Arnold Johnson Gets It Done

This writer knew Arnold Johnson as the pianist on Paul Biese’s hell-raising sides of the teens and for his band’s vivid ensemble lines on some records with Jack Purvis. Wikipedia explains that Arnold Johnson had a long career in popular music, from vaudeville accompanist through bandleader to radio professional.

“Sweet Lovin’ Mama” is, at best, a sentence in the book of Johnson’s life. Yet it’s still another ear-opening example of this hustling musical professional: arranged with ample variety, played with energy as well as confidence, and hotter than any metaphor I could insert to introduce it:

The novelty sounds in the introduction are swept away to make room for some straightforward collective ensemble stomping, with Nat Natoli’s lead trumpet and the rhythm section hitting hard. Natoli’s breaks and muted upper-register vocalizing also raise the temperature. A chorus for sentimental violin with piano ragging around it is followed by a similar effect, now with the saxophone section around the trombone melody, then gliding into a wailing out chorus. Johnson may not have performed all the parts, but his name on the record label once again delivers the goods.

He worked in the music business rather than Jazz per se, and “Sweet Lovin’ Mama” may have been just a “product” made to satisfy demand. It concerns itself with nothing other than rhythmic intensity, textural contrasts, melodic variation, and instrumental give and take. Once upon a time, it made dancers move in their homes. Now, it makes listeners dance in their minds. If there is such a thing as “absolute hot music,” this track would be a good candidate.

Arnold Johnson is seated at the piano alongside the Frisco Jazz Band in 1917. Photo from

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4 thoughts on “Arnold Johnson Gets It Done

  1. Albert Haim says:

    From my article in the IAJRC Journal “Hyman Arluck (aka Harold Arlen) as Dance Band Musician, Vaudeville Artist and Composer.The 1920s and Early 1930s.”

    Evidently, Harold Arlen was in Ohio with the Buffalodians in September-October 1927. There is evidence that he joined Arnold Johnson’s orchestra in late 1927. Arlen was keen on a career as a singer, and joining the Arnold Johnson orchestra provided him with an opportunity to sing, although with the associated burden of doing a lot of arranging and playing piano. The December 14, 1927 issue of Variety, reporting on the show at the Palace, informed readers that “Arnold Johnson again got their most on their corking radio number. Harry Arlock (or so announced) is an important member of the troupe. He should be given fuller opportunities.” The radio number, “A Quiet Evening at Home with the Radio,” consisted of Arnold Johnson changing the dials in a receiving set while the members of the band, in a darkened stage, imitated the sounds of what might be heard on the radio: bedtime stories, negro prayer meetings, static and songs –At Dawning, The Song Is Ended, I’m Coming Virginia, Blue Room. [6]

    1928: Arnold Johnson. 1928 was a busy year for Harold Arlen and Arnold Johnson. Johnson landed the highly desirable engagement as house band at the Park Central Hotel beginning on January 19, 1928.

    More about Arlen and Johnson in

    • AJS says:

      Hey, Albert, that is a great piece! Thanks for sharing it here and showing that Johnson’s band was fairly well-known.

      • Ralph Wondraschek says:

        New Orleans cornetist Johnny DeDroit remembered to have recorded with the Arnold Johnson band. He said he played ensemble only, no solos, on the recordings. Indeed, the trumpet on Johnson’s “Sweet Lovin’ Mama” is compatible with DeDroit’s style, IMO. I don’t think it’s Natoli (who, by the way, in early 1921 was a member of the Original Memphis Five, and played with the OM5 a six-week engagement in the Claridge Cabaret in Montreal, Canada).

        Ralph Wondraschek

      • AJS says:

        Thanks for this information, Ralph.
        Readers, in case you didn’t know, Mr. Wondraschek has done extensive research into periodicals of the twenties (to greatly understate it) and gained considerable insights into contemporary understanding of this music.

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