from Los Angeles, California, whose father encouraged him to take up the
trumpet, but whose bandleader in school redirected him to the tuba, as
apparently no one could play it.
school, Tommy went to the University of Southern California on an athletic
scholarship for basketball, but injured his knee, which led him to the
hallowed halls of the USC music school. He went on to receive a B.A. in
music and wed fellow student Patricia Lehman, as well as going on to
graduate work at CSU-Northridge and USC.
Even as a
graduate music student, Tommy had a back-up plan: If this music thing didn’t
work out, he would fall back on a career as a tire salesman for
Firestone. Unfortunately for
Firestone, Tommy began to get work whilst still studying or perhaps shortly
recording credits include Disney’s “Tubby the Tuba” with
Annette Funicello and Carmen McRae’s album,
Carmen for Cool Ones, recorded in
1958. Tommy also made the cut
on Carmen McRae Sings Great American
Songwriters, probably on the strength of the aforementioned LP.
Film work also
came calling, in the form of Al Capone, released in 1959. In the late ‘60s, Tommy was a
mainstay on the Star Trek Enterprise,
recording on some eighty episodes.
When Star Trek became a
movie enterprise, Tommy was on-board for those soundtracks, as well.
In the early
‘70s, Tommy tooking up a teaching career at
Sepulveda Junior High School and Dana Junior High School and would also
teach at UCLA and USC. At one
point, he shattered musical stereotypes by boasting a tuba section of all
female students. For his
efforts, he received a Lifetime PTA Award and a Teacher of the Year award
from Sepulveda Junior High.
It did not slow
down his recording career, however.
In 1971, he recorded Swahili
Strut with Bobby Bryant and followed that up with Stories We Could Tell by The Everly
Brothers, released in 1972. He
was one of Lincoln Mayorga’s distinguished
colleagues on Lincoln Mayorga & Distinguished Colleagues, Vol. 3,
which hit the shelves in 1974.
1974, Tommy won the first of seven consecutive MVP awards for a tuba player
from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS).
In 1975, he
performed what would become his most famous succession of notes, the
opening theme to Jaws. TV work would follow in 1977 with
the mini-series, Washington: Behind Closed Doors.
eclectic musician, Tommy appeared on a pair of disparate albums in 1978, Triumvirat’s A
la Carte and The Venetian Brass
Album. In June of the same
year, he pitched in at The Third International Tuba Workshop at USC. He closed out the decade with
another variegated series of albums, Dr. John’s Tango Palace, Jakob Magnusson’s
Special Treatment, Frank
Sinatra’s Trilogy, and the
soundtrack of Fast Break, all
released in 1979.
In 1980, he
appeared with an army of brass musicians on the Earth, Wind & Fire
album, Faces. He then switched tacks again on Jaco Pastorius’s Word of Mouth and the soundtrack of Arthur.
In 1981, NARAS
bestowed their “Emeritus Most Valuable Tuba Player” award on
him, a nice way of saying, good job, but we’re going to let someone
else win for a change.
continued to be an MVP in the recording studio, award or no. In 1986, he put together another
unusual string of credits, joining The Revolution on Prince’s Parade, Diane Schuur
on Timeless, and “Weird
Al” Yankovic on Weird Al’s Guide to the Grammys. Tommy would be Weird Al’s
go-to guy when it came to needing a trusty tuba player, for the rest of his
mid-to-late ‘80s, he spent much of his time keeping up with the Joneses: Jill Jones on her self-titled album
and Quincy Jones on Sounds… and
Stuff Like That, both released in 1987, and the soundtrack of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,
which lit up screens in 1989.
He opened the
1990s with appearances on the soundtrack of Grand Canyon and Natalie Cole’s tribute to her father, Unforgettable: With Love, both of which hit the
streets in 1991. In 1992, he
celebrated the Yuletide with some familiar faces on Merry Christmas from Doc Severinsen
and the Tonight Show Orchestra, and packed a hot-dog lunch for Dinner Classics – An American
He was an
erstwhile member of the American Jazz Philharmonic, which released an
eponymous album in 1993: Other
albums on which he appeared that year include Michael Crawford’s A Touch of Music in the Night, Dave Grusin’s Homage
to Duke, and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s
Alapalooza. In 1994, he appeared on a couple of
greatest-hits packages, Greatest Hits
– Flute and Weird Al’s Greatest
Hits, Vol. 2. The following
year, he reunited with Quincy Jones on Q’s
Jook Joint and Doc Severinsen
on Doc and the Dawgs.
He is also
credited, as a member of Los Tubas, with premiering and recording Jim
Self’s arrangement of the finale from Peter Ilyich
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, published in 1995. In 1996, he made the cut on the Neil
Diamond retrospective, In My Lifetime,
helped Weird Al’s music gel on Bad
Hair Day, and appeared on no less than three soundtracks: 101
Dalmations, Twister, and a CD re-issue of The Sandpiper. He
was back in the movie studios again in 1998 for the scores of Armageddon and The Thin Red Line.
In 1999, he
hooked up with Days of the New for their creatively titled Days of the New II and “Weird
Al” Yankovic on Running with Scissors.
millennium was no less productive, with appearances on the 2000 releases, Hot Burritos! The Flying Burrito Bros.
Anthology: 1969-1972, and
the Quincy Jones-Sammy Nestico collaboration, Basie & Beyond. In 2001, he appeared on the Chet
Atkins compilation, The Master and
His Music, fellow tubist Jim Self’s
album, The Big Stretch, the
horn-of-plenty anthology, Brass
Nation, and the soundtrack of Bubble
It is probably
no surprise that he is listed in the credits of Quincy Jones’ Ultimate Collection, released in
2002: Other releases from that
year that bear his name include Sammy Nestico’s
This is the Moment, Harry
Nilsson’s Greatest Hits,
and the Richard Todd CD, With a Twist.
In 2003, he
performed with the UCLA Faculty Brass Quintet at the Festival of
World-Class Brass, on October 10, did another “Weird Al” Yankovic album, Poodle
Hat, and performed on the soundtracks of Antwone Fisher, The Last Samurai,
The Matrix Revolutions, and the
video game, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun. No less fantastical were his music
adventures in 2004, with credits on the soundtracks of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of
Unfortunate Events and Spider-Man
2, the movie and the video game.
In 2005, he
teamed up with Bobaflex on Apologize for Nothing, and appeared on the Diana Krall stocking stuffer, Christmas Songs. He
also appeared on her follow-up, From
This Moment On, in 2006, which ironically turned out to be one of his
busiest years, considering it would be his last: His final recordings were The
Remington Steelers’ You Snooze,
You Lose, two more Weird Al offerings, Off the Deep End and Straight
Outta Lynwood, and the soundtrack of Inside Man.
In fact, as
recently as June 2006, he was contributing his time and talent to The
International Tuba Euphonium Conference (ITEC), all the while suffering
from cancer. The ITEC
subsequently bestowed their Lifetime Achievement Award on him.
October 2006, Tommy passed away at the UCLA Medical Center, due to kidney
failure and the cancer he had been working through and suffering at the
Jim Self, a student and colleague of Tommy’s, wrote “Fanfare
for a Big Man” in honor of Tommy. It was premiered by an orchestra of
ninety-nine tubas at a memorial on 3rd December 2006, as was
Jim’s aforementioned arrangement of the finale from Peter
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.
also penned a Tommy Johnson tribute, simply titled “Monument: An Elegy in Memory of Tommy Johnson
(1935-2006)”. It was
premiered by another student and colleague of Tommy’s, Gene Pokorny, at the 2008 International Tuba Euphonium
Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.