Virtually unknown outside of New Orleans, Joseph "Smokey" Johnson was a powerful force in the Big Easy's jazz, funk, blues, and soul music scenes for more than three decades, before a stroke ended his career in 1993.
Joseph "Smokey" Johnson is one of the musicians, session players, and songwriters who have served as the backbone for New Orleans' output of jazz, funk, blues, soul, and R&B music.
Joseph Johnson served as the drummer for Fats Domino in the 1950s and 1960's. In 1961, Johnson and Wardell Quezergue worked together on the session for Earl King's proto-funk classic, Trick Bag, produced by Dave Bartholomew.
Soon thereafter, Joseph Johnson went with Quezergue and childhood friend Joe Jones, and several other New Orleans artists (including Johnny Adams and Earl King) to audition for Motownin Detroit, where they recorded numerous demo sessions.
Earl King once remarked that at least part of the reason why they got in the door was Motown's fascination with Smokey Johnson, who could do more on a trap set by himself than any two of the label's session drummers. Although Motown ended up not signing any of the New Orleans artists, Johnson offered to remain on staff while the other New Orleans artists were dispatched.
Smokey Johnson remained in Detroit for several months before deciding to return home; but his influence on the Motown sound was profound, as the other drummers studied his techniques, incorporating them into countless hit sessions.
In 1963 and 1964, Dave Bartholomew enlisted Jospeh "Smokey" Johnson for his last two Imperial big band albums, giving Johnson the spotlight on the tune, "Portrait Of A Drummer", from New Orleans House Party.
In 1964, about a year after Nola Records was formed in New Orleans, Quezergue a partner in the label as well as principal producer/arranger, invited Johnson to be the drummer for label's house band.
After a few months, Johnson and Quezergue wound up writing and recording what has become a New Orleans Mardi Gras standard called It Ain't My Fault. Deftly arranged, the song is a fascinating early example of both Johnson and Quezergue incorporating Second Line syncopation into pop music. The arranger's device of starting off with just the drummer's relaxed but intricate percussive work (plus somebody hitting what sounds like a glass bottle) quickly pulls the listener into the song, even before the simple musical hook, played by just the guitar and piano.
Joseph Johnson stopped playing drums when a stroke hobbled him in 1993. He was forced to leave his home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. Johnson is now a resident of Musicians' Village, a Habitat for Humanity project in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans.