I like to listen to musicians who are synonymous with their chosen instruments. Carlos Santana on guitar, Yehudi Menuhin with violin, Harry James on trumpet, or Rachel Laurin on pipe organ. Who comes to mind when you think of the tuba? Anyone?
Think of the “Jaws” movies. The first call tubist who portrayed the “voice” of the great white shark was Tommy Johnson. The music of the “Jaws” shark is a cliché that most of us recognize instantly. Composer, John Williams, said he wanted the lowest instruments of the orchestra to “plunge” into the sonic depths to represent the ominous shark. The skill of Tommy Johnson was what was needed for the film scores.
John Thomas Johnson was born on January 7, 1935 in Los Angeles, California. He was a student of Robert Marseller at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, graduating in 1956.
Tommy Johnson’s steady job was as a music teacher to junior high schoolers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He was the mentor and individual teacher to advanced tubists from UCLA and USC. His students include Alan Baer of the New York Philharmonic, Norm Pearson of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Gene Pokorny of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was part of the “Los Angeles Tuba Quartet”, and appeared in elevator music as part of the Henry Mancini Orchestra.
Johnson was a first call studio musician who appeared on thousands of movie scores over 49 years. His first film performance was on David Raksin’s soundtrack for the 1959 film, “Al Capone”.
If you listen closely, you’ll hear Tommy Johnson tuba in the “Indiana Jones” trilogy, “The Lion King”, the “Star Trek” series, “Thin Red Line”, “The Godfather, “Titanic”, and tellingly, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Picking films at random, Johnson appears in many popular movies. All three “Back to the Future” films. “Batman Forever” and “Batman Returns”, “Twister”, “Grumpier Old Men”, “The Flintstones”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and “The Addams Family”.
Johnson was not only a soundtrack star, but he was a prolific session musician for pop and rock artists, too. Tommy’s tuba playing can be heard in some music by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Manhattan Transfer, and Jean-Pierre Rampal. Pun-loving “Weird Al” Yankovic called on Johnson as his tubist for his many polka tunes. Famously, Johnson played solo tuba on Yankovic’s “Smells Like Nirvana”.
Tommy Johnson died on October 16, 2006 in Los Angeles from complications of cancer and kidney failure. A memorial concert took place on December 3, 2006 at USC. The collection of tribute performances ended with the finale of Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony Number 4 in F Minor” with a section of 99 tubists playing for Johnson.