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Interview with Fillmore great
Johnnie Ingram

Bassist and Band Leader

Johnnie Ingram
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Photo Credit: Johnnie Ingram

Interviewer: When did you start playing music?

Johnnie Ingram: When I was little, my sister taught me to play the piano but I wanted to do it my way so that was the end of my piano playing. Then my mother bought a violin for me and got me violin lessons. And I used to sing in the church choir. Then I saw Cab Calloway's band on television and his bass player, Milt Hinton, gave me the idea that I wanted to play bass so I bought one. Eddie Williams, who worked with Charles Brown, sold me first bass and gave me some lessons on it. When I was around 18 or 19, I played in a trio. We called ourselves We Three. I was on bass, Paul Richards was on piano, and A.J. Merlin on guitar. I was with Anna Rae Moore's band out of Chicago. I also played with the Whitman Sisters, that was a review out of Chicago. That was a long time ago.

Bob City sign
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Photo Credit: Johnnie Ingram

Interviewer: When did you start playing in San Francisco?

Johnnie Ingram: My first San Francisco engagement was at the International Settlement at the Subway Nightclub. It was an underground spot that was owned and operated by Texas Playboy Wesley Johnson. Al Love and Jimmy Murell, the owners of Jack's Tavern, which was the most popular jazz club in San Francisco at the time, they told Wesley Johnson that they wanted the balance of my contract from him. And I went to work in Jack's Tavern. I had quite a few really nice engagements there. In the 1940s, everybody used to go to Jack's Tavern. Then I left Jack's Tavern and went to the California Theater and that was a first class place.

Interviewer: What were salaries like then?

Johnnie Ingram: At the time, working for scale was low paid. I still have a recording contract from 1951. For one three-hour session, the band leader was paid $82.50; the side-men $41.25. A recording session now would cost much more than that.

Hear Johnnie Ingram's
"Hello Girl"
Listen (500k)

Hear Johnnie Ingram's
"Whisper Baby"
Listen (500k)

Interviewer: What were some of your most memorable shows?

Johnnie Ingram: While I played at Tom Landry's New Orleans Swing Club, Maya Angelou appeared on the show. She sang and danced and playing for her was a great accomplishment and I'll always remember that. I also backed the Coasters and Joe Houston, Big Joe Turner, and Dexter Gordon among others. I remember once I was playing a dance at 150 Golden Gate, downtown. Johnny Mathis walked in and the people wanted him to sing on the program so he asked us to back him on a song. This was before he became popular. I was happy to see him make it as far as he did, at the top.

Interviewer: Tell me about some of the songs you've written.

Johnnie Ingram: The first song that I wrote was "I'll Love You Forever." It was recorded around the 1950s. I also wrote "Did You Know?", "The Great One," and "Hello Girl." You might have heard it. And "Whisper Baby," that's a nice song. The last song that I wrote, in 1985, was "Port Arthur Our Home." It wasn't recorded commercially but I have a tape of it. People have asked me for copies of it. It sounds pretty nice. Sometimes I would be sleeping and I would get ideas then I would get up and jot the idea down because once you let that go, it'll never come back. I've thought of songs and stayed in bed and got up the next morning and thought I could think of it but I couldn't even think of where the first note started. Sometimes you might be driving down the freeway and it'll give you an idea and you just go from there. You take your time, get your words together and your music and put it together.

Interviewer: What do you miss about playing in the Fillmore and why did you stop playing there?

Johnnie Ingram: I miss the crowd. In the nightclubs, you always saw different people. It was nice to always be around people. In those days, I was there every night. When I first came to San Francisco, you could go anywhere at any time of night. A baby could go down Market Street in the Tenderloin but now a man can't do that. Going from one club to another got dangerous. I've known musicians being robbed when they left their jobs at the end of the night. It became a different environment so I said, well, I'll just listen to somebody else play.

Interviewer: Is this an old bass that you used to play? Do you ever play it anymore?

Johnnie Ingram: Yes, that's one of them. I had three or four. I sold a bass to Oscar Pettiford when I was on the road. He was one of the greats. I fool around with it sometimes, but just to feel it and get the sound. My fingers are too tender now.

Interviewer: What music do you listen to now that conjures up the Fillmore era?

Johnnie Ingram: I'll always like that "Every Day I Have the Blues" that Basie did. And there's a song that Duke did, "Jumpin' Pumpkins." That was a really nice song. Jimmy Blanton played the bass on that one. And I like Grover Washington, a fine trombone man.

Interviewer: Over all, how do you feel about having been a part of the Fillmore in its heyday?

Johnnie Ingram: I still feel that I am happy to have been a part of the shades of the Fillmore jazz when the Fillmore was really jumping. You could go from one club to another and no matter how small the place was, they had some kind of music for the people, and the streets were crowded just like Harlem. People up and down the streets all day long but it was safe and you didn't have to look over your back. Fillmore was the best.

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