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Thursday October 17th 2019

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SOUNDS OF SOUL

Phillips musician recalls Black music scene of his youth

Alfred Johnson

By Tesha M. Christensen

Sitting on the front porch one summer day, painting in the sweltering heat, Alfred Johnson reminisced about his early days in music and the burgeoning Twin Cities Black music scene of the 1970s and 80s.

He’s even found his way into a book capturing the scenes from that time, “Sights, Sounds, Soul: The Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis” (published by the Minnesota Historical Society in 2017), although he’s misidentified in the book on page 33 as Raymond Parker. 

Paging though the book brings Johnson, now age 66, back to those days when the city’s 50,000 African Americans, who were denied access to downtown club stages and radio airwaves, were playing at clubs like Cozy Bar and Lounge up north on Plymouth Ave. and Riverview Supper Club in south Minneapolis (now Broadway Pizza). About Chamblis, “We used to call him ‘Picture Man,’” recalled Al.

Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Phillips man Al Johnson (back row, left) has found his way into “Sights, Sounds, Soul: The Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis” (at right) that was published by the Minnesota Historical Society in 2017, although he’s misidentified in the book on page 33 as Raymond Parker.

BLACK MUSIC AT CHURCH AND THE CLUB

A 1972 South High School graduate, Al has lived both on the Southside and Northside of Minneapolis since moving here with his family as a kid in the early 1960s. His kinfolk hail from Springfield, Ill. At the time, in North, “there weren’t hardly any Blacks who lived there. You could count them on your finger,”
Al said. “Most Blacks lived in Central neighborhood or Phillips.”

He loves the Southside for its different cultures – Blacks, whites, Hispanics – and has lived here now for 30 years.

But most of his musical career was on the Northside. 

He took up drums at age 10. “My mother was an evangelist and we traveled all over the country,” Al recalled. His father played base guitar (and performed with the likes of Duke Ellington and Wes Montgomery), and the six kids each had their own instrument. “We played at Bishop Watley’s Church in Chicago. They would treat us like stars. We were on the road with them, and in and out of school.”

Everybody started off gospel in those days, recalled Al, many of them helped along the way by Reverend Leroy Battles, who was well known by local Black musicians. Al appeared on his half hour Church of the Air show televised from the KTSP studio off University Ave.

Black music wasn’t being played on the radio, so few people in Minnesota had heard of the Supremes or Marvin Gaye, Al pointed out. “We had to make our own music up,” he said. 

So he joined groups around town in the 1970s and 80s. The various members all felt like ‘the sky’s the limit,’ recalled Al. “That’s what it was. Some people used to follow us around, like Prince. We inspired a lot of people.”

Al remembered that Prince was known for being hard to get along with. “He didn’t want anybody smoking or doing drugs,” recalled Al. “He’d kick you out of the group.”

Prince didn’t want to play other people’s songs, but wanted to focus on his own music.

Al honed his craft at the Minnesota Conservatory of Music and the University of Minnesota.

THEY SOUNDED GOOD

“I had a long life of night clubbing and playing different clubs,” he said, including working in the house band at The Joint where they played five nights a week. Band members had other jobs, and did gigs from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m, playing three sets and 30 songs a night. They also used to do supper clubs out on Lake Minnetonka.

He was on the road with The Mystics when Rockie Robbins was the lead singer.  He played drums for Charlie Clark and the Paramounts (Charlie was a teacher at North High). 

“I played base guitar, too, but my main instrument is drums,” said Al. 

TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
ABOVE – A song from this record hit the Top 100 in the world in 1988, catapulting these local musicans to the same list as Elton John and Michael Johnson. Left to right on the cover are Josie Davis, Debbie Williams (keyboards) and Al Johnson (drums). Johnson also helped produce this and four other albums with Davis.

He remembers playing with Creedence Clearwater Revival at some little rodeo down south. “They sounded good. So did we,” observed Al. “We were the only Black group up there.”

Those in the audience asked, “Who are they?” right up until they started playing. Then it didn’t matter.

Al recalls  playing in the middle of farmfields, and jamming in Texas on dirt floors with dust heavy in the air.

TOP 100 HIT

The most popular record he recorded was “Obeying the Call” with Josie Davis and Praise in 1988. 

Their song “Try Smiling” hit in the Top 100 in the world and earned him royalties for 20 years until it became part of the public domain. He’s shown on the front cover of the album with Josie (lead singer) and Debbie Williams (keyboard), and was one of the producers. It was one of five albums he put out with Davis.

Over the years, Al has fit his music around work at a number of places and a stint in the service. He’s been a Hennepin County drug counselor, at the Southside Family Nurturing Center, bus driver, and a neighborhood handyman. 

But, of course, he’s still doing music. It’s in his blood.

TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Drummer and base player Alfred Johnson (left) of Phillips stands with his wife Elizabeth and some of his grandchildren, including Olivia Browner (age 3), Albrina Johnson (age 1.5) and Sabrina Browner (six month). Johnson has played gigs all over from local clubs to dirt floors in Texas.

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