PIECES OF OUR PAST - Birch “Crimson Slide” Johnson

Birch “Crimson Slide” Johnson

He is what one might call a “VA kid.”  They were the children of fathers and mothers who worked at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Dublin.  Many of these children spent most of their childhood here in Dublin.  While others, whose parents were only here for a short time before taking a new assignment, moved on and achieved fame in other places around the country.  Among the most famous are Admiral William Goodwin, the first commander of the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan and Charlie Bradshaw, an All-American quarter back, founder of Hardee’s restaurants, and a multi-national millionaire investor.

The youngest of the trio is one Birch Johnson.  Born about 1953  to his parents, Chesley B. Johnson, Jr. and Marjorie Elaine Martin Johnson,  Birch spent his infant year in his parents home at 1205 Woodrow Avenue, two houses northeast of the Christian Church in Dublin.

Chesley Johnson, an Army veteran of the China-Burma-India campaign rose from the rank of private to lieutenant when he left the service in 1946.  Johnson, a career Civil Service officer, returned home to take a job with the VA Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  The Johnsons moved to Thomasville, Geprgia,  where he served until 1951, before coming to Dublin, where he worked at the V.A. Hospital until 1954.  After leaving Dublin, Johnson took assignments in Winston-Salem, N.C., Manilla, Phillippines, Asheville, North Carolina before returning home to a final stint with the VA Hospital in his native hometown of Tuscaloosa when Birch was in the fifth grade. 

As a student at University of Alabama, Johnson became a prolific player in the university band, the 5th Alabama Regimental Band, the Shelton State School Jazz Band and the Dixie Downbeats.   Chesley Johnson died less than three weeks before his 90th birthday in 2010.   

One of five children, Birch was born in Dublin during his father’s tenure here.   A favorite old idiom states that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  Such was the case of Chesley and his love for music which defined Birch’s career and life.  His mother Marjorie was a constant source of encouragement and advocate of  strong worth ethics by  practicing and practicing while most of the other kids were outside playing games and having fun.

“My mother told me that I’d beat the first chair - an 8th grader - that I didn’t have to wash dishes any more,” Johnson laughed as he told Mark Cobb of the Associated Press in 1998 interview.  Johnson would come downstairs in his pajamas to practice no matter what distractions and pleasures were out there his mother said.

Birch followed in his father’s footsteps by enrolling at the University of Alabama. The senior Johnson paid his way through college by playing music.  As Birch became more prolific on the trombone, he began to improvise.  His father told him to get the basics down first before ad-libbing.

Birch Johnson points to his music professor at Alabama, Dan Drill, as the finest trombone teacher he had ever had.  Alabama’s jazz band director, Steve Sample, pointed out that at first, Birch did not impress his teachers, who saw some promise in the aspiring musician, which put him in the band as extra player.   Sample noted that while everyone else was figuratively tooting their own horns, Birch Johnson was living in the practice room, getting better every day.  

Birch graduated from Alabama in 1975 and was almost immediately hired by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.  Big Band fans will remember that Dorsey took over as the Swing Music era’s most famous trombonist following the death of Glenn Miller.   Old timers in Dublin will also remember that Dorsey’s third wife was Jane New of Dublin.

After a year and one half at the Eastman School in Rochester, New York, Birch took the road with Woody Herman and His Thundering Heard.  Herman, a well known clarinetist and band leader, continued to play until a few years before his death in 1987.

            Birch settled in New York where he began to play as a studio musician.  He also began to compose music for many television shows and movies.   Johnson has played on several dozen albums, including performances with Chuck Mangione and Jimmy Buffett in the 1980s; Aretha Franklin and Marianne Faithful in the 1990s; and  Anne Murray and Regis Philbin in the 2000s. 

As a first call trombonist, Birch Johnson is always on call to step in at the last moment to sit in and play in live entertainment shows, studio recording sessions and Broadway and off Broadway plays.

An Emmy nominated songwriter, who has written music for the “The Guiding Light” and CBS Sports,  Johnson has performed in such plays as “All About Me,” “Hair Spray,” “The Civil War,” “Carrie,” “The Producers, “42nd Street,” and “The Full Monte.” 

Perhaps Birch’s most lasting fame comes from his years with the Blues Brothers band.   Johnson joined the band a dozen years after the formation of the band which arose from the classic Blues Brothers movie of 1980.  Soon legendary band member Alan “Mr. Fabulous” Rubin penned  the nickname of “Crimson Slide” on Birch in homage to his roots at the University of Alabama. 

Birch’s first album with the Blues Brothers was 1992's “Red, White, and Blues.”  He began to tour with many of the original members and new ones as well.  The most famous of the new musicians was Paul Shaffer, the leader of David Letterman’s Late  Show Band. 

Johnson’s second album with the Blues Brothers  was a recording of a live appearance at the House of Blues in Chicago.  Released in 1997, “Blues Brothers and Friends” featured new and old classics.  At 2:21 of the Youtube video of the introduction of band members, you will hear Brother Zee Blues (Jim Belushi) announce, “On trombone from Dublin, Georgia, Birch “Crimson Slide” Johnson!” 

Advance to 2:21 to hear Johnson's introduction. 

In 1998, the sequel to the original Blues Brothers Movie, Blues Brothers, 2000, was released. While not a member of the main band in the movie, Johnson does play trombone for a competing band, The Stripster Band.

Almost a quarter of a century after joining the Original Blues Brothers Band, Birch Johnson occasionally appears in concert with the band’s 2017 release, The Last Shade of Blue Before Black.

So if you are a fan of the Blues Brothers and their toe-tapping, hand clapping, soul-stirring brand of music, log on to your favorite music site or check out the band’s videos from the 1990s and look for the tall guy in the back, on trombone, Birch “Climson Slide” Johnson. 

Sweet Home Chicago
Solo at 1:55 

Green Onions / Soul Finger