Pete Johnson – The St Louis Parties of July 30 and August 1, 1954.
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A BALL WITH PETE JOHNSON What a weekend! John Steiner and I had driven to St. Louis from Chicago to hear Pete Johnson play at the Circus Lounge in the Forest Park Hotel. The date was Friday, July 30, 1954. Having never met Pete, I was as excited and nervous as I had been when I first met Albert Ammons in 1948.
We caught all of Pete’s sets Friday and Saturday. He played a variety of tunes, tempos and styles (He never was “just” a boogie pianist.). After Friday night’s gig, we took Pete to the home of John Phillips, a friend of Steiner’s and an important figure on the St. Louis jazz scene. His home included a large basement recreation room complete with grand piano, set of drums and a huge record collection. We jammed into the wee hours. I remember playing a duet, solo and shouting some blues a la Big Joe Turner. Also, Pete played drums during my solo (I’ve always been an enthusiastic, for the most part self-taught, amateur boogie pianist.).
On Saturday, July 31, we were joined by good friend Charlie Castner and Donald “J. J.” Stoll who flew up from Louisville, Kentucky. Charlie and I met in ’48 at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. Charlie played the most authentic boogie piano I had ever heard outside of Albert, Pete and Meade Lux Lewis. We still play today – 50 years later. J.J. was an avid Jimmy Yancey piano stylist and an ardent fan.
We spent as much time as possible visiting with Pete who, as luck would have it, invited us to a Sunday party at the St. Louis home of close friend Bill Atkinson, a man blessed with a good rich blues voice. He operated a catering business and set out a terrific spread of food to feed all of the participants and guests.
All music was recorded that day on Magnacord equipment (all tubes and very heavy) by mentor and friend John Steiner, possessor of one of the finest and largest jazz collections in the United States as well as a noted and oft-quoted historian of Chicago style jazz. As this CD attests, it was as fulfilling and musically exciting an afternoon as any boogie fan could ever desire. All of us played – solos, duets, trios, crosshanded – from slow blues to fast and furious stomps and popular tunes on an acoustic spinet piano.
One special image remains: Pete is sitting back in an overstuffed chair listening to the enthusiastic boogie played by the next generation. He was smiling, and so were we.