Joseph “Smokey” Johnson, the longtime drummer with Fats Domino’s band and a session musician who contributed to hundreds of recordings in New Orleans and elsewhere, died Tuesday following a long illness. He was 78.
In the studio, Johnson recorded in the 1960s and ’70s with producers Dave Bartholomew, Wardell Quezergue and Eddie Bo. He’s especially well-known for Earl King’s early funk classic “Trick Bag” and Professor Longhair’s Mardi Gras staple “Big Chief.”
“As far as New Orleans funk,” said George Ingmire, a WWOZ-FM deejay who was Johnson’s neighbor in the Musicians’ Village, “Smokey was the person people like Zigaboo Modeliste and Idris Muhammad were paying attention to.”
Following Hurricane Katrina, Johnson was among the original occupants of the Musicians’ Village, a newly created neighborhood in the Upper 9th Ward. A funny, gregarious man who used a wheelchair, he could often be found outside talking with friends.
On one occasion, Ingmire remembers seeing Dr. John, Dave Bartholomew, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, Alfred “Uganda” Roberts and Chuck Badie all visiting Johnson in the long-retired drummer’s front yard.
As a recording artist and composer, Johnson co-created the local funk favorite “It Ain’t My Fault.” Night Train International Records released a collection of his and Quezergue’s collaborations in 2000.
Johnson, a 2004 recipient of OffBeat magazine’s lifetime achievement award, told the publication that he composed the signature rhythms in the “It Ain’t My Fault” drum cadence when he was a high school student.
Johnson began playing drums at about age 12. He studied music with Yvonne Busch, one the city’s most influential music teachers. Johnson turned pro while still in high school. His early gigs included the drumming spot in Crawford’s and Bartholomew’s bands.
Working in the Bartholomew band was a natural bridge to playing for the Imperial Records sessions that Bartholomew supervised in New Orleans. Johnson’s many Imperial sessions included King’s influential recordings for the label.
In 1963, Johnson was part of a troupe of New Orleans musicians who traveled to Motown Records in Detroit under the auspices of singer and music businessman Joe Jones. The group included Quezergue, King, Kidd Jordan, George French, Johnny Adams and Esquerita.
Although Motown didn’t sign any of the New Orleans artists, Johnson, according to Josh Jackson’s notes for the CD compilation “Smokey Johnson: It Ain’t My Fault,” stayed in Detroit for five months at the urging of Motown boss Berry Gordy. Johnson told OffBeat magazine that Motown’s recording operations ran 24 hours a day and he couldn’t possibly remember all of the sessions he played in the Motor City.
After the homesick Johnson returned to New Orleans, he recorded “It Ain’t My Fault” and “Big Chief.” At the latter session, producer-arranger Quezergue later told “American Routes” radio host Nick Spitzer, Johnson “pounded the drums so hard that he bled from the skin.” Quezergue invited Johnson to be the house band drummer for the newly formed Nola Records.
In 1973, Johnson began a long tenure with Domino, performing alongside the likes of Herb Hardesty, Lee Allen and Fred Kemp.
Musician and WWOZ deejay Fred Goodrich, another of the drummer’s many friends, said Johnson “deployed an element of funk into R&B that sent people running to their practice rooms. And he was a man who wore his burdens with grace. He never complained.”