Born in 1941 in Montgomery, Alabama, Johnson grew up in Massillon, Ohio where he taught himself to play baritone sax and tuba as a teenager. After high school, he joined the Navy and then spent time living in Boston and Chicago before settling in New York in 1963. There, he found work playing and recording with Charles Mingus, Hank Crawford, Archie Shepp, and others. He appeared on McCoy Tyner's 1967 album Tender Moments. Around the same time, Johnson started a 20-year off-and-on association with Gil Evans. There were also sessions with Pharoah Sanders, Andrew Hill, and Freddie Hubbard.
In 1970, Johnson played on bassist Charlie Haden's first Liberation Music Orchestra album and continued his work with Mingus. He also began finding opportunities beyond the jazz idiom, forming a four-tuba group called Substructure that regularly toured and recorded with blues singer/guitarist Taj Mahal and appeared on 1971's The Real Thing. He performed with the Band (appearing on both Rock of Ages and The Last Waltz), and worked with Paul Simon, James Taylor, Carly Simon, and more. He also enjoyed a five-year tenure as part of the house band on Saturday Night Live and recorded notable sessions with Jaco Pastorius, Carla Bley, Gato Barbieri, George Benson, and Dexter Gordon, among others.
Johnson's eclectic credits continued in the '80s as he worked with Chaka Khan, Hank Crawford, Yoko Ono, and Bob Moses. He led a group at the 1981 Woodstock Jazz Festival to mark the tenth anniversary of the Creative Music Studio. Despite his prolific schedule, Johnson did not make his recorded solo debut until 1994's Arrival: A Pharoah Sanders Tribute. The following year, he returned with Gravity!!!, which showcased his long-running tuba sextet of the same name. Following sessions with George Gruntz, John Scofield, T.S. Monk, and Barbara Dennerlein, he released his third album, 1998's Right Now, which featured Gravity alongside guest Taj Mahal.
In the 2000s, Johnson stayed quite active, working with Mario Pavone, David Fathead Newman, Marty Ehrlich, Tom Harrell, Catherine Russell, and the Band's Levon Helm. In 2017, he released his fourth album and third with his Gravity ensemble, Testimony. Johnson died on January 11, 2021 at his home in Harlem, New York. He was 79 years old. ~ Matt Collar, Rovi
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