Lou Johnson passed away this week after a long illness caused by a severe stroke many years ago. I only ever met him via the phone but he was so warm and welcoming, I felt I knew him well. I also got on famously with his wife Linda, as we had something in common – Lou was our favourite singer.
Lou would dearly have loved to come to the UK to perform, he knew some of how much he was admired here. I approached him to perform at Cleethorpes in the 90s but his fear of flying meant he would have had to come by boat and as I told him, by then there weren’t any transatlantic ocean liners allowing a singer/pianist free passage for cabaret work. If there had been, I would have flown over just to sail back and witness it. That meant he never saw the intense admiration his fans had for his music; the potential set he could have sung would have been a revelation. He spoke warmly of his tours of the UK in the 60s and was thrilled when I told him his old friend and support act Zoot Money was still a top-class performer and regular gigger.
Journalist David Cole conducted a thorough interview with Lou for his In The Basement magazine in 2005 and in 2010, after at least ten years of chasing the licensors, Kent were able to release a CD of his complete Big Top recordings - which for me were the crucial part of his career. David kindly allowed us to use his interview which details Lou’s career and I added words to describe my admiration and the various tape finds that made the compilation even more essential. These included the original version of ‘The Panic Is On’, a great alternative take of ‘Unsatisfied’ and ‘No Other Guy’ - the non-45 track from his Big Top album, of which there is only one known copy. Below are some extracts from the notes.
“Otis Redding, James Carr, Roy Hamilton, Bobby Bland? For me the best soul voice of them all is Lou Johnson’s at Big Top.
Undoubtedly a major factor in his favour is that the songs are of such high quality: provided by Bacharach and David, possibly the greatest composers of the era, and the similarly-talented although lesser-known team of Bill Giant, Bernie Baum and Florence Kaye. However, it is the intimacy and beauty of Lou Johnson’s vocals that has made me such a believer.
Listening to the first couple of lines from the opening track on this CD, ‘Reach Out For Me’, reveals many of Lou’s skills. There is tenderness and vulnerability, yet there is also a quiet power that stems from the honesty of his delivery. His voice can dip to a whisper and then suddenly soar into a bravissimo performance. With lines such as “They make you feel that you haven’t a reason for living; and when you feel you [should] throw in the towel and just give in” from this song, or “I have to chauffeur this big Wall Street broker” from ‘Park Avenue’, Lou had plenty of occasion to express himself. Yet his favourite singer was Ray Charles (rather than Roy Hamilton or perhaps Chuck Jackson) and that intimate singing style is very much his own. Lou was a big city singer but he replaced some of the sophistication with sheer soul (as in spirit).”
“Lou told me that the Bacharach songs were originally written for Dionne, but she was not particularly enamoured with them at first. It was not until after he had recorded them that she then decided to go with them too. “Burt was a hell of a keyboard player but when he sang the songs to me I had to imagine my own version. He sang as good as Bob Dylan on a bad day.” The arrangements for the two very differently-styled singers were adjusted accordingly; a heavier production was used for Lou’s tougher vocals than the ones for Dionne’s more delicate tones. Burt had a very special sympathy with Lou that should have continued for much longer than it did. Bacharach speaks very fondly of Lou in interviews and though his major successes were with Dionne Warwick, she never delivered a line as effectively as the final “I just know that I would …uh….. die”.”
Ady Croasdell (photos courtesy Tony Rounce)