Johnny Gibson was an African-American piano player from Toledo, Ohio who signed to Twirl Records in 1961 about the time that Del Shannon scored a national #1 hit in “Runaway.”
“There was this deejay in Toledo who knew Harry (Balk) and Irving (Micahnik), and who also knew Fred Kelly (from the Parliaments),” Johnny Gibson said from his home in Brampton, Ontario in July 2009. “So I went to Detroit and I played a few songs on the piano for Harry. One was a song that eventually became ‘Midnight.’
“Harry asked if I could fly out to New York in two weeks because he had a recording set up, and they could record this,” Gibson continued. “Two weeks later we recorded it! Harry also asked me to play (piano) on this duo they had, Don & Juan, and that he’d pay me a few extra dollars to play on their recordings, one of which turned out to be ‘What’s Your Name.’ (which went into the Top 10). It’s odd, because one day I heard this song in a supermarket, and I said to my wife, ‘Listen to that! That’s me playing the piano!’ She said, ‘Really?’ I said ‘Yeah! That’s me!’ And I then told her the story of how that came to be, and she thought that was pretty interesting.”
In June of ’61, Harry Balk produced Gibson’s first session in New York’s Bell Sound Studios. “Midnight” and “Love Lace” were piano instrumentals recorded by Gibson, a split session that also yielded Don & Juan’s “What’s Your Name” and “What Will I Do,” the latter being a recording that would never see release.
“Love Lace” would be re-titled by Micahnik as “Chuck-A-Luck,” and appeared as the bottom side to “Midnight” on Bigtop #45-3088, released in November 1961. “The flipside was originally called ‘Love Lace’,” Gibson explained, “but Irving renamed it ‘Chuck-A-Luck’ because he had just recently been to Las Vegas, and there was a dice game or something there called ‘The Chuck-A-Luck.’ So that’s where the title came from.” While “Midnight” wasn’t a hit, it managed some decent sales volume, especially with a top-notch label like Bigtop promoting the single with full-page ads that ran in both Cashbox and Billboard. Gibson’s manager, Irving Micahnik, booked him gigs across America and into Canada, with seven or eight months on tour with Johnny & The Hurricanes.
In the early spring of ’63, another session was set up and Gibson recorded his follow-up, appropriately titled “After Midnight,” coupled with “Walkin’ On Down.” This was the 45rpm that established Johnny’s signature sound. Unlike his previous single, “After Midnight” featured a prominent organ, the Hammond B3 organ, which Gibson played with settings set in such a way that he became instantly recognizable when you heard him.
Johnny’s third single was the Jessie Hill composition “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” b/w “Summer Holiday,” released just in time for the summer of ’63, as the latter title so aptly suggested. At the session he also played on “Now He’s Gone” by Bobbie Smith & The Dream Girls and it’s flip. As Gibson’s third Bigtop release, it made some noise in the D.C. area, Detroit, and throughout the Midwest. But alas, no hit. Gibson toured throughout ’63 to gain exposure and make some coin to keep him from having to get a dreaded day job. “I remember how this single came about,” Johnny recalled fondly. “My brother was the drummer in my group, ‘The Johnny Gibson Trio,’ and we were already doing ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’ in our live act, the Jessie Hill hit, so it was his idea, and it just made sense to do it. The vocal shout-outs on the record is me.”
The Johnny Gibson Trio consisted of Johnny Gibson on piano and organ, his brother Dwight Gibson on drums, and friend Ron Harste on bass. “Ron has since passed away,” Johnny mentioned in the July 2009 phone interview. “In a way, he sort of held us back because he was a white guy, so it was tougher to get gigs with an integrated act.”
Producer Harry Balk loved Johnny’s style, and referred to his playing as a New Orleans type of playing. Harry and Irving made the investment to attempt one more time a shot and breaking this artist. Balk had Detroit local Jamie Coe under contract at the time, and although Coe had no national hits, he was very well known and respected in Detroit, and his band The Gigolos rivaled The Royaltones as one of Detroit’s best groups. Coe was a good friend and understudy of Bobby Darin, and through that connection, Balk came across the idea to use Darin’s instrumental “Beachcomber” for Gibson’s next release. “I just loved that song by Bobby Darin,” Balk mentioned in a 2008 phone interview. “I really did. Darin was a great piano player, an accomplished tunesmith. And I thought, ‘Man, if we up-tempo this song, I think we could have a hit here.’ So we cut it, ‘Beachcomber,’ and Johnny had written one instrumental that we used for the B-side, ‘Swanky.’ It sounded like a train with a choo-choo, I loved it. The song was a two minute chugga-chugga.”
Gibson confirmed Balk’s statement. “Yeah, it was Harry’s idea to do ‘Beachcomber.’ Harry heard the Bobby Darin song and really liked it. And I liked it. So I said ‘Yeah! Let’s record it! And publishing companies used my arrangement for the sheet music because they liked my arrangement better (than Darin’s).”
“Beachcomber” was released in early 1964 on Balk and Micahnik’s Twirl label. It sold much better than his two singles before it, and rivaled the sales of “Midnight.”
“Twirl’s distribution was limited,” Harry admitted. “I worked a deal with Bob Schwartz and Laurie Records. We were able to lease the masters over to Laurie. They had big hits with Dion there for a while, and were at the time distributing Gerry & The Pacemakers.”
“Beachcomber” showcased a fine performance by Johnny Gibson, proving how talented he really was at the piano. The single had steady sales, a small following, and managed to get some Midwest and Canadian chart action. Balk and Micahnik utilized Gibson for about another year, using him for playing at some sessions in Detroit, most notably on “Miss Stronghearted” and “Walk On Into My Heart” by Bobbie Smith.
Smith’s “Walk On Into My Heart” is a Northern Soul classic and cult favorite even to this day. An original 45rpm commands big dollars by collectors. Gibson’s “Beachcomber” is a Mod classic abroad, still getting spins and requests by the young and old alike.
Gibson recorded four singles for the Detroit based Artists, Inc. He went on to record just one more single, “Partly Cloudy” coupled with “Baby Let Me Know” on GTM #101. “I recorded that single over at Fortune Records, and Ollie McLaughlin had something to do with that, he was a good friend of Max’s (Max Crook).”
Five singles comprise this artist’s discography, but cannot sum up the extraordinary piano and organ playing, and songwriting, of Johnny Gibson. In 1977, an LP titled “Johnny Gibson” was released by Tomorrow Records of 1010 Fifth Avenue in New York. The album includes Gibson’s Bigtop and Twirl sides, along with a fellow pianist on Bigtop and Twirl, Max Crook (professionally known as Maximilian). The LP misleads the buyer to believe they’re getting an album chalk full of Johnny Gibson instrumentals, and is either a bootlegged album or licensed by an unofficial source. The credits include “Produced by John Gomez” who had absolutely nothing to do with any of the recordings featured, having all been produced by Harry Balk. With a 1977 release date, it could have been licensed and maybe even conceived by Irving Micahnik, just shortly before he died. It would make sense to capitalize one more time on some old recordings. It was alleged that Tomorrow Records (along with Guinness and Dellwood labels) was established by John Gomez and partner Eliot Rosoff as a tax scheme to funnel money. We will probably never know for sure.
Johnny Gibson moved west to California where he went to Los Angeles City College and studied music. He then backed a female singer from Vancouver to Nova Scotia (where his family is originally from). “My dad moved my family to Ohio when I was about 3 or 4 years old because he was an electrician and got a job in Toledo.”
Today, Johnny Gibson keeps himself busy. “I have three agents, one in Stockholm, one in Zurich, and one in Amsterdam.” Gibson performs “The Johnny Gibson Show” which includes five songs from his new CD “…And That’s Rock ‘N Roll Jack” and in the middle of the show he changes clothes and comes out with shades and does a Ray Charles tribute. “I start with ‘Hit The Road Jack’ and end with ‘What’d I Say.” The show ends with ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and a tap dance routine. “I also play drums, so I do a long drum solo. Sometimes I have an audience of 600 to 700 in my shows.”
Johnny plays these days abroad, including Switzerland, Sweden, Greece, Lebanon, Japan, Hungary, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Thailand and, of course, Canada. “I stay very busy,” Gibson explained, “I tour year round but in the summer months I play three nights a week at the Nexus, which is a restaurant and piano bar in the Toronto area.” Johnny has a ball, doing what he loves best, playing oldies to a live crowd and selling 10 to 15 CDs a night from his piano. “I just finished a new CD called ‘When I Think Of You’ coupled with ‘Victory.’ …..and that’s rock ‘n roll Jack!
-Author: Brian C. Young for Twirl Records, July 2009
Official Johnny Gibson website: www.jo-v-il.com
Bigtop #45-3118 – After Midnight / Walkin’ On Down – 1963
Bigtop #45-3149 – Ooh Poo Pah Doo / Summer Holiday – 1963
Twirl #2012 & Laurie #3256 – Beachcomber / Swanky – 1964
GTM #101 - Partly Cloudy / Baby Let Me Know - 1966
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