I would like to say a few words about myself here for those of you that might be interested.
I was born Timothy Stafford Johnson in Cheltenham, England 1969 where my dad Sam was a Doctor at the local hospital and my mum Liz was a nurse at the time. We soon moved up to Bramhall in Cheshire where my dad took a job nearby as a family GP and my sister Louise was born a couple of years later. We were very lucky to live in a big old house with a big garden and an old upright piano.
I have to say I did not shine at school and didn’t enjoy it much. I would spell words wrong that I had copied from the blackboard and my teachers thought I was stupid but that’s when I discovered that I needed to wear glasses – though my spelling never did improve.
When I was about eight or nine I started showing an interest in music. I would spend hours listening to old Jazz and Country records from my parents’ collection. They then bought me an acoustic guitar for Christmas and some lessons were booked. My guitar lessons were in a group and a whole bunch of us were taught together at the house of an eccentric woman called Jean Applegate. She lived with another woman called Shirley Aldrich – who later taught me singing and piano – and they had been a duo on the folk scene during the 60′s and 70′s. We learned tunes in a basic way, not from reading music, but by learning the chords and words at the same time, then we played them all together until everyone had got the hang of it. So you could say that I have been playing in a band since I was about nine. I think this is where I get my sense of time from. If you went faster or slower than the others you would get out of step and it drives me mad today if the guys in the band don’t keep good time.
Once I had learned a few songs there was no stopping me, I would play my guitar and sing at any opportunity whether my friends and family liked it or not. Through Jean and Shirley I would play at concerts and enter singing competitions and was quite confident on stage despite being a relatively shy child. Guitar was never really my instrument though, but I can still play some of the tunes I learned over 30 years ago.
When I was about twelve I started to teach myself piano on the old family upright; adapting the tunes I had learned on the guitar and picking out new tunes. I would sit and listen to Fats Waller records for hours, though I couldn’t and still can’t play anything like him. I was also a member of a youth amateur operatic group that put on musicals each year but my dance steps were so bad that I was usually shoved in the back of the chorus somewhere. My shining hour was often at the after show parties where I would entertain the cast playing the piano and singing rude songs I had learned from George Melly records!
When I was fifteen I played my first professional gig in a pub in Stockport called ‘The Three Tuns’ (now sadly knocked down). It was a very small old pub but it had a huge grand piano in there and the landlord John Butterworth was a big jazz fan. I started playing every Saturday lunch time and built up quite a following, in fact I still see some people from there at gigs today. Around this time my Mum and Dad would take me to listen to the local Jazz Bands in the Manchester area. I would sit in and sing a couple of songs and soon I was being booked to do guest spots with them. I loved those nights and knew then that I wanted to be a jazz singer. I had not taken my O’levels yet but all my energy was going in to music over studying. I was also playing about three nights a week with a 1920′s band ‘The Casablanca Steps’. Needless to say I left School at 16 with very little in the way of qualifications.
One of the bands I sang with played on Thursday nights in a village called Alsager in Cheshire. The guys in the band were mainly amateur musicians that just played for fun every week, apart from the drummer, Pete Cotterill. Pete was a professional drummer and his main band was ‘The Max Collie Rhythm Aces’ based in London. An Audition was fixed up for me and Max asked me to join the band. I moved to Bromley in Kent when I was sixteen and spent the next four years touring the UK and Europe with Max’s band. He thought that Tim Johnson wasn’t jazzy enough so when I joined he decided to call me TJ Johnson and that was that. Now most people know me as TJ.
That band was a real bunch of hard-core characters and drinkers. I still bump in to them on the Jazz scene and at festivals. I loved those guys, it was a real education being on the road with them, no matter how bad you felt or how hung over you were you still had to get up on stage and give it your all. We would sometimes have a 20 hour drive across Europe to then get out of the van straight on to the stage for a three hour jazz gig.
After leaving Max I moved back up north and bought a small terraced house near Stockport County FC. I started to book gigs under my own name and put a band together. It was about this time that I met my first wife Gia who I was with for almost 10 years, although we didn’t actually get married until some years later. I did have another brief spell in London but only for a few months as I was much happier living in the north at that time. I then moved to a house in the small village of Marple Bridge.
The 90′s for me was not plain sailing. Running a band was much harder than I had thought. From having it relatively easy with Max I now had to cope with broken down band wagons, an ever changing line up and a sparse gig scene at the time. It was not all bad though I did some great gigs over the next few years including some month long stints at the notorious Casa Bar in Zurich. This was a 7 night a week jazz club, we played 5 sets a night every night for a month, there’s only one way to get through that, drink your way through it.
I did eventually get a steady line up in the band which included Pete Cotterill’s two sons. David Cotterill played guitar and, my great friend, Robert Cotterill on Drums. But all was to be shattered when on our way back from a gig in Switzerland at Calais docks, Robert died from a massive heart-attack. He was thirty two. After this terrible blow, things were tough but we did not stop gigging, in fact we played a gig two days later. The perfect replacement for Robert turned out to be his dad, Pete, who had now left Max Collie.
My days in Marple were drawing to a close though, my relationship with Gia had sadly broken down and I could feel a strong pull from London again. So in 2000 I moved down to stay at Jonny Boston’s house in South London – Jonny is a great Sax player and singer. I basically started from scratch forming a new band and also playing solo gigs for a while. I started running two bands playing drums in my young New Orleans Band ‘Bourbon Kick’. I had owned a drum kit for a long time and had always shown great interest in drums but never got round to playing. So I took my drums to a rehearsal studio and played along to CD’s until I sounded half decent. My confidence has grown as a drummer and I really enjoy playing now, it’s a great contrast to being the front man.
I met my second wife Amy almost as soon as I moved to London, she said ‘you’ve got six months to get to know me because I’ve just taken a job in New York’. She moved out there and we kept in contact and I went out to visit her. We also took a trip down to New Orleans and hung out with some great jazz players there. When she moved back to London it did not take long for us to decide we wanted to get married which we did in November 2003. In May 2005 our son Monty was born and in July 2006 our daughter Willow came along. Things were great for a while living in our big house in Hackney with my wife and kids, I spent a lot of time looking after them as Amy went back to work full time. Amy’s job started to take more and more of her time and I spent more and more time at home with the kids and often going off to do gigs in the evening. Then came the bombshell, Amy had met someone else. My world was shattered so I moved out and rented my own flat. I recorded my CD “Three Teardrops” the year after our breakup, all sad broken hearted tunes in the Willie Nelson vein. Over the last 5 years I have moved several times but still live in Hackney. I see the kids regularly and get on with Amy fine so didn’t all turn out too bad.
I’ve been blessed with playing some great venues and festivals in recent years and was never happier than when I got the call to take my band and do some shows at the great Ronnie Scott’s Club in Soho. Also it seems a lot of younger people in their twenties and thirties are taking an interest in the kind of music we play, which is very encouraging.
I think what I do now is not much different from what I was doing when I was 9 years old. My approach has not changed and I just learn the chords and the words then sing the song. If asked I suppose I would say I’m a jazz musician but I do love many types of other music: country, gospel, blues, folk, classical the lot – I don’t care as long as it’s soulful and it swings. I only hope I continue to have the health and support I need to play music. I just want to play music as best I can, for those who want to listen.
Updated Jan 2013