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    Johnson, Tommy (7 January 1935 – 16 October 2006)

    Tuba player 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. 

     

    After high 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 afterwards. 

     

    His early 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. 

     

    Beginning in 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. 

     

    Ever the 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. 

     

    Tommy 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 career. 

     

    In the 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 Picnic. 

     

    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. 

     

    The new 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 Boy. 

     

    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. 

     

    On 16th 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 same time. 

     

    In memoriam, 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. 

     

    John Stevens 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.

     

    Sources:

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