Sunday, February 19, 2012

Pete Johnson - Car Wash Blues

Jim Croce wrote a song called "Working at the Car Wash Blues" about a guy who feels it is beneath him to be washing fenders with rags. "Steadily depressing, low down mind messing"
 Croce continues,

"Well all I can do is to shake my head
you might not believe that it's true
For working at this end of Niagara Falls
is an undiscovered Howard Hughes"

That's not only some nice songwriting and phrasing but he manages to use a metaphoric location and a totally absurd personal comparison. Howard Hughes? The overachieving genius? It's great songwriting but I'm pretty sure it's conjecture because Jim Croce didn't wash trucks though he did drive trucks while his talent matured.

The person who truly was an undiscovered Howard Hughes washing trucks was a pianist named Pete Johnson. I only learned about Pete lately because I was listening to Ray Bryant's Somewhere in France album and he says he's going to play a Boogie Woogie tune and someone in the audience calls something out. I listened a few times and the person says, "Pete's Blues"
Ray Bryant said he didn't know that (probably being humble) but that he had played piano with Pete Johnson, the writer of the song Pete's Blues. Well, anyone who has performed with Ray Bryant must be good so I hunted down Pete Johnson and indeed he's a fine piano player mostly famous for his relentless boogie woogie blues. This is post stride piano and is basically a solo piano dance genre of the late '20s -1930s where the notes pour out from the right hand while the left hand pounds a repeating bassline over a blues progression. It's not my favorite style to listen to but it's in fact the only thing I can improvise on when playing piano.

So I did a little research on Pete Johnson and here's what I learned. [The wikipedia article is hardly the whole truth. A bit more accurate story is here.] He did not have a blessed career to say the least. Poor midwest kid who probably didn't get a proper music lesson in his life but knew he could play so he would do anything to get his hands on a piano. So on top of an 8 hour day hauling brick and concrete while building a church he would use his rest breaks to go inside and play on the piano. The few chances he had to play was at the cost of food and money. I watch some rare footage of him playing in his prime and believe he didn't know where he was going to sleep when the recording was over. It was the depression and no one had any money for musicians so he would play in bootleg joints for tips but this was also during prohibition 1920-1933 so he was playing illegally most of the time...which wasn't hardly enough. It sounds like he barely had a regular playing gig which reminds me of Nat King Cole's early days in Long Beach and Los Angeles where it's baffling to learn he had to hustle for work and drive ridiculous distances to play for a few dollars. Nat King Cole? Singing to a small audience of traveling salesmen who quietly tolerate his old fashioned songs? So, Pete Johnson was one of the three greatest Boogie Woogie Pianists ever and this is part of his reward in 1951 at the age of 47 and after a decade of sporadic performing, "Previous to the Piano Parade Pete took a job in a Super-Market. He was given the title of "Receiving Clerk", a position that covered a lot of back-breaking jobs: porter work, hanging and taking down huge sides of beef in refrigerators, driving truck, etc. He not only got $40.00 a week, but also arthritis and pneumonia."

But not much later, when he could still play better piano than most people he ended up at an ice cream company washing trucks from 3-11. Still later he did, "general porter work at a Mortuary. Washing cars, hearses and doing yard work."

I'm not talking about some bum here. I'm talking about Pete Johnson who played piano with Ray Bryant. And Pete ends up doing yard work for $25 a week. I would suspect he basically memorized every song and didn't read or write music or else he would have taught some students to make money. It has me scratching my head that as good as Pete was he still was destitute and forgotten when he died in 1967.

There is some lesson here that will kick me in the ass when I'm on my death bed with arthritic hands but for now can we all take a moment to appreciate the music of a gone era played by a man who scratched and clawed his way to a piano through buckets of rags and caskets and broken lawnmowers.

They say if it comes too easy it's not worth shit and some modern performers who shall remain nameless prove that point. If you are fat and content with your tofu burger and quinoa salad and hairdressers flock to your eyebrows when they get damp and your makeup takes 2 hours to perfectly expose your cleavage and your requests for the dressing room include taking all the yellow M&Ms out of the bowl then the chances are you will not be offering the public any more than lip service to artistic expression, which given the transparency of the modern public usually is enough. But if you still have grass stains on your knees from working at a mortuary clipping hedges around gravestones for 8 hours and your socks are still wet from washing ice cream trucks so your shoes squeak when they hit the sustain pedal, and your little finger is half gone from an incident with a tow rope, and you have arthritis and pneumonia and back pain and heart disease and diabetes, then you will have pondered life and will have something you have to say to the world. Either fuck you or I love you but it will be honest because men in wet shoes and sweaty ass cracks and unshaven face generally can be trusted to tell the truth on the piano. Lies and pretension were dissolved in the soap at the ice cream factory.
Rest in peace Pete Johnson. No more washing cars for you.
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.