One of the finest groups you probably know nothing about is Bill Johnson and the Musical Notes. You may not be familiar with their music, but others were. They recorded "Don't You Think I Ought To Know" six years before the Orioles, "How Would You Know" four years before the Robins, and "Dream Of A Lifetime" seven years before the Flamingos.
Who was Bill Johnson? William Luther Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida on September 30, 1912 (although a 1947 blurb incorrectly said it was 1913 in Georgia, before moving to Florida). He came to New York in 1935 and spent a few months each with Baron Lee's Blue Rhythm Band and Tiny Bradshaw's Band. Joining the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra in 1936 as a clarinetist and alto sax player, he also stood out as an arranger. Along with Hawkins and tenor saxman Julian Dash, he wrote the music to "Tuxedo Junction" in 1939 (words were added by Buddy Feyne). As of 1952, ASCAP also credited him with writing "Dolomite" (which also had lyrics by Buddy Feyne), "Swingin' On Lenox Avenue", "Uptown Shuffle", and "Weddin' Blues."
That's the easy part. Who wasn't Bill Johnson? That's harder. He wasn't the bass-playing Bill Johnson who claimed to have invented the slap method. He wasn't Bill Johnson (and the 4 Steps Of Rhythm). He wasn't Bill Johnson (and His Stir Cats). He wasn't Bill Johnson (and His Blue Flames). He wasn't the Bill Johnson who was vocalist for Bert Black's Bell Music Orchestra. He wasn't the Bill Johnson who recorded "Bill's Boogie" for Lucky-7. He certainly wasn't the Bill Johnson who had some Soul sides for Jocida in the 60s. He wasn't even the Bill Johnson who was the straight man to Harry "Sweets" Edison on Count Basie's version of "Open The Door, Richard" (that Bill Johnson was a trombonist). I suppose there are more, but that's a good representative sample.
No, "our" Bill Johnson stayed with Erskine Hawkins until 1943; the parting seems to have been amicable. In 1943-4, he did arranging for the bands of both Boyd Raeburn and Vincent Lopez. He then became a saxophonist and arranger for Leo "Snub" Mosley for a 10-month USO tour of New Guinea and the Philippines that ended in October 1945 (more on that association later).
There's a record on Alert from around mid-1946 by "Bill Johnson and Orchestra", which is the beginning of the Musical Notes. The members, as given on the label, were: Bill Johnson (alto sax), Ray Turner (tenor sax), Gene Brooks (drums), Clifton "Skeeter" Best (guitar), Jimmy Robinson (bass), and Egbert Victor (piano). The song was "If I Was A Itty Bitty Girl", with vocals by Grace Smith (who had a couple of subsequent releases on National and Avalon).
Presumably those sides were recorded a bit earlier, since, by the Spring of 1946, several of the members had become the Musical Notes: Bill Johnson (tenor lead, alto sax and clarinet), Egbert "Sharkie" Victor (baritone and piano), Clifton "Skeeter" Best (second tenor and guitar; he, too, seems to have been with Erskine Hawkins for a while), and Jimmy Robinson (baritone/bass and bassist).
Egbert Julian "Sharkie" Victor was born on June 29, 1913 in Panama City, Panama and came to the United States in 1925. He died in the Bronx in July 1980.
Clifton "Skeeter" Best was born November 20, 1914 in Kinston, North Carolina. He died in the Bronx on May 27, 1985.
Jimmy Robinson is a really, really common name. My best guess here is James Fascenelia Robinson, born September 5, 1901 in Jacksonville, Florida. In the 1940 census, he was living in Harlem and was a music teacher. He died in Manhattan on November 11, 1963.
Enter Augustine "Gus" Gordon. Born in Savannah, Georgia on August 28, 1926, Gus started singing by the time he’d entered Darden High School (in Wilson, North Carolina). The group he was with, the Dardeneers, existed between 1942 and 1944. The others were: bass Herman Hines, baritone James Thomas, and second tenor James Barnes. Gus had a short stint in the Navy in 1945, and then relocated to New York. With the goal of becoming a performer, he entered the Apollo Theater amateur shows, winning a couple of times, but nothing seemed to come of it. In the meanwhile, he worked for a company in Brooklyn that made bicycles and then worked at Davega's, (a chain of household and sporting goods stores). While there, he made the acquaintance of Harry Stevenson (who worked next door), a part-time songwriter who wrote "How Would You Know?".
One day in the spring of 1946, Gus was at Noller's rehearsal studio, making a demo recording of "Prisoner Of Love" (a 1932 hit for Russ Colombo, one of its writers, and lately a tremendous smash for Perry Como). As fate would have it, while the results were being played back over the speakers, Bill Johnson, who was rehearsing with the Musical Notes down the hall, wandered by. Impressed, Bill asked Gus if he'd consider joining the Notes. While Gus was willing, Bill made one stipulation: "I need a drummer; you've got to know how to play the drums." There was a tour coming up and the group needed a percussionist.
Well, Gus couldn't play the drums, but he told Bill to contact him when he got back from the tour. In the interim, Gus found someone who could teach him the basics of drumming. When Bill returned, Gus's new skill was enough to get him hired. Bill then took him to the musicians union to get a union card. Gus had drumsticks, but no drums. To get his card, he gave a demo by "playing" a table.
At 21, Gus (nicknamed "Mr. G" by the others in the group) was the youngest member of the Musical Notes. When Gus first joined, they had an engagement at the 845 Club in the Bronx. They were there for several weeks and Gus would come up and sing a couple of numbers with them each night until he learned all the arrangements.
The Musical Notes hooked up with Joe Glaser's Associated Booking Corp., and stayed with them for their entire career. They were not only booked by ABC, but managed by them too. ABC got them all of their recording contracts over the years. In February, 1947, they were booked into the Downbeat, on West 52nd Street in New York. Considering that they hadn't yet recorded, the fact that they were playing an engagement along with Billie Holiday showed that someone thought they had a lot of talent. (They'd be back there in June, this time with Ella Fitzgerald and the Al Russell Trio.)
The Musical Notes first recorded for J. Mayo Williams' Harlem label. The two songs that they did were "Don't You Think I Oughta Know" with Gus in the lead and the instrumental, "Stuff In D Flat." Recorded at an unknown date, they were released in March 1947.
Also in March (on the 5th), they held their first session for RCA Victor. It was a double one, with eight songs recorded: "Pretty Eyed Baby" (led by Bill), "Don't You Think I Oughta Know" (Gus), "That Night We Said Goodbye" (Gus), "You Didn't Have To Say I Love You" (Gus), "Shorty's Got To Go" (Bill), "Half A Love" (Gus), "Leave It To Fate, Gate" (Bill), and the instrumental "Sharkie's Boogie." And then, they shuffled off to Buffalo, opening at the Anchor Bar in mid-March.
On March 31, RCA released "Don't You Think I Oughta Know"/"Shorty's Got To Go." The group now had two versions of "Don't You Think I Oughta Know" available for the record-buying public. "Shorty's Got To Go" was written and sung by Lucky Millinder (and possibly arranged by Bill Johnson), but the Notes' version is, in my opinion, the best one made (easily outshining the Cats And The Fiddle, Bull Moose Jackson, and, later on, the Impressions).
Only 15 days later, RCA released the group's second record: the pretty "You Didn't Have To Say I Love You", backed with "Pretty Eyed Baby" (a re-wording of "Satchel Mouth Baby"). On April 5, Billboard listed this record in its Advanced Releases section. The interesting thing about that listing is that it was credited to "Bill Johnson and His Musical Notes (Bill Johnson Quartet)." While Bill would use that name in the future, at the present, there were five members in the group and Gus Gordon said that they never appeared under any name except "Musical Notes." Another of life's little mysteries.
[In late 1951, there was a lawsuit over "Pretty Eyed Baby". Everyone agreed that Mary Lou Williams had written "Satchel Mouth Baby", but now Frankie Laine and Jo Stafford had released "Pretty Eyed Baby" (as did both Al Trace and Jane Turzey, as well as the Billy Williams Quartet) and the writer credits read "M.L. Williams-B. Johnson". Bandleader Snub Mosley sued Williams, claiming common law rights to the tune, since she had never filed a copyright on it and he had revised it and morphed it into "Pretty Eyed Baby" prior to 1943. (Remember that, for a while, Bill Johnson was part of Mosley's orchestra.) Mary Lou Williams sued Bill as having fraudulently misrepresented that he was the one who had revised the lyrics (resulting in him receiving partial writer credit). As is usual in cases of this kind, only the lawsuit, but not the resolution, was ever mentioned in the press. (However, ASCAP now lists Johnson, Mosley, and Williams as the writers, so the outcome isn't in doubt.)]
"Don't You Think I Oughta Know" started doing well and they thought they'd get a good promotional tour out of it. For whatever reasons, though, Joe Glaser wanted them to stay in New York. However, they did get to do nightly radio broadcasts from the Downbeat Club.
Sometime in 1947 (presumably around the time it was released), "Shorty's Got To Go" found its way onto an AFRS disc for Armed Forces Radio play.
In June, the Harlem cut of "Don't You Think I Oughta Know" was reissued on Queen, a King Records subsidiary. However, although the flip was still an instrumental, it was now "Tab's Purple Heart" by Tubby "Tab" Smith. (Talmadge "Tab" Smith had been an alto sax player for Lucky Millinder in the early 40s.) "Purple Heart" had been released on Harlem a few months before. This same combination was also released on Harlem (probably at the same time), with the same numbers as both originals (1011 for the Musical Notes side and 1008 for Tab Smith).
Also in June, RCA released another pretty one: "That Night We Said Goodbye." Its flip was the instrumental, "Sharkie's Boogie." ("Sharkie" was Egbert Victor's nickname.) That month saw the Musical Notes, along with Eddie Heywood, at the Downbeat (on 52nd Street in New York). They also had a twice-weekly radio show on the Mutual Network (although it was on Tuesday and Friday nights from 1:15 to 1:30 AM).
RCA sent out press releases, and a pre-review appeared in the Boise, Idaho Statesman on June 8, 1947. Strangely, you'll notice that it never mentions RCA, although the names of the members wouldn't have been known if they hadn't come from the company.
To be released next week is a record of Bill Johnson and his Musical Notes playing "That Night We Said Goodbye" with a languid blues style that spotlights the plaintive Gus Gordon vocal. Dubbed by musicians as "The Crying Singer", Gordon has an inimitably slow and easy delivery. He sings sadly of his lost love, then Bill Johnson solos on sax with the identical intonations that skyrocketed his "Tuxedo Junction" to the best-seller list.
Egbert Victor's torrid keyboard contributes a pungent blues backing to the coupling, "Sharkie's Boogie". In the traditional blues rhythm pattern, Johnson and his combo generate spirited music making, with Clifton Best's guitar interweaving with fast-paced instrumental improvisation on this heat-provoking platter.
July 1947 saw the release of "Half A Love"/"Leave It To Fate, Gate." It was reviewed in the October 13 Wichita Eagle:
"Half A Love", a slow rhythm ballad by Bill Johnson and his Musical Notes (RCA Victor), features Gus Gordon's warm, intimate style of singing, with clarinet, a piano, and sax blending with the vocals. "Leave It To Fate, Gate", the coupling sets a brighter pace with vocals supplied by Bill Johnson and the quartet.
Sales weren't great, but the Musical Notes were working hard. Joe Glaser was getting them bookings all over the country and up into Canada. They played the usual theaters: Apollo, Regal, Royal, Howard, and Uptown, as well as the Brown Derby (Los Angeles), the Astoria Musical Bar (Baltimore), the Club Downbeat (New York), and the Moulin Rouge (Las Vegas). They played theaters, niteclubs, jazz clubs, you name it. The groups that Gus named as their competition over the years were varied, but all had tremendous talent: the Red Caps, the Treniers, the Platters, and the 5 Keys.
The July 5, 1947 Pittsburgh Courier said:
Bill Johnson and his Musical Notes, now in their third week at Club Downbeat in West Fifty-second Street, has proved beyond a doubt that his five- piece combo is something to be reckoned with.
Now sharing honors with Eddie Heywood, the Johnson crew has scored on Fifty-second Street. The Musical Notes are also heard twice weekly via the Mutual Network (Tuesday and Friday nights - 1:15 A.M.)
On August 6, the Musical Notes had their second RCA session. Another eight songs were recorded (actually, there could have been more; a single number is missing from the series): "You're The Dream Of A Lifetime" (Gus), "Chickasaw Limited" (Bill), "My Baby's Giving Me The Brush" (Bill), "My Little Redhead" (Gus), "Elevator Boogie" (Bill), "For Once In Your Life" (Gus), "I Learned To Cry" (Gus), and "Barnyard Jam Session" (all; from what Gus remembered of this unreleased song, it was clearly based on Louis Jordan's "Barnyard Boogie").
RCA had its own magazine, called "In The Groove". The August 1947 issue had a big article about Bill Johnson, written by jazz critic Leonard Feather.
Bill Johnson and his Musical Notes have gone so far in so short a time that they probably have a lot of other "cocktail units" wondering what the trick is. Organized only eighteen months ago, they've played some of the best jobs around the East and landed an RCA Victor recording contract.
You've probably heard of several Bill Johnson in the music business and wonder whether this is the same one who wrote Tuxedo Junction. Well, you're right. William Luther Johnson is the young man who spent more than half his career in the Erskine Hawkins band, playing the famous alto solos on Cherry, Song Of The Wanderer, and Bear Mash Blues and composing and arranging Swinging On Lenox Avenue, Uptown Shuffle, Wedding Blues, Dolomite and others, all on Bluebird or Victor.
Born in 1913 in Georgia [per his World War 2 registration, it was September 30, 1912, in Jacksonville, Florida], Bill spent most of his youth in Florida. His father taught harmony and theory, but Bill got his education at Marquette University and the Conservatory of Wisconsin, studying harmony, arranging, and piano; he'd picked up sax and clarinet at high school, too. To pay his way through college, he worked with George Abernathy's band. [This would have been around 1932. George, whose band was called the High Hatters, was the father of Marion Abernathy, "The Blues Woman").]
After two years back home in Florida, he came to New York in 1935, worked with Baron Lee's Blue Rhythm Band and Tiny Bradshaw's band for a few months each, and was with Erskine Hawkins playing lead alto from 1936 to 1943. Tuxedo Junction started out as a sax riff which he and tenor man, Julian Dash, contributed when an extra side was needed on a record date.
In 1943 and '44 Bill wrote arrangements for Boyd Raeburn, Lucky Millinder and Vincent Lopez. Then he toured the South Pacific for ten months, from Australia to Okinawa as a member of Snub Mosley's band. While on the tour, he conceived the idea of forming a small unit in which every man could sing part-harmony as well as playing an instrument. Very few groups have done this successfully. Bill still has the same men he started out with in late in 1945 - Egbert Victor, piano; Clifton Best, guitar; Jimmy Robinson, bass; and Gus Gordon, drums and solo vocals.
The Musical Notes started with a three-month USO tour, then played a Long Island Country Club and have since played every kind of spot from Minton's in Harlem to the Down Beat on 52nd Street.
Their RCA Victor records, such as Don't You Think I Ought To Know and Pretty Eyed Baby (a Mary Lou Williams tune), have been doing very nicely. And Bill, who writes a lot of the tunes and all the arrangements himself, is doing very nicely indeed.
In September 1947, "Don't You Think I Oughta Know" was listed as the #3 record on the R&B Juke Box chart. Interestingly, both the RCA and Queen versions were listed. On September 12, they started at the Frolic Show Bar in Detroit. Late October found the Musical Notes headlining at the Royal Theater in Baltimore, along with the Herbie Fields Orchestra.
For the rest of the year, RCA released Musical Notes records at the rate of one a month. In September, it was "For Once In Your Life"/"My Little Redhead." October's entry was "You're The Dream Of A Lifetime", coupled with the cute "Chickasaw Limited."
There were two sessions in November. The first, held on November 2, 1947, produced "By The Candleglow" (Gus), "Mama, Mama, Mama" (Bill), "Believe Me, Beloved" (Gus), and "So Tired" (Gus). November 8 saw the recording of "My Baby Likes To Be-Bop" (Bill), "Let's Be Sweethearts Again" (Gus), "Say Something Nice About Me" (Gus), and "All Dressed Up With A Broken Heart" (Gus). This last tune was a cover of Jimmy Sweeney and the 5 Bars' version on Bullet. While this turned out to be their last RCA session, in a little over six months, the Musical Notes had recorded at least 24 songs.
On November 25, the guys began an appearance at The Lounge in Wheeling, West Virginia. However, regardless of what Gus remembered, the group was billed as the Bill Johnson Quintet.
By the end of November, RCA had released the incredible "Let's Be Sweethearts Again" (another of the 500 songs in my Top Ten), backed with "Mama, Mama, Mama." In December, they issued "So Tired"/"I Learned To Cry."
During this period, they appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts Show, singing "So Tired." Gus thinks they came in second, but it was enough to get them some appearances on Godfrey's daily radio show, where they sang "Don't You Think I Oughta Know", "Shorty's Got To Go", and "Barnyard Jam Session" (their unreleased RCA track).
On January 3, 1948, Billboard listed "Don't You Think I Ought To Know" as the #24 most played juke box record of 1947. Louis Jordan not only held the #1 position (with "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens"), but he had 9 other sides on the chart. When they gave the number of points each artist had amassed, Jordan had 433. The runner up (the King Cole Trio) got a mere 133 points. The Musical Notes received only 33. In the 40s, Louis Jordan completely dominated the charts.
Then, RCA took a break. It wasn't until March 1948 that they released "All Dressed Up With A Broken Heart", coupled with the bouncy "My Baby Likes To Be-Bop." Also in March and April, they appeared at Mercur's Musical Bar in Pittsburgh.
However, by this time, it was apparent that Egbert Victor had a drinking problem and he was in and out of the group for a while. There's an ad from April 1948 spotlighting an appearance by the Musical Notes at Emerson's Café, in Philadelphia. The group features "Gus Gordon, Radio And Recording Artist", as well as Shirley Moore "Pianist And Song Stylist", who had just left the Cats And The Fiddle. The April 17 Pittsburgh Courier said: "Shirley Moore, a comely child who can play gobs of piano, replaced Egbert Victor with the combo and has jumped into a featured spot with the outfit." They played the Marlin Hotel (Keansburg, New Jersey) over the summer of 1948.
The next RCA release was "My Baby's Giving Me The Brush", backed with "Elevator Boogie." This came out in September 1948, by which time the Notes' contract had probably expired. However, even if it hadn't, problems developed that RCA didn't need. "Elevator Boogie" had been written by Benny Ray back in 1944. Released on Exclusive by Mabel Scott in May 1948, it shot up to #6 on the R&B charts. But, when the Musical Notes' version was issued, Bill Johnson was credited as the sole writer. Needless to say, Benny Ray sued RCA, which promptly pulled the record from distribution. This turned out to have been a foolish move on Benny's part: since he sued so quickly, there were no appreciable sales of the Musical Notes' version, so there was no real money to be had. The most probable scenario is: knowing Bill was a songwriter, no one ever asked and just assumed that he'd written it. Amazingly, no one at RCA ever seems to have heard Mabel Scott's hit version.
IIn October, the Musical Notes played Billy Berg's in Hollywood. Then, it was off to Ciro's in San Francisco, followed by that city's Say When Club. The final RCA issue was in November 1948: "Believe Me, Beloved"/"Say Something Nice About Me." Also in November, they played the "Nat" (the way the Natatorium Ballroom was commonly referenced) in Amarillo, Texas. They were such a hit that more shows were added. In December, they were at the Town House, in Utica, New York.
Then, after a year on the road, it was on to King Records. Egbert Victor's drinking was getting worse and he wasn't on the first King session (held around February 1949). Bill got Irvin "Smiley" Trotman to handle the piano and added George Jenkins as a drummer. (Jenkins, a jazz drummer and bandleader in the 50s, had been with Lionel Hampton, Erroll Garner, Louis Armstrong, and Benny Carter.) Since Gus was really a singer and not a drummer, Bill thought that this would make the production better. (Neither Jenkins nor Trotman was an actual member of the group, however, and neither sang on the recordings.)
It's hard to fault Bill's thinking. On that session, they recorded "Roselle" (which should probably make it to your Top Ten also) and "How Would You Know." Both led by Gus (with Jimmy Robinson taking the second lead on "How Would You Know"), these songs were released in March 1949. This corresponded with an appearance at the Glass Hat in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Their ad proudly proclaimed: "Back after a successful engagement at Billy Burke's [sic], Hollywood, Calif."
Also in March (the 27th), the Musical Notes were part of the entertainment (which included Amanda Randolph, the Brown Dots and Noble Sissle) for the "Your Favorite Beautician" contest. This was a Big Deal affair, with a first prize of $60, held at the Club Calypso (7th Avenue, around 139th Street in Manhattan). It was sponsored by Uncle Walt's Sausage Company. (Honest, I'm not making this up.) In April 1949, they were at the Astor in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Then it was off to Detroit, to appear at the Frolic Show Bar, starting April 15. This was followed by Chubby's (West Collingswood, New Jersey) in May, and then back to the Marlin Hotel (Keansburg, New Jersey) for the summer of 1949.
By the time of the second King session (around October), Bill finally had to let Egbert go. His permanent replacement was baritone/pianist Lonnie Slappey, who had had his own band in Philadelphia. (In the mid-50s, he'd end up with John Coltrane.)
Lonnie Gilbert Slappey was born on November 12, 1905 in Fort Valley, Georgia; he died in Sanford, Florida on June 9, 1985.
A sixth member, added just for the session, was saxophonist/clarinetist Ben Kinyard. The songs recorded were "I Love You More Each Day" and "What Can I Do?", both led by Bill Johnson, and released in December 1949. The last mention I can find of Egbert Victor is when he was part of the entertainment at a party thrown by DJ, ringside announcer, and newspaperman Joe Bostic in January 1954.
I couldn't find many listings for the group's appearances, but in November 1949, they were at the Showboat in Philadelphia, along with Larry Darnell. They were back at Allentown's Astor in time for New Years Eve. Then, in May of 1950, the Musical Notes were at Ibach's in Wilmington, Delaware, before leaving on a tour of Canada. On the way back, they played the Town Pump in Detroit.
By late 1950, there was a big shakeup in the group. By the time the dust had settled, guitarist Skeeter Best had left. He'd been drifting more and more into jazz and wanted to go back to Julliard to study. Bassist Jimmy Robinson wandered away for a while, and pianist Lonnie Slappey was gone too. Now, the Musical Notes consisted of Bill Johnson (vocals and alto sax), Gus Gordon (vocals and drums), soprano Shirley Moore (vocals and piano), and alto Eileen "Bassy" Chance (vocals and bass; she'd been in Tiny Davis' Hell-Divers and her voice sounded a lot like Gus'). A December 1950 ad has them at the Rose Room of the Majestic Hotel in Cleveland. From there, it was the Venus De Milo Room in Montreal. They were back at the Rose Room in May 1951, by which time they'd been all over the country, as well as having had a month-long engagement in Hamilton, Ontario.
Shirley Moore - In spite of having been with the Emitt Slay Trio and the Cats And The Fiddle, I couldn't find anyone who was definitely her. My best guess is the Shirley Moore who was born in Illinois around 1925 and who grew up in Milwaukee, graduating high school in June 1941. She went on to attend Teachers College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. A February 28, 1948 article in the Chicago Defender, talked about how Shirley, as a child in Milwaukee, had heard Ethel Waters and was heavily influenced by her; it also said she'd attended Teachers College. I can't find a death record for her.
Eileen Louise "Bassy" Chance was born on December 14, 1929 in New York and died there on February 8, 1993.
February 1951 found the "Bill Johnson Quartet" appearing at the Town House in Utica, New York. The ad said that the group consisted of "two gals and two boys".
This group did a couple of recordings for the Braun Brothers' Linden, New Jersey-based Regal Records in March 1951 (only a few months before Regal went out of business). These were "I'd Give The World To Know How I Stand With You" and the instrumental, "Mad Money Blues."
There were no further recordings by the Musical Notes for three years. In the interim, Shirley Moore left and Lonnie Slappey returned to the piano spot. Jimmy Robinson returned to replace Eileen Chance (who went off to join Vi Burnside's All Stars) and a new member was guitarist Bill Caple, who also sang baritone/bass.
William Henry Caple was born on May 30, 1922 in Forest City, Arkansas. He died in Los Angeles on April 23, 1995.
What Gus didn't tell me was that he also seems to have left. A blurb in the November 17, 1951 New York Age said that he was going to form his own combo and record for Victor. (Usually these things never come to pass; I don't know if this one did. If so, the name of the group didn't contain "Gus Gordon.") In December, he sang at a an affair for Jimmy Carter, world lightweight champion. May of 1952 found Gus touring Canada (he'd gone there the prior December and was currently at the Concord Tavern in Toronto). By late 1953, however, he'd returned to the Musical Notes. On November 26, 1951, with or without Gus, the Musical Notes opened at Gamby's in Baltimore.
On April 18, 1954, the Musical Notes appeared in Niagara Falls, New York at the Easter parade and dance given by the Cataract Business And Professional Women's Club, held at the Prospect House Ballroom. (Prizes awarded for the most fashionable Easter outfit and the prettiest Easter hat.)
Around May 1954, the Musical Notes recorded a couple of sides for the Tru-Blue label (at 1619 Broadway), about which very little is known. The tunes recorded were "When Your Hair Has Turned To Silver" (Gus) and "Let's Walk" (an instrumental dedicated to Erskine Hawkins; the few lyrics are mostly "Let's walk with Hawk").
Within a few months of its release, however, the Musical Notes had some more upheavals. Bill Caple left, and so did Jimmy Robinson. This left Bill Johnson, Gus Gordon, and Lonnie Slappey. They got Harold Holmes as bass and bassist (he'd been with Ivory Joe Hunter in the late 40s). Holmes was another bassist, like Slam Stewart, who could bow the bass on uptempo tunes.
All the replacement musicians over the years were people that Bill Johnson knew. There were never any auditions; one day he'd introduce someone to the band and say that "he'd be with us for a while" [occasionally it was a "she"].
On February 21, 1955, the Bill Johnson Quartet appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show. I suppose that they didn't win, since there was no mention of that in subsequent ads. A March 1955 blurb gave the members as Bill Johnson, Gus Gordon, Harold Holmes (on the "base fiddle"), and L. G. Slappie [sic].
Then, it was on to the Ronnex label. Ronnex was a Belgian company, headed by Albert van Hoogton. Among other things, it handled the European distribution of Jubilee, Bruce, Modern, Dootone, and Rainbow. The U.S. operation was run by Albert's brother, Ray, with offices at 1674 Broadway. In 1955, they decided to release Ronnex records in the U.S. An April 1955 article said that they'd made a deal with Coral Records to distribute two sides cut by the "Bill Johnson Quartet." (However, Gus never mentioned that they'd recorded for Coral.)
The Bill Johnson Quartet recorded four songs: the Ivory Joe Hunter classic, "I Almost Lost My Mind" (Gus), "Shtiggy Boom" (Gus; one of the many covers of the Leo Diamond tune that had been released on RCA in January 1955), "We're Gonna Move" (Bill), and "Maria Mia" (Gus).
The first two of these were issued on Ronnex in late March 1955. The second two were leased to Jubilee for an August release (since Ronnex distributed Jubilee in Europe, there were ties between the companies).
In March 1955, the group (still Bill Johnson, Gus Gordon, Lonnie Slappey, and Harold Holmes) returned from an extended tour in Canada.
In October 1955, a blurb has them at the Moulin Rouge (Las Vegas) for a 25-week engagement. However, "them" isn't the Bill Johnson Quartet, but the Musical Notes. They probably switched back and forth with the names. Strangely, the same article spoke of their new record like this: "Gus Gordon, drummer for Bill Johnson and his musical notes [sic] has waxed Marie-Mia [sic] on the Luball [sic] label" (It implies that it's a Gus Gordon solo, and I guess "Jubilee" was too hard to spell).
After these, Lonnie Slappey left and Bill Caple returned. Adding baritone/acoustic guitarist Luther Dixon, who had been with Larry Harrison's Barons (Decca) and Buddies (Glory), they went off on a Canadian tour, followed by a stint at the Riverside Hotel in Reno, Nevada, starting on March 29, 1956, followed by the Casa Linda in Phoenix, Arizona in April. In November and December 1956, they played Collora's, in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.
When they returned to New York, Shirley Moore came back, as did Jimmy Robinson, and the six of them (Bill Johnson, Gus Gordon, Luther Dixon, Bill Caple, Jimmy Robinson, and Shirley Moore) recorded "So Sweet Of You" (Gus) and "Traveling Stranger" (Luther) in March 1957. These two tunes were subsequently sold to Sol Rabinowitz's Baton label (where they were billed as the "Bill Johnson Quintet", in spite of the fact that there were actually six of them). Released in April, "Traveling Stranger" was the only song in the series that didn't feature a lead by Bill Johnson or Gus Gordon.
Luther Dixon left soon after, subsequently having a successful career as a producer and songwriter. He penned "Sixteen Candles", "A Hundred Pounds Of Clay", "I Don't Want To Cry", and "Soldier Boy", among many others. In 1959, he was placed in charge of artist development for Scepter Records, and spent a couple of years working with the Shirelles. Then, in 1963, he headed up his own label, Ludix, which had some releases by the Chantels and the Parkettes.
Then, alto Yvonne Ghoston was added on Hammond organ and the Musical Notes continued making appearances. As usual, the personnel kept changing; during this period they were probably Bill Johnson, Gus Gordon, Lonnie Slappey, Harold Holmes, Bill Caple, and Yvonne Ghoston. Jimmy Robinson didn't return, but kept on in the music business for a while, backing up Sammy Davis, Jr.
This only lasted for a couple of months, however, when Bill Johnson became ill. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and this caused the breakup of the group. They continued on for a while, under Bill Caple, just to honor the appearances that had already been booked.
One day, around September 1957, Gus Gordon was at a recording studio in Manhattan, when he found himself the solution to a problem. A group called the Darnels (whose manager Gus knew) was recording a song called "In The Valley Of The Roses", and the lead singer just couldn't seem to get it right. Their manager saw Gus through the studio window and suggested that he do the lead. The song was subsequently released on Bana as by "Gus Gordon And The Darnels." (He's not on the flip, "My Little Homing Pigeon.")
In spite of his sickness, Bill Johnson kept going. He, Gus Gordon, and Span Johnson (unknown instrument) made some appearances in Canada, although I don't know under what name (the article just gave their names and called them a trio). However, by February 1958, Gus, back to doing a single, was appearing at Brooklyn's Baby Grand.
Feeling a little better in mid-1958, Bill Johnson soldiered on. The Bill Johnson Quartet appeared at the Downbeat Club in Wynantskill, New York in May.
Then, he got some musicians together (calling them the "Bill Johnson Orchestra") and arranged a session for the Fleetwood label. The vocal on "No One" was done by none other than Gus Gordon. However, someone at the session suggested that he use the name "Gary Gordon", since it sounded "better" than Gus). He was backed up by a group he didn't know; they were hanging around for their own session. (Their lead was Johnny Bell, but no one bothered to note the name of the group. Presumably they were the Johnny Bell Tones that recorded "Ev'ry Day" for Cecil in 1957.) Bell and his group recorded three sides on their own that day: "Let's Have A Ball", "Ev'ry Day (It's The Same)", and "I'm So Glad." Although Gus (as "Gary") got label credit for the flip of "No One" ("Let's Have A Ball"), he isn't even on the track! The other two tunes were also released on Fleetwood, by Johnny Bell and his unnamed group. Norman Lester (author of "No One") played piano on the session and Harold Holmes is probably on bass, but Gus didn't remember (or possibly didn't even know) the other musicians.
In the fall of 1959, a promoter named Ralph Walker contacted Gus about doing some recording. Walker sent him a tape with two pre-recorded instrumental tracks: "Empty Room" and Gus' old "Don't You Think I Ought To Know." (Presumably, Walker thought of Gus because of the association with "Don't You Think I Ought To Know.") Gus learned the arrangements and then did the recordings in Washington, D.C. They were subsequently released, in November 1959, on the tiny IPS label, located at 109 West 42 Street in Manhattan (a division of Industrial Production Studios).
After this, Gus spent some time with the "Ink Spots." Associated Booking told him that Bill Kenny was leaving the group and they needed a replacement. (Kenny had actually left in 1953 and by the late 50s, there was an explosion of Ink Spots groups.) Gus didn't know any of the songs, but listened to a bunch of records, learned the tunes, and went on a Florida tour with them. It couldn't have been terribly rewarding; he doesn't remember any of the members of that group!
Never recovering from lung cancer, Bill Johnson passed away on July 5, 1960 (so who the "Bill Johnson Quartet" that played the Flamingo Room in Hazleton, Pennsylvania in October 1961 was remains a complete mystery). Gus Gordon then rejoined Bill Caple in the Bill Caple Quartet in the early 60s. This also had a sax player and an organo player, who was probably Claude Jones. (The Lowrey organo was an electronic attachment to a piano that allowed it to sound like an organ; it had a bar with "fingers" that touched the piano keys and "played" as the piano keys were pressed.)
In 1963, Gus moved to Canada, where he did solo work, touring with a production company. All the years Gus spent with the Musical Notes, it was a full-time job. But then he went to work for the Eaton's chain of department stores, while doing weekend work with bands in Hamilton, Ontario. Augustine "Gus" Gordon passed away in Hamilton on April 18, 2019 at age 92.
Special thanks to Tony Fournier, Neil Hirsch, Tony Tisovec, Mike Sweeney, Allan Licht (nephew of Benny Ray), and Gordon Skadberg. Discography courtesy of Ferdie Gonzalez.
202 If I Was A Itty Bitty Girl, Part 1/Part 2 (vocals by Grace Smith) - mid 46
1011 Don't You Think I Oughta Know (GG)/Stuff In D Flat (I) - 3/47
20-2225 Don't You Think I Oughta Know (GG)/Shorty's Got To Go (BJ) - 3/47
20-2235 You Didn't Have To Say I Love You (GG)/ Pretty Eyed Baby (BJ) - 4/47
P754 Shorty's Got To Go (BJ) - 47
4171 Don't You Think I Oughta Know (GG)/[Tab's Purple Heart - Tubby "Tab" Smith] - 6/47
(also released, around the same time, on Harlem 1011/1008)
(also rereleased on King 4171, with flip by Tab "Tubby" Smith)
20-2298 That Night We Said Goodbye (GG)/Sharkies' Boogie (I) - 6/47
20-2362 Half A Love (GG)/Leave It To Fate, Gate (BJ) - 7/47
20-2427 For Once In Your Life (GG)/My Little Redhead (GG) - 9/47
20-2498 You're The Dream Of A Lifetime (GG)/Chickasaw Limited (BJ/GG) - 10/47
20-2591 Let's Be Sweethearts Again (GG)/Mama, Mama, Mama (BJ) - 11/47
20-2618 So Tired (GG)/I Learned To Cry (GG) - 12/47
20-2749 All Dressed Up With A Broken Heart (GG)/My Baby Likes To Be-Bop (BJ) - 3/48
20-3108 My Baby's Giving Me The Brush (BJ)/Elevator Boogie (BJ) - 9/48
20-3037 Believe Me, Beloved (GG)/Say Something Nice About Me (GG) - 11/48
Barnyard Jam Session (ALL)
By The Candleglow (GG)
4286 Roselle (GG)/How Would You Know (GG/JR) - 3/49
4338 I Love You More Each Day (BJ)/What Can I Do? (BJ) - 12/49
3318 I'd Give The World To Know How I Stand With You (GG)/Mad Money Blues (I) - 3/51
414 When Your Hair Has Turned To Silver (GG)/Let's Walk (I) - ca. 5/54
1001 I Almost Lost My Mind (GG)/Shtiggy Boom (GG) - 3/55
JUBILEE (leased from Ronnex)
5211 We're Gonna Move (BJ)/Maria Mia (GG) - 8/55
1077 We're Gonna Move (BJ)/[Blow The Whistle - Sugartones] - 55? [possibly European]
1105 Shtiggy Boom (GG)/Oh Marie (Maria Mia) (GG) - 55? [possibly European]
239 So Sweet Of You (GG)/Traveling Stranger (LD) - 4/57
525 In The Valley Of The Roses (GG)/[My Little Homing Pigeon - Darnels] - 10/57
FLEETWOOD (with the "Bill Johnson Orchestra")
1002 No One/[Let's Have A Ball] - ca. 6/58
The flip side was also credited to "Gary Gordon", but Gus isn't on it; see article.
102 Don't You Think I Ought To Know/Empty Room - 11/59
GG = Gus Gordon; BJ = Bill Johnson; JR = Jimmy Robinson; LD = Luther Dixon; I = Instrumental