Jazz aficionados know him by name, but almost anyone exposed to music is familiar with his playing. His is the purring sax solo on Henry Mancini's famous "Pink Panther" movie theme song. Plas is the featured soloist heard on countless albums including those of such artists as Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt and Sarah Vaughan.
Plas was born in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, about 60 miles north of New Orleans. As teens, Plas and brother Ray formed a band, the Johnson Brothers Combo, that played in and around New Orleans for a number of years. Plas left New Orleans in 1951 to go on the road with the Charles Brown Blues Band. The road, a stint in the Army and a permanent move to California followed. Plas attended the Westlake School of Music for over a year; then his studies were derailed by an overloaded schedule of record dates. He was brought to the attention of Johnny Otis, who immediately added him to his blues aggregation. Johnny then introduced Plas to Dave Cavanaugh, who held an influential A&R position at Capitol Records, where he soon became a regular session sideman and soloist during Capitol's halcyon years.
Plas has been one of the most well known and sought- after musicians around the California studio scene. He joined "The Merv Griffin Show" band in 1970, where he remained for the next fifteen years, joining an all-star lineup, which also included such prominent instrumentalists as Ray Brown, Herb Ellis, Jake Hanna, Benny Powell, Jack Sheldon, Kai Winding and others.
Plas' recent recordings include his own albums, "Christmas in Hollywood", "Evening Delight", and "hot, blue & saxy", and a Milestone recording with Red Holloway, "Keep That Groove Going!" You may also find him around town occasionally with his own group, at jazz festivals all over the world, and in the recording studios.
Plas Johnson combines some of the best elements of jazz and blues and is admired and emulated by sax players worldwide.
HOT, BLUE AND SAXY
CARELL MUSIC CM-102-CD
Plas Johnson (as, ts, bars); Cedric Lawson (p); Richard Reid (b); Johnny Kirkwood (d). Hollywood, December 16 and 17, 1990.
THIS CAN'T BE LOVE/ HITTIN' THE JUG/ NOBODY DOES IT BETTER/ EASE ON DOWN THE ROAD/ SINCE I FELL FOR YOU/ WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES/ SAVE YOUR LOVE FOR ME/ CANADIAN SUNSET/ I'M JUST A LUCKY SO & SO/ STAR EYES/ I'VE GOT IT BAD AND THAT AIN'T GOOD/ NEVER MAKE YOUR MOVE TOO SOON. TT 64:03.
CARELL MUSIC CM-103-CD
Plas Johnson (ts); Brian O'Rourke (p); Richard Simon (b); Johnny Kirkwood (d). Los Angeles, no date given but probably 1998-1999.
ANGEL EYES/ I SHOULD CARE/ WHO CAN I TURN TO/ I'M THRU WITH LOVE/ THE TOUCH OF YOUR LIPS.
Ross Tompkins (p) and Paul Humphrey (d) replace O'Rourke and Kirkwood. Culver City, California, no date given but probably 1998-1999.
YOU'VE CHANGED/ TAKE THE "A" TRAIN/ CHEEK TO CHEEK/ IT HAD TO BE YOU/ LITTLE GIRL BLUE/ MEAN TO ME. TT 59:24.
As a leader, Plas Johnson has made relatively few records over the years, unfortunately. Being a very busy Hollywood studio player didn't give him much time to work for himself, apparently, though there are many unacknowledged performances on film and television soundtracks and on recordings with many of the biggest names in the record business. So, when a disc appears with his name on it as leader, it is a treat. There are two under review here only because the release of the earlier one, around 1992, escaped me, I am sorry to say. The second one came out about seven years later, and that is how I learned of the first one.
The joy of it all is that both are quartet discs with acoustic support from some excellent players. There is plenty of Plas, mostly on tenor but with a few delicious alto tracks, too, e.g. "Star Eyes." The only time I heard the baritone is in an over-dubbed opening and closing on "Ease On Down the Road." Cedric Lawson plays marvelously throughout, but his solo on "Canadian Sunset" is particularly noteworthy. Johnny Kirkwood, a veteran of the blues and jazz fields, and Richard Reid, a bassist with a huge sound and matching beat, bring lots of stuff to the party, and it all really sizzles.
As on Hot, Blue and Saxy, the tune selection on Evening Delight is one seemingly made in Heaven. And again, Plas varies his approach and tempo from track to track, thus defeating the boredom factor inherent in so many compact discs. No matter how he changes things around, what emerges is still Plas Johnson, thank you. There is more of an emphasis on ballads, in keeping with the evening theme, and you'll love "Take the A Train." His associates on this disc, while not the same players as on the other one, with the exception of Kirkwood, are no less proficient. Both pianists offer fine solos and Richard Simon is another strong bass player.
These two CDs offer proof positive of why a saxophone in the right hands is one of the most revered instruments in jazz. You won't hear it played any better. Try not to let these elude you.
-Russ Chase, IAJRC Journal, Spring 2000 (Volume 33, No. 2)