A while back, one of our Anatomy of a Song posts featured the Lenny Welch classic, “Since I Fell For You.” It also mentioned that the song had been written by Buddy Johnson, and was first performed by his band with a vocal by his sister Ella. I thought we should dig a little deeper into this talented pair whose music influenced early rock and roll.
The siblings were South Carolina natives, and Buddy (b. Woodrow Wilson Johnson) was four years older than Ella, so it’s not surprising that he was the first to pursue a music career after moving to New York in the late 1930s. A talented pianist with classical training, it didn’t take long for him to establish himself, first working in other outfits and eventually leading his own small orchestra. Ella then joined up to become the songbird for the band, and they were on their way.
Early hits like “Please Mr. Johnson” helped establish Ella as a singer to be reckoned with, and Buddy’s band was always first-rate. Early records reflect a sound similar to other ‘hot’ outfits of the big band era, but as time passed it moved closer to what was known as a ‘jump blues’ band, one leaning toward the R&B jazz style that foreshadowed early rock and roll. (But Buddy didn’t forget his love of the classics, composing a ‘blues concerto’ and performing it at Carnegie Hall in 1948.)
The Johnsons enjoyed a lot of success throughout the 1940s and 1950s, with solid hits on songs like “Let’s Beat Out Some Love,” “Baby Don’t You Cry,” and the chart-topping “When My Man Comes Home.” Along the way crooner Arthur Prysock also got his start with the band, performing on best-sellers like “They All Say I’m The Biggest Fool” and “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” but things eventually and inevitably slowed down in later years. Buddy died in 1977 at age 72, and Ella died at 85 in 2004.