Plas Johnson: This Must Be The Plas!


Plas Johnson? Who? That’s the question every buff gets whenever there is mention of the late and unknown saxophonist from Los Angeles, California. However, without realising, everybody knows “The Plas”. He’s the saxophone player on the world-famous Pink Panther Theme by Henry Mancini. In fact, there might be more Plas Johnson licks in popular music than stray dogs in the slums of Kiev.

Johnson was one of the most sought-after session players and is heard on songs by Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, The Platters and Motown hit makers like Marvin Gaye and The Supremes. The session players in Detroit (“Funk Brothers”) and Los Angeles (“Wrecking Crew”) had a thorough jazz background and their efficiency and swing was vital to the songs of the classic pop and soul era. Johnson, born in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, was no exception. His career in the jazz field includes recordings with Ella Fitzgerald and Chet Baker.

This CD presents two albums that Johnson recorded for Capitol Records in 1959 and 1960: This Must The Plas! and Mood For The Blues. Capitol was one of the major companies in the industry and many of its artists – Sinatra, Nat King Cole – appealed to the mass market. Evidently, the Johnson LPs were adapted to the taste of the white audience. The conciseness of the polished tunes limits solo time. Moreover, Mood Of The Blues features a string section. On This Must Be The Plas!, Johnson plays tenor, alto and baritone, on Mood Of The Blues the saxophonist sticks to his customary tenor saxophone.

Johnson may be likened to Jimmy Forrest, both down-home players and derivations of swing masters like Ben Webster. His delivery is medium-strong and relaxed and effortlessly lifts up a melody from the ground. The congregation of talent on the Johnson sessions includes jazzmen and seasoned fellow LA session players such as guitarist Howard Roberts, pianist Paul Smith, vibraphonist Victor Feldman, bassist Red Callender and drummer Earl Palmer. This Must Be The Plas! is a collection of standards (Too Close For Comfort, Day In Day Out) including some interesting lesser-known melodies from the American Songbook. Highlights are the thoroughly swinging Just One Of Those Things and the ballad If I Had You, which boasts infectious, lush baritone playing.

The string sections, albeit expertly tailored to the shape of Mood For The Blues by West Coast class act Gerald Wilson, detract from the session’s riff-based repertory. (One Mint Julep, Since I Fell For You) Blues tunes are right up the alley of Johnson, whose notes tap dance fervently and with a decisive beat on the inspired uptempo bounce of Percy Mayfield’s Please Send Me Someone To Love. There’s something for everyone’s taste on this release, which comes in a nice package of old-school art work and includes both original and contemporary liner notes. 

This Must Be The Plas!: (1) Too Close For Comfort; I Hadn’t Anyone Till You; Heart And Soul; Poor Butterfly; Memories Of You; Just One Of Those Things; There’s No Greater Love; If I Had You; My Silent Love; Day In, Day Out; S’il Vous Plait; Mood For The Blues: (2) Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying; One Mint Julep; How Long Has This Been Going On?; Blues In My Heart; I’ve Got A Right To Cry; Please Send Me Someone To Love; Tanya; Fool That I Am; Chloe; Since I Fell For You; A Mood For The Blues; I Wanna Be Loved; [Bonus tracks 45rpm] (3) The Music From The House Next Door; Thar The Blows (76.07)
(1) Johnson (ts, as, bs); Larry Bunker (v on 1, 4, 7 & 10); Gene Estes (v on 3, 6, 8 & 12); Victor Feldman (v on 2, 5, 9 & 11); Paul Smith (p); Ernie Freeman (org on 1, 2, 5, 7, 9, 10 & 11); Howard Roberts (g on 1, 3, 4, 6-8, 10 & 12); Bill Pittman (g on 2, 5, 9 & 11); Red Callender (b), Earl Palmer (d). Los Angeles, 11, 13 & 23 March 1959.
(2) Johnson (ts); Ray Johnson (p); Ernie Freeman (org 19, 21 & 22); René Hall, Bill Pittman (g); Red Callender (b); Earl Palmer (d); Gerald Wilson (arr). Los Angeles, 18 May, 21 & 27 June 1960.
(3) Johnson (ts); uncredited band. Los Angeles, 1959.
Essential Jazz Classics 11429