribute to Artie Shaw, in 2006. Not once, but twice, his hometown of Brockton declared “Dick Johnson Day” in his honor, on September 6, 1984 and May 1, 1999.
It’s good to remember Dick Johnson was much more than a Shaw acolyte. Wilder Hobson reviewed Johnson’s Riverside recording Most Likely in Saturday Review in 1958, on which a grittier Johnson played only alto. The others in his quartet were Dave McKenna, Wilbur Ware, and Philly Joe Jones. Wrote Hobson: “Johnson, who like all modern altos has listened to Charlie Parker, and who is especially fond of Lee Konitz, plays himself with irresistible verve and invention; he composes intricately jaunty tunes; and his rapport with the other three players is perfection. A good deal of the briskness of a New England October has gotten into this music, but Johnson can also suggest the summer shore.”
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