Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Reggie Walley Story

By David "Chet" Williamson Sneade

In February of 1998, I was asked by Worcester Magazine to write a profile feature on Reggie Walley. I knew Reg from his many gigs as a drummer and owner of his two nightclubs, the Kitty Kat and the Hottentotte, respectively. Soon after the piece was published, I had the good fortune to play music with the man in a band we called Reggie Walley’s Bluescians. Although already in his '80s, he could still swing like Big Ben and sing like a bluebird. Yet, at the time, he was often left waiting for the phone to ring for his next gig. I called him for a couple of dates at Gilrein's playing blues and swing and he jumped at the chance. We went on to play a string of gigs over the next few years until his death at 87 on Sunday, September 23, 2001.

The profile was the front-page story of the Arts & Entertainment section with a headline that read: Soft Shoe through Life; Reggie Walley preps for a gig of a lifetime. The date was a tribute to the man hosted by the College of the Holy Cross. Here is my piece with a few additions, subtractions and corrections.

There's a bright sun-splashed room on the 13th floor of one of the high-rise buildings at Lincoln Village -- a recreation hall for the many senior citizens who live there. The surface of the room's floor is harder than blacktop and just right for tap dancing.

In the late afternoon hours, when the winter sun casts broad shadows across the expectant room, Reggie Walley takes the elevator up two flights, slips on his taps and begins to practice. Seventy-five years ago, dancing was as natural as getting up in the morning for Walley. These days, the spirit is willing but the feet need a little reminding. "I go up there and grin like the devil," Walley says, chuckling about his routine. "I go up there when there is not anything going on. Because everybody's going to sit around and look at you."

At 83, song-and-dance man, jazz drummer, teacher, painter, club owner, Renaissance man and all-around nice guy Walley is once again honing his hoofing for the gig of a lifetime. And it's all in his honor. On Tuesday, February 24, the First Year Program at the College of the Holy Cross will present "And Then There was Jazz: A Tribute to Reggie Walley," an evening of music and memory honoring this local legend. The Fat Tuesday event will unfold at 8 p.m. in the Hogan Center ballroom. Among local musicians scheduled to "play tribute" are Bunny Price, Al Mueller, Mike Monaghan, Linda and Bobby Dagnello, Dick Odgren and Emil Haddad and Joe Holovnia. The tribute is free and open to the public.

Billed in his prime as "New England's Greatest Dancing and Singing Star," the honored guest will reach back into his time-honored bag of tricks to -- as he puts it -- step a little, sing a few numbers and play some drums. "I bought two pairs of taps," Walley says, laughing about his preparations. "I didn't like the first pair. I'm going to do syncopation tap out there ... from ankles down. That way, I can keep my feet close to the floor and not knock myself out.”

Walley was born Reginald Harold Walley in Worcester's Hahnemann Hospital on June 7, 1914. He was the fifth born in a family of 10 children to George and Octavia (Sumner) Walley. There were six boys and four girls. Young Reggie grew up in the neighborhood around Highland and West streets. The street where he lived, Lilly Street, no longer exists, having been eliminate by the construction of the Elm Park Community School.

Walley has vivid memories of Sunday morning at John Street Baptist Church, a holler-and-shout from his apartment window. "I sang in the choir over there," he says, getting comfortable on a sofa in his tiny Lincoln Village living room. "Grace Johnson-Brown, God rest her soul, she was a piano teacher. She wasn't what you would call a jazz player. She used to help me with my singing ... used to keep me up there for hours practicing."

Note: The pianist lived on George Street, where World Champion Cyclist Major Taylor trained, and the renowned pianist Jaki Byard took lessons.

"Mrs. Grace Brown was a very wonderful woman. She used to keep me up there for hours practicing," Walley said. "She used to have us sing syllables and scales up and down. When Duke Ellington came here to stay while he was working at the Plymouth Theater, she let me know he was in town.

All the singing and dancing seems to have preserved Walley well. Still, in welterweight-fighting shape, he stands 5 feet, 6 inches tall and has the bearing of a man 20 years younger. His high cheekbones, dark eyes and hair highlight his Narragansett Indian ancestry. His father hailed from the tribe. "That's my blood," Walley says. "But all my family married into the Nipmuc tribe. I joined in Grafton. I still go out to the grounds and help to get the powwows going."

Walley's entertainment career began when he was still a child. Back in The Roaring '20s, he made a living dancing on the streets of Worcester. “I used to go around with shoeshine boxes and dance around," he recalls. "I would go to the shows at the Plymouth Theater. They were vaudeville then. I got the idea of dancing sitting there watching the stage acts. I got the idea that either I wanted to be a dancer, singer or something like that. I started doing both. My sister's husband used to be an old-time dancer. He'd kick us in the feet to learn the time-step. The time-step and the buck-and-wing dance."

Walley says he also would head down to White City Park and sing and dance for nickels and dimes. A talented and precocious youngster, he also began drumming and drawing as a child. "I used to bang on swill cans out in the back of the Lilly Street lot till my dad bought me a snare drum and some sticks," he recalls. "I just did it because I liked it. I wasn't that keen into it because, at the time, I was too interested in dancing."

It was a rabbi from Temple Emmanuel, where his father was a caretaker, who helped Walley along on the visual arts side of the development. "Rabbi Olen was the one that sent me to art school. He saw me sketching. There was an art school where the old Red Cross building was -- I used to go up there. I kept going to school until I couldn't go anymore. I was too tired to go out and sing and dance and earn money. My father needed it. This was during the Depression."

Walley's professional entertainment career began in the early '30s. "I didn't start working the clubs until I was around 18," Walley recalls. "You know where the police station was on Waldo Street? That theater down there where all the strippers were? I danced down there on amateur night. Then all the bookers around Worcester got ahold of me. They started booking me around shows. Danny Duggan and Murray Brodeur -- agencies that would send me out."

Saxman Paul Kukkonen, in a 1972 interview, recalled playing the Atlas Club, a fifth-floor speakeasy on Front Street where Walley was a staff entertainer; [Reggie] was handling much of the floor show for the club. I was the band, hot and heavy at tenor sax ... We'd finish and Reggie and I would make a date to meet after four or so hours of sleep. Then we'd go fishing."

Walley worked in clubs throughout the area as well as down on the Cape. He was billed as everything from "Reggie, the Dynamite Kid," to "New England's Fred Astaire." He also performed in minstrel shows and musicals. "I did a couple in the Moffit's place," Walley says, referring to the Chicken Coop owned by the family. Mamie Moffit led one of the first jazz bands in Worcester, Mamie Moffit and her 5 Jazz Hounds. "They liked me," Walley says. They'd let me come in and they'd set me up with a nice chicken dinner." 

Mamie Moffit

Described in reviews of the time as "multitalented" and a "classy hoofer," he danced on tables, did flying splits and a stair-step dance fashioned Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. He even danced while carrying a table clenched in his teeth until someone challenged him with a marble one. "I picked it up," Walley says cracking up with laughter. "But I stopped doing that after someone said, 'What are you doing that for? You're too good a dancer for that."

Walley married his first wife, Evelyn Rickers, when he was 21. He worked during the day at Cane Furniture and danced at night until World War II broke out. He was drafted for a three-year stint in the Army and reenlisted for another two years. "I was still doing a lot of dancing [in the Army]," He recalls today. "In the first part of the war, I had a big band, a 12-piece group. I was making more money than the captain."

Walley's military career was spent in the 639th Ordinance Company, including action at the Battle of the Bulge. He served in Northern France, Normandy, Central Europe and the Rhineland, receiving the Bronze Star. After the war, he settled back into the Worcester community until he received his first of many calls to go out on the road. "I was working at the different places around," he says. "Finally, I got the offer to go away with the Helen Compton band; she was the sister of actress Betty Compton. They were an all-female band. I had a song-and-dance routine. I would come out on stage and sing: 'One Night of Love,' he says, breaking into song. "We played all over: Atlantic City, Detroit, and Philadelphia. We had girl singer that would sing Betty Boop songs. I think there was something like 12 girls. There were two other guys in the band. They were acrobats. We got around. We played the Palace Theater. Georgia Gibbs from Worcester was in the show.

Georgia Gibbs

"We had time after our show to go to other places and introduce ourselves to different entertainers, Bojangles, the Ink Spots. We just went up and sat backstage and talked with them. I was with the Compton band for around six months.”

The Compton band went the way of most big-band jazz after the war, breaking up in 1947. One of their last gigs was at the Broadway's Palace Theater in New York City. "I stayed in New York with my sister Dorothy," Walley said. "She lived in Harlem. I took a job working in a laundry underneath the George Washington Bridge. I was in New York for about five or six months."

Walley's marriage broke up as well at the time, a victim of his constant touring; and ended up staying in New York for a time. There he met his second wife, the adopted daughter of Mary McLeod Bethune, a renowned educator who advised four presidents on minority affairs and founder of the Bethune-Cookman College. The new Mrs. Walley was a chorus girl in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds, the famous show that inspired last year's Blackbirds of Broadway at Foothills Theatre.

A chorus line of Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928

The couple settled in Worcester and despite offers from a variety of touring acts, Walley says he decided to remain in the community. Combining their talents, he and his wife opened the Reggie Walley Dance Studio at 271 Main Street where they taught 300 students a week the art of dance. Reggie taught tap, modern jazz dancing, and singing. Mary taught ballet, oriental and primitive dancing. And Walley continued to entertain, many of his gigs occurring in Boston and on Cape Cod. "In the summer we would close down the studio and go to the Cape and play in the clubs. Reggie Walley always brought in the people," Mary says. "When the newspaper advertised him, you couldn't get standing room only."

Mary and Reggie
He worked at the Skylark in Hyannis, the Mill Hill Club in Yarmouth, and singing with pianist Al Vega at the Casino in Falmouth Heights. Some of the acts he headlined were called Reggie's Famous Rhythm Masters and Reggie Walley and his Calypso Band. He played local venues such as the Top Hat in Webster, the Peacock Club in Auburn, The Red Top in Shrewsbury, the Golden Gate in West Brookfield, and the A&A in Westboro. He worked the Boston clubs as well. "I worked the Slaves, the High-Hat, Walley's Paradise and all the places up there on Massachusetts Ave., Reggie recalled. "One of the brothers announced me and says, 'Now, as you know our name is Walley, but we've got another Walley. And he's no relative.' Everybody laughed."

In a review of Walley, writer James Lee wrote: "Reggie Walley, one of the finest all-around entertainers Worcester has produced since I've been in town. ... That talent singer, dancer, and musician will appear at the Wells Associations "All American Night" at the Eden Gardens. It was George Wells who got Reggie his first job in show business at Vick Richardson's former Atlas Club back in the 1930s."
Sometime in the early '50s, Walley bought a drum kit, put a band together and began to perform as the Reggie Walley Trio. "Reggie always had a 'great feel,'" recalls pianist Al Mueller. "He wasn't a schooled drummer but the guy has a great sense of time. He's playing the way the music feels, not the way somebody taught him how to play. ... Basically, what he was tap dancing was transferred up to his hands."

Wally's singing also came to the fore at this time. His buttery baritone brings to mind the voice of Billy Eckstine. "I used to marvel at this guy," recalls bassist Bunny Price, "especially playing with him. Reggie was real quality. He had a good-sounding voice. ... I can't explain it ... I used to love to hear Reggie sing.

Price is the son of the late trumpeter Barney Price, another Worcester jazz legend. "I joined Reggie in '62, after my brother got drafted in the Vietnam War," Bunny says, referring to drummer Tommy Price. "We were playing everywhere, the Reggie Walley Trio. That was pianist (Johnny Catalozzi), me on bass, Reggie, and we had a blind saxophonist, Guido Grampietro. Oh man, that guy could play. He knew all the songs, all the keys. Amazing!"

In 1969, the Walleys opened the Kitty Kay Lounge at 252 Main St., an upstairs club -- now a parking lot -- next to where the Irish Times sits today. It took Walley two years to open the place. "We were the first blacks to have a bar on Main Street," Mary Walley recalled in an interview before she died. "They kept telling Reggie, in a nice way, "Why don't you go on a side street?'" The Kitty Kat was a reflection of Reggie. It was a fun place, centered on music. Friday and Saturday nights the Walley's booked traveling R&B acts that were making the rounds. 

Thursdays and Sundays were reserved for jazz jam sessions, with Walley fronting the house band. People like organist Al Arsenault, onetime Woody Herman saxophonist Jackie Stevens, Barney Price, Howie Jefferson -- another local legend -- would grace the stage. The weekly session became a proving ground for such players as Jim and Dick Odgren, Tom Herbert, Jim Arnot, Rob Marona, Gene Wolocz and Babe and Ken Pino.

One of the more memorable nights at the Kat was a tribute to Jaki Byard, the Worcester-born pianist who was one of the founders of the legendary Saxtrum Club who went on to play with Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, among others. The rented piano procured for Byard was too big to carry up the stairs, so Byard blew sax all night for the happy throngs of family and fans.

The Kitty Kat closed in 1976, and two years later, Walley opened the Hottentotte at 8 Austin Street in the former Dutch Cafe -- another recent victim of the wrecking ball. There, he continued the tradition of the Sunday-afternoon jazz jam session. The Soul Jazz Quintet was the house band, with Walley on drums, Bunny Price on bass, Mueller on piano and Nat "The Hat" Simpkins on saxophone. Other musicians frequenting the club included pianists Dick Odgren, Michael Loconsolo, Bruce Thomas, Terry Collins, and Jack Allen, guitarist Bill Vigliotti, bassists Dave Kenderian, Charles Ketter, saxophonists Sonny Benson, Ken Sawyer, Stephen Thomas, Harvey Williams, trumpeters, Barney Price, Bill Ryan, Ted Blandin, and drummer Willie Pye, among others.

The Hottentotte
The Hottentotte closed its doors in 1983. Walley stayed busy working a day job for the Massachusetts Wholesale Drug Co., and he continued to gig at night with the Soul Jazz Quintet. For a couple of years, in the mid-'80s, the band hosted a Sunday session at the Quinsigamond Elks -- better known as the "Black Elks" -- on Chandler Street. Mrs. Mary Walley died of cancer in 1987. When Barney Price died in 1988, the band never really recovered and Walley retreated from the public eye. He also worked as a security guard at the Social Security Administration, but never officially retired from the music business. Although he sold his drums, he still takes a gig here and there. He performed in January at the inaugural ball at the Worcester Art Museum and has been seen sitting in at the Sunday afternoon blues jam at Gilrein's.

Self-portrait with Barney and Bunny Price
One of the more affable people one could ever meet, Walley carries himself with dignity and distinction. Behind the sunny front-port disposition resides a man of great pride. These days, he busies himself with painting, and some of his best work is currently on display through Feb. 25 in a group exhibition at the ARTSWorcester Gallery at Quinsigamond Community College.

Walley's one-bedroom apartment is filled with his work. His latest landscape is perched on an easel in front of the television; painting of family and friends line the walls. His many portraits include paintings of Howie Jefferson, Drummer Tony Agby, and Emil Haddad and Dick Odgren. Sitting among these memories, at the end of an afternoon of remembering, he gazes out his living room window, and the light of a thousand nightclubs seems to reflect in his eyes.

"It was a good life," he says simply. "I had a wonderful family. We stuck together, very close. I worked all my life trying to be somebody. There isn't a place I can't go where somebody says, 'Hey, you're Reggie Walley.' I feel honored."

A postscript: Mark Cadigan reported on the Holy Cross tribute. "Among those commending Walley were: Kenneth Richardson, president of the Black Student Union, who read a letter from Sen. Edward Kennedy and a proclamation about Walley that was entered into the Congressional Record; Dean Jacqueline Peterson, Holy Cross vice president for student affairs, who called Walley, "a major contributor to this art-form;" and Raymond Mariano, mayor of the city of Worcester, who presented Walley with a key to the city and heralded him as, "a very special part of our city, our heritage. ... Veteran trumpeter Emil Haddad, voicing the emotions of many, commented, "It's all for Reggie, whom we love very much."

Encore and epilogue

I was fortunate enough to have worked with Reggie for four years. Our best gig was a regular Saturday night at a piano bar called O’Flaherty’s in the Cherry Valley section of Worcester. We worked opposite Emil Haddad and Dick Odgren who owned Friday nights. The weekly gig lasted three years running until the venue was sold. The regular line-up was Reggie, Bunny, myself and pianist Jim Heffernan, who played the first couple of years with us. Lou Terricciano, Matt McCabe and Al Mueller also sat in the piano chair.

The group relied heavily on material from the songbooks of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. Reggie was at his best vocally on tunes like “In My Solitude, where burnished baritone really shined. Medium tempo numbers like Harry “Sweets Edison’s “Jive at Five” and Freddy Green’s “Down for Double,” featured his rock-steady way of hard-swinging that invariably would get audiences dancing. 

The highlight of the band’s run was a sold out Jazz at Sunset concert at the Ecotarium where host Jack Wertheimer presented Reggie with a lifetime achievement award. In his acceptance speech, the grateful Mr. Walley chronicled his history in the music. We razzed him after the show reminding him that 20 minutes into his speech, he was only up to 1940. The Bluescians were supplemented that day with saxophonist Nat Simpkins and guitarist Rich Falco. Another highlight was playing on the back of a flatbed truck in urban-renewal celebration of new three-deckers built on Kilby Street. Senator Ted Kennedy was the guest speaker. 

In addition to nightclub dates, the band played what was left to the general business dates in Worcester. We played wedding and bar mitzvahs, dances at PNI club and private parties at the Black Elks. A couple of special dates included opening for the Drifters one year, and the Platters another at the African-American Festival, hosted by the Henry Lee Willis Center at Temple Emmanuel. Reggie was in great form on those show and none other than Herb Reed let him know it.

The Bluescians with Matt McCabe on piano
The Bluescians played the Castle Restaurant every summer and were in regular rotation at Gilrein’s, including a memorable New Year’s Eve celebration. At Gilrein’s we would usually add a guitarist to give us more of the blues flavor. We used a rotation of local players, Dan Hunt, Dwight Perry, and Troy Gonyea. Whether it was at Tuckerman Hall uptown or a downtown honky-tonk, Reggie was always impeccably dressed in a suit and tie – the consummate professional. He had an infectious smile -- even though as Sam Lay once said of Sonny Boy Williamson – “He looked like he swallowed a mouth full of firecrackers” -- the aftermath of picking up too many tables from years of tap dancing.

Yours, Nat Simpkins, Reggie, and Dan Hunt

Reggie’s last gig was at Point Breeze in Webster. After the first set he complained of having cramps in his legs. The next day he was hospitalized and after examinations, it was discovered that cancer metastasized throughout his body. He died eight days later. He was 87.

A fundraiser was organized to help defray the cost of burying the man. It was held at WPI and WICN’s great jazz programmer Joe Zupan hosted the show. More than 300 people showed up and almost as many musicians graced the stage in tribute. 

One of the many regrets I have in my life is that I never got to record with him. He was my mentor whose memory continues to inspire. Thanks, Reg. Rest in eternal peace.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Rhythm of the 54th

By David "Chet" Williamson Sneade

He is often called the “original drummer-boy” of the Civil War, who after his military stint, settled in Worcester.  

At the impressionable age of 13, Alexander "Alex" Howard Johnson, was so moved by the hanging of the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown, that he took to the streets to play for his memory.

A member of the famed 54th infantry, Johnson’s likeness could be one of the drummers cast in bronze in the memorial dedicated to his commanding officer, Col. Robert G. Shaw. The monument stands on Beacon Street at the Boston Commons just across the way from the Massachusetts State House. The troop was immortalized in the film Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, and Morgan Freeman. 

Note: Although Johnson himself claims the likeness, the sculptor used models for his subjects and there were other drummers in the 54th. According to regimental history and service records, there were five drummers who enlisted among the ranks of the 54th. They were Johnson (March 2, 1963), Samuel Sufphay (February 18, 1863), John Wright (February 25, 1863), and Henry Monroe (February 26, 1863). In his book, African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album, Ronald S. Coddington noted that a Charles Draper was not listed as a musician, but "worked as a drummer in Philadelphia before he enlisted on February 23."


The Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Johnson was not born here, but he resided in Worcester for more than 60 years and although his life in antebellum is largely forgotten, his contributions to the local music scene should not go unrecognized. At the time of his death in 1930, it was reported that he was among the best drummers in the state.

After the war, Johnson moved to Worcester from his hometown of New Bedford and organized the city’s first drum corps. In a 1923 article in the Worcester Sunday Telegram, Johnson is quoted saying: “It surely was heard from. It had 22 pieces, all snare drums, except one and that was a bass drum.

“We were stopped from practicing on Main Street halls because the noise was something terrific and we used to make things shake so that things were shaken off the shelves in the stores… .”
A Civil War drum like the one Johnson played.

Johnson’s drumming style was derived from the military marching traditions of the 19th Century. He played loud and proud. “I have beaten a drum in about all the big parades for years,” he said. “I have played for all the Worcester military companies.”

One local writer said that whenever there was a grand parade in Worcester, people turn to listen and before they could see who was playing the rhythmic rolling of a drum, would say, “Here comes Major Johnson.”

He never rose to that rank in the military, but after the war he always wore a military cap around town. People eventually started calling him, "The Major." It stuck. 

Major Alexander Howard Johnson
In a 1920 article in the Sunday Telegram, Johnson said, “Nowadays, I teach others how to play the drum. One of my pupils is a grandson of mine, James E. Landers, the drummer at the High School of Commerce. And there are many others.”

The writer said, “there is hardly a drummer who marches the streets of Worcester who has not received instruction from him.”

Johnson was an elder statesman at the time of the 1920 interview. “I may be more than 70 years old, but I can drum with the best of ‘em,” he said. The author of the piece added, “This drummer, who despite his years, can drum with such vigor and nerve, is a familiar figure. Everybody knows him.”

From the collection of Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester MA

Early drum teachers did not teach style. They taught rudiments and technique. When Johnson was coming up, American music reflected the melting pot of its population. And the inertia that wrought jazz was just taking shape.

Warren “Baby” Dodds was one of the first great drummers in jazz and considered by many to be the "Father of Jazz Drumming." "We played what was later called ragtime," Dodds said, "but then it was called syncopation."

For dance parties, Dodds said the band played a popular Creole repertoire. They played low-down blues with a Spanish tinge, Tin Pan Alley tunes, folk songs, as well as cakewalks, mazurkas, polkas, quadrilles, two steps, and light Europe Classical favorites.

Based out of the G.A.R. Hall, which was first located at Brinley Hall at 344 Main Street and later in the Bull Mansion at 55 Pearl Street, Johnson's Drum Corps played gigs that were typical of marching bands of the day. In addition to all the parades, they played political rallies and reunions, circuses and carnivals, county fairs and holiday parties, and vaudeville. And given the fact from the 1830s to 1900 minstrel shows were the most popular forms of entertainment in the country, Johnson’s drums could also have been heard on such a stage.  

Early home of the GAR Hall was located in Brinley Hall, 344 Main Street. Built in the 1830s, it was also the site of the first (or second) National Women’s Rights Convention in 1850.

Johnson playing on the streets of Worcester. 

Interior of the GAR in Brinley Hall
Bull Mansion, 55 Pearl Street

By 1920, the hot music of jazz was sweeping across the country and it is only conjectured to think that Johnson may have played the new music. However, it is certainly possible that his students were involved. Worcester bands and their drummers such as Boots Ward and the Nitehawks and Mamie Moffitt and her 5 Jazz Hounds undoubtedly knew of Johnson’s expertise.

Johnson was also there when the first drum kits were taking shape, although it is not known if he ever sat behind a trap set. The evolution of the drum set developed from marching bands.   

Baby Dodds talks about first playing the snare drum with sticks. He eventually added a bass drum with rope-tension, a foot pedal, and cymbal. He added color with an array of woodblocks.

Johnson had the good fortune to have two drum shops in his neighborhood. In 1896, George Bemis of Worcester developed and patented a new type of snare drum and manufactured them with some degree of success before losing his shop to a fire.

Early Walberg & Auge kit

Established in 1903, Walberg and Auge began “as a musical instrument repair and manufacturing company that made band instruments such as drums, bells, xylophones, and traps."  

The company has recently been resurrected and according to its website, “during the nativity of Jazz, W&A innovated and manufactured many components which consist of the "Modern Drum Set" we know today. Ex: W&A innovated and manufactured the first high hat stand, drum throne, clamping basket snare stand, and much more.”

Low boy cymbal pedal manufactured by Walberg & Auge

In moving to Worcester, Johnson also found family and community. In 1869, the same year of his arrival, he married a city girl, Miss Mary A. Johnson (no relation). The couple had 17 children. Unfortunately, many died in childbirth. Alex came to town with a boyhood friend and fellow conscript of the 54th, Emery Phelps.

According to New Bedford writer, Earl F. Mulderink, Phelps reported that he saw Johnson two or three times a week at their Grand Army of the Republic, Post 10, at 55 Pearl Street. He and Johnson remained steadfast friends throughout their lives. “They maintained active memberships in their local GAR post,” Mulderink said. “[They] worked together for twenty years, and knew intimate details of Johnson’s medical complaints.

Frederick Douglass
Note: There were also at least a dozen men of color who enlisted into the 54th from Worcester. Before the war, this city was a town of abolitionists. Abby Kelley Foster is probably best known for her part in the underground railroad, aiding runaway slaves. Cambridge-born author and Unitarian Minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who led this city's Free Church, was a member of the Secret Six that financed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Frederick Douglass, the great black orator of his generation, addressed crowds at City Hall on the evils of slavery. He was joined by John Brown.
John Brown
Johnson talked about Brown’s impact on his life. (By the way, two of Douglass' sons were members of the 54th.)

“I was only a little fellow then, and I had a little drum,” Johnson said. “I recall what a stir there was when John Brown was hanged. People said he died a martyr to the cause of abolition. There was a crowd that turned out in New Bedford, and I remember a big colored man in a red shirt stood out on the balcony and rolled his drum. And I stood down in the street and rolled my little drum too.”
Johnson plays his drum on the streets of Worcester, circa 1900
Johnson was born in New Bedford on April 23, 1846. He lived there until the war when he enlisted in the 54th at the age of 17. According to a 1907 Sunday Telegram feature on the drummer, Johnson’s “parents were of the Narragansett Indian tribe, but the major was adopted by a colored man, according to his family."

William Henry Johnson
Johnson's father by adoption was William Henry Johnson who lived to be 98 years of age.” Note: W.H. Johnson was the second black lawyer from Massachusetts to join the bar.  

According to author Thomas Doughton, much is known about Johnson especially through his marriage to Mary Ann Johnson, who was of Nipmuc Indian heritage. “Hepsibeth Hemenway, whose portrait is at the Worcester Historical Museum, was her grandmother and hundreds of folks in Worcester are descended from this family.”

Young Alexander learned to play the drum at the age of 6 years and “his ability made his enlistment an easy matter. He was regarded as one of the best drummers in the army,” noted the Telegram.

Throughout history musicians have played an important role on the battlefield, especially drummers, according to an unnamed source at the American Civil War website:

"Each company in an infantry regiment had a musician who was usually a drummer. They were relied upon to play drum beats to call the soldiers into formation and for other events. Drums got the soldiers up in the morning, signaled them to report for morning roll call, sick call, and guard duty. Drummers also played at night to signal lights out or 'taps.' The most important use of drums was on the battlefield where they were used to communicate orders from the commanding officers and signal troop movement. Civil War drums were made of wood that had been cut into thin layers, steamed, and formed into a round shell. The outside of a Union drum was often painted and featured a large eagle displaying its wings with the stars and stripes flowing around it. Confederate drums were not quite as fancy, many just having a plain wood finish. The heads of the drum were made from calfskin and stretched tight by ropes.”

It is somewhat ironic that an African-American drummer whose ancestors were not allowed to play drums for fear of insurrection is now asked to direct traffic on the battlefield in the war against slavery. Writer Megan Sullivan in her Cornell dissertation puts it succinctly saying: “Music was critical in the organization of early slave uprisings. When brought to America, drums were used as they had been in Africa: for communication. Using drums to spread messages in a rhythmic language undeciphered [sic] by Whites, slaves could orchestrate revolts on land and on slave ships as well.”
Members of the 54th Regiment 
Johnson’s military career is well-documented. He participated in the battles of Oulstee, Honey Hill, Boykins Mills, James Island, Fort Wagner, and Sherman’s “March to the Sea.”
Young Alex Johnson
Before leaving Boston to march among the ranks of the 54th, Col. Edward M. Hollowell presented Johnson with a brass drum. 

He carried it throughout his military career. It was hit six times and Johnson himself was once shot in the leg.

The battle of Fort Wagner helped turn the tide towards victory for the Union Army. Johnson recalled the siege to a Telegram reporter. It was the 54th first engagement.

“We fought from 7 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon, and we succeeded in driving the enemy back, he said. "After the battle we got a paper saying that if Fort Wagner was charged within a week it would be taken.

“We marched all night and reached Folly Island the next afternoon at about 4 o’clock. Most of the way we were singing, Col. Shaw and I marching at the head of the regiment. It was getting dark as we crossed the bridge to Morris Island. It was about 6:30 o’clock when we got there.

“Col. Shaw ordered me to take a message back to the quartermaster at the wharf, who had charge of the commissary. I took the letter by the first beat as ordered, and when I returned I found the regiment lying down, waiting for order to charge. The orders to charge was given at 7:30 o’clock.

“Before he gave that order, Col. Shaw asked the boys if they would stand by him. “We will, father,” they yelled. They always called him father.” He then gave the order to rise and charge bayonets at a double-quick.

“It was a hard fight, lasting until 5 o’clock in the morning. We lost our good colonel. We went into the battle with 1200 men and came out with less than 300. Sargent William H. Carney, the hero of the regiment is now a messenger at the statehouse in Boston. [Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor. It is reported for “grabbing the U.S. flag as the flag bearer fell, carrying the flag to the enemy ramparts and back, and singing, ‘Boys, the old flag never touched the ground.’]
William H. Carney
“We were told that there was a price on the head of every colored man before we fought the battle of Honey Hill. The Union men were forced to retreat and our regiment was left to hold back the enemy, while others were retreating. We went through a dress parade and after the others had got enough away we retreated in the woods.

“We then went to Jacksonville, Florida and a little while later to Charleston, doing guard duty. Finally, we went to Mt. Pleasant, where we remain until we were discharged.”  

Three flags of the 54th

Johnson lived at two known addresses in Worcester. “For 32 years in the house at 69 Central Street during which time we had 18 landlords,” he said. Johnson died in his other home at 21 Orchard Street, March 19, 1930. "The drum carried by Johnson at Wagner remained in his possession as late as 1907," wrote Coddington, adding, that there is no reason to doubt he still owned it upon his death at 83.

From the collection of Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester MA

The Telegram reported that at the funeral “Edward James Foster, National Commander-in-chief of the GAR was present. The Captain Thornton Parker Fife, Drum and Bugle Corps, headed by Bartlett E. Towne, and an escort of police, marched with the body to the grave. Burial was in the family lot in Hope Cemetery.”

The Union dead at Hope Cemetery in Worcester

Special thanks to Librarian/Archivist, Robyn Conroy of the Worcester Historical Museum for her kind assistance in the development of this work and Debra Faust-Clancy for proofreading.

This is a work in progress. Send all comments, corrections, and suggestions to: Thanks for taking the time. I appreciate it.


Robert Lowell’s poem: For the Union Dead
Three Places in New England by composer Charles Ives is based on the Col. Robert Shaw monument and the 54th.

Roster of the 54th --

Clips from the film, Glory