This coming October marks the 10th year of the passing of Tommy Johnson.
That name is probably not familiar to many of you. But I guarantee that most of you have heard this man play a tuba. If you have seen the movie “Jaws” (1975), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) or “Silverado” (1985), along with thousands of other movie scores, you have heard him.
For me, his was more than just the sound of a tuba coming out of a movie soundtrack. He was my tuba teacher for two years when I was going to college in Southern California. He taught me the “right stuff” to get my playing career started.
“Silverado” was a milestone event in Tommy Johnson’s career. You see, he had some health issues, two of them being diabetes and kidney disease. Any one of those ailments could sideline a professional musician. One day he was playing golf with one of his sons, and he tried to whistle to warn some kids to get off the golf course. He discovered that for some reason, he could not whistle. When he got home, he saw that the entire side of his face was drooping. In that one lazy afternoon, he got hit with Bell’s palsy, a debilitating affliction for a brass player. He had no control over the muscles controlling his lips. He tried playing. Not a sound came out. Only after a lot of experimentation, he realized he could continue to play if one hand could finger the keys while the other hand could reach around and hold the corner of his lips together so he could form an embouchure. But he knew his playing was suffering.
Then the phone call came in to do a recording session for the scoring of a new movie. The composer was his friend and neighbor, Bruce Broughton.
The movie was “Silverado.”
Despite Johnson’s ailments, Bruce was so convinced of Tommy’s abilities, he wanted him on the session. This was a great impetus for Tommy to continue to play and regain (as he told me) about 85 percent of his playing ability. I think Tommy felt particularly reassured by Bruce’s insistence that he stay on the recording sessions for this movie.
Tommy later recalled that at after multiple days of recording the “Silverado” soundtrack, the entire studio orchestra stood up and gave Bruce a round of applause for such a great score. As Tommy told me, “That never happens in the studios.”
One other anecdotal story: Tommy’s son, Keith, was a cello major at Indiana University. With Bruce and Tommy being close colleagues, Bruce wrote a piece as a gift for Keith: a duet for cello and tuba. When Keith gave his senior recital at Indiana University, his father came in to play the tuba part. Keith’s cello recital was crowded — but not with cellists. Most of the audience was made up of tuba players who came to hear the great Tommy Johnson play!
So now you know a little bit about an unknown name in the tuba world with a very well-known sound; a sound that I loved. And when you hear the tuba play for this live performance of “Silverado,” you know whose sound Bruce Broughton really had in mind.
Additionally, I am particularly grateful that Broughton wrote two tuba parts for the soundtrack of “Silverado.” That has given me the chance to invite another professional tuba player to play with the Chicago Symphony. John Van Houten, another one of Johnson’s former students, is a very busy Hollywood studio musician; you might have heard him on the movies “Inside Out,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “300: Rise of an Empire,” as well as the TV shows “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “The Simpsons.” He is ecstatic over being asked to play with the CSO for this very special occasion.
Gene Pokorny, principal tuba of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has performed on the soundtracks for “Jurassic Park” (1993) and “The Fugitive” (1993).