By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
LOS ANGELES In the back pages of the Los Angeles Times, they ran an obituary for a guy named Tommy Johnson, who died in October at 71 of complications from cancer and kidney failure. Accompanying the obit was a picture of a big, beefy lug grinning in a loud sports jacket. If you looked closely, you could see the man had lips.
You have likely never heard of Tommy Johnson, but it turns out that Johnson was, and still is, according to everyone who would know, "the most heard tubist on the planet."
A first-chair studio musician in Hollywood for 50 years, Johnson played on thousands of recordings -- jingles, commercials, television shows like "The Flintstones," and films. His tuba can be heard on hundreds of movie soundtracks, including "The Godfather" and "Titanic" and, most memorably, the John Williams scores for Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the "Indiana Jones" trilogy and "Jaws."
Many ears that listen to the predatory bum-bum-bum-bum of the marauding shark -- and then those braying squeals of the feeding frenzy -- would swear they are listening to a French horn. But what they are hearing is Johnson. He is Jaws. Swim for your lives! The shark is a tuba.
On Sunday afternoon at Bovard Auditorium on the campus of the University of Southern California, a selection of the country's finest tuba players gathered for a memorial concert for Tommy Johnson. When the conductor promised the full house this was a performance never attempted before, "and something you may never see again," he wasn't kidding.
It is not every day that 99 tubas take the stage. One could almost hear the floorboards groan with anticipatory pleasure.
They came to honor their fallen tuba king. Before the concert, at the stage door, there were many large men lumbering with heavy burdens. Admittedly, there is a kind of "Sopranos" look to the players. Wiseguys packing oversize black cases. Made men. They seemed like they might like to spend an occasional afternoon at the track.
The tuba is a bighearted instrument that takes a lot of breath, a lot of cheek to play (uncurled, the contrabass tuba is 16 feet long), and though some tiny people play tuba very well (take Carol Jantsch, 21, the youngest member of the Philadelphia Orchestra), the stereotype holds.
"A lot of tuba players look like linemen, okay?" says Terry Cravens, professor of winds and percussion at USC Thornton School of Music, where Johnson also taught. "They're big guys, just like Tommy," who, according to one anecdote, liked to fire up an electric hot-dog griller during a long session to keep himself supplied with wieners during breaks.
Regardless, many people who think they are familiar with the tuba are not. The wraparound instrument in marching bands is actually a sousaphone, a kissing cousin to the tuba (and designed by the march composer John Philip Sousa). And when many people think of tuba music (if they think of tuba at all), they think: oompah! The music of merrymaking Tirolean taverngoers in lederhosen playing Bavarian beer-bonging songs.
But there is more. Is not the tuba the Jackie Gleason, the John Belushi, of instruments? The biggest-boned of the brass, true, but not without grace.
Johnson's nephew, Stephen James Taylor, a successful Los Angeles composer, told the audience that "Tommy reinvented the tuba." For example, Johnson is believed to have been the first tubist to perform Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee," the super-fast, frantic, uninterrupted run of sixteenth notes. Only a madman would attempt it on a tuba! But Johnson did.
Johnson's friend Jim Self, a veteran freelance and studio player in Los Angeles, says that Johnson fought to imbue the tuba "with every human emotion," to show composers and arrangers that the tuba could not only sing, it could cry.
Indeed, during the memorial concert, a double brass sextet (that would be 12 players) did a rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" featuring, naturally, the tuba. The song holds a secret and a surprise. Slowed dramatically, with the deeper bass playing vibrato, the ensemble transformed it into a kind of dirge that would be appropriate at Arlington National Cemetery. And it's one, two, three strikes you're out at the old ball game. It made your chest hurt. It was summer turning to fall. And when the song ended, there was a sadness, and one of the trumpet players onstage could be seen wiping away a tear.
When he recorded the theme for "Jaws," Johnson was still working -- as many studio musicians did back then -- as a band instructor, at a junior high school. (Later in life, he made more money off of his residuals than most players earn playing.) When Johnson got the call to come to the studio, it was raining, his substitute teacher was late, and so the orchestra was seated and composer Williams was at the podium when Johnson arrived.
"Basically, they were just sort of waiting for me to get my tuba out," Johnson recalled in an interview with TubaNews.com. "The whole time John Williams was looking at me with anticipation." Johnson was out of breath. He was upset. He opened -- for the first time -- the musical score and saw this crazy long tuba solo.
Williams raised his baton and Johnson nailed it. "In those days, I had a lip that just responded immediately," he remembered. "I never had to warm up. I never believed in warming up." Johnson didn't learn until later that the tuba part was the shark.
In a statement last week, Williams called Johnson "one of the great instrumentalists of his generation. Not only was he the voice of the shark in 'Jaws,' and that of the aliens in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' his performance across the full range of the repertoire inspired not only me, but a whole generation of young tubaists."
"Why do some guys pick up a tuba? We don't know the answer to that. It's a mystery," says Cravens, the friend and professor, who plays a trombone. "Does the player choose the instrument? Or does the instrument choose the player? And after you start playing the tuba, does it change you and turn you into a tuba guy?"
At the concert's conclusion, the 99 tuba players crammed onto the stage. Self, who conducted, joked, "Thank God there are no sousaphones." It was a tuba joke (sousaphones take up a lot of space). They played the finale of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. What is the sound of a hundred tubas in full-throated song? It had the ring of the Voice of God. Very big. Very blaaat. (You could feel the fillings in your teeth rattle from the primal bass.) It was completely tubaistical.