LESS OF AN extrovert or virtuoso than the other members of the “Boogie Woogie Trio”, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis, Ammons perhaps outdid his companions in rhythmic solidity and, at slow tempos, blues feeling.
After both solo and band experience in the 20s and early 30s, he formed his own Rhythm Kings, including Guy Kelly (trumpet) and Israel Crosby (bass), to play Chicago’s Club DeLisa and record ‘Boogie Woogie Stomp’ and other titles for Decca (1936). With the boogie-woogie craze of 1938-9 came opportunities to record solos like ‘Shout for Joy’ (Vocalion, 1939) and duets with trumpeter Harry James (Brunswick, 1939). He also began his association with Johnson and Lewis, playing at New York’s Café Society and Carnegie Hall. Sessions for Blue Note (1939, 1942) and Solo Art (1939) produced magnificent readings of ‘Bass Goin’ Crazy’ and other tunes, while his 1941 Victor recordings with Johnson such as ‘Cuttin’ the Boogie’ are among the finest of all boogie-woogie piano duets.
For Commodore (1944) he led a new Rhythm Kings with Hot Lips Page (trumpet), Vic Dickenson (trombone) and Don Byas (tenor). Then with Mercury (1945-9), in a series of small-group recordings, he devised boogie translations of popular songs, such as ‘Swanee River Boogie’ (1946), ‘Sheik of Araby’ (1948) and ‘You Are My Sunshine’ (1948). On several of these he was partnered by his son, tenor saxophonist Gene (b. 14 April 1925, Chicago, d. 23 July 1974).
After his father’s death Gene formed a two-tenor group with the Charlie Parker-influenced alto- and tenor-player Sonny Stitt. He later made a number of recordings on the borders of jazz and R&B, which were popular with black audiences. Based for most of his career in Chicago, he influenced a local school of saxophonists, including Johnny Griffin, who also spent his early playing days in rhythm and blues, with Lionel Hampton and trumpeter/bandleader Joe Morris.
© Phil Hardy, Dave Laing, Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, 2001