Rhythm flowed in Terry Johnson’s life
‘It won’t be the same’ without gifted drummer
One of the key players in the early history of Stax Records died this past week. Terry Johnson, drummer for the Mar-keys, the first Stax hit makers (“Last Night”) passed away March 19. Johnson was 72.
“Terry got the beat on Beale from sitting on the curb listening to the great bands of the ’50s,” says Stax Records historian Robert Gordon. “He carried it not only to the white kids in East Memphis and Millington, but to all kids everywhere when the Mar-keys hit the road. Terry had a great sense of humor — loved to tell jokes — and you could hear that humor in his playing. That was a rhythm he kept all his life.”
Born in April 1943 to Nina and Jimmy Johnson, young Terry was besotted by music from an early age, and he found nirvana in the thriving club scene in and around Memphis.
As Johnson would remember for Gordon’s Stax history “Respect Yourself”: “The music was everywhere. We would sneak over to Plantation Inn in West Memphis … and they would let us in Curry’s Tropicana in North Memphis, or we’d spend all night down on Beale by the old Club Handy and listen to Evelyn Young play saxophone,” said Johnson. “That was how it got started.”
Johnson was a freshman at Messick High when he was recruited by a group of fellow students into the Mar-keys in 1958. As the group’s guitarist Steve Cropper would recall, Johnson was a precocious talent behind the drum kit who helped solidify the band’s lineup. “Boy, we were asking everybody in school,” noted Cropper. “We found (Terry), who played drums in his father’s country band. So he had a little bit of experience, even though he was only in ninth grade.”
Johnson played and toured with the group for several years into the
1960s. “We were a pretty well-established band out of high school, but we had to wait a year for Terry to graduate so we could go out on the road,” says fellow Mar-keys memberdonnix.“terrywasworth the wait, though. He was an amazing drummer. He took a lot from (Booker T. & the MGS drummer) Al Jackson. Terry’s shuffle was the best white man shuffle I ever heard.”
As much as he loved music, Johnson found his true calling in the medical profession. After the MarKeys, Johnson went back to school. He would earn a PH.D. in psychology at the University of Memphis. He later became the clinical director at North East Mental Health Center and Genesis of Jackson. He was also a director of Children and Youth Services at Frayser Family Counseling Center. Johnson’s work in youth mental health programming was deeply influential. He helped create and implement the Therapeutic Foster Care Program, Therapeutic Nursery Program and Youth Day Treatment Program — all of which became model programs in Tennessee and numerous other states.
“He had quite a career as psychologist. He was a well-accomplished person, which was a shock to all of us,” Nix said with a chuckle. “’Cause he was like us; he just liked to have fun and play. But Terry really got high up in the (medical world). He was a unique person.”
Johnson and his wife, Joann, were also part owners of Midtown deli/restaurant Fino’s From The Hill, which was decorated with photos and memories of Johnson’s time in the Mar-keys.
“The Mar-keys used to get together, the ones that were left, at Fino’s and we always had a good time,” says Nix. “Terry was a good friend and a good musician. It won’t be the same without him.”
ABOVE: The Royal Spades: Don Nix, Steve Cropper, Charles ‘Packy’ Axton, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, Terry Johnson, Ronnie Stoots, and Wayne Jackson. LEFT AND BELOW: Images of 1960s Stax band, the Mar-keys, with Terry Johnson — who died last week — on drums.
MEMPHIS MUSIC BEAT