Bill Johnson (b 1932 d. circa 2012) from Augusta, Georgia, was raised singing in church. At 14 years started his secular path with local groups, setting up his own gospel group called The Four Harmonisers. Within a couple of years left school and formed The Four Steps of Rhythm, playing locally around Georgia. They performed for five years. In 1959 Johnson recorded a solo 45 in Memphis called “Bobaloo” (Sun 340) , a rousing rockabilly / early blues number and a couple of years later the very clearly Little Richard influenced “You Better Dig it” (Talos 45-402). Both failed to chart.
In 1962, Bill travelled north to sing lead vocal for the Clarence Perry and the Soul Brothers at the Orbit Lounge in New Jersey. There he met Sam Gary who had joined the band as guitarist. Bill realised he had vocal talent too, and eventually they paired up.
Around this time, Johnny Nash was setting up Joda Records. In the mid to late 1950s, Nash originally a Houston native, had made a name for himself as a singer with ABC paramount and had also appeared in a couple of films. Around 1965 he set up Joda in New York with Danny Sims, owner of the Hemisphere Attractions booking agency in the city. Nash saw the potential in Sam and Bill, and after signing, started the label with “For Your Love” / “Beautiful Baby” (Joda J-100). “For Your Love”, an Ed Townsend penned number, reached #14 (R&B Charts). Unconfirmed reports suggest that Roscoe Robinson played guitar on this session. Joda’s lifespan lasted seven 45s, providing a platform not only for Sam and Bill, who had a further release with “Fly me to the Moon” / “Treat Me Right” (Joda J-104), but also for Johnny Nash himself and a couple of other local artists.
Sam and Bill’s second release for Joda in 1966 was a minor hit but didn’t do quite as well (#38; R&B Charts), despite European and UK distribution. In the end Joda was short-lived, folding after only two years. Johnny Nash’s most lucrative years lay ahead with his now famous change in musical direction, following a number of visits to Jamaica in the latter half of the decade. Billboard archives discussing changes in label distribution deals indicated that Sam and Bill were due to be signed to Washington DC’s Jet Set label in late 1966. This never materialised. Possibly because of faltering success, Sam and Bill split as a singing duo. Around this point in time Bill released “You Got Soul” / “It Never Gonna Die” (Jocida C-301). Sam Gary decided to rejoin The Soul Brothers as their guitarist.
This was to mark the second major stage in the career of Sam and Bill, albeit with a subtle change in line up. Whilst the details are unclear, Bill relocated to the south. He found another singing partner by the name of Sam Davis Jnr. from Winston-Salem NC (b. 1940 d. 2003). Davis had been a member of two groups, The Invaders and Sammy and the Two Jays, and had gigged all over the state and beyond including Washington and Alabama. Sam Davis had been a mutual friend of Sam Gary and Bill for a couple of years prior to the split.
Bill Johnson and Sam Davis first collaborated in 1967 producing "I Feel Like Cryin’ " and "I'll Try" (Decca 32143) in a recording studio Greensboro. Local musicians were used. Little Mac, also known as Willy or Bill McDougal, and later as Billy Mack after a move to NY, was a blind vocalist and organ player, known to the rare soul scene for “Don’t Turn Away” (Kinard IR 2318) and “Too Much” (Philips 40301). On the Sam and Bill session he played keyboards.
Other musicians reported to be present were Fred Tanner, Robert Tanner, Bill Bright and Joe Nathan. Fred Douglass Tanner was an independent arranger, producer and manager was likely present in that capacity rather than, or as well as, a musician. Fred had paired up with Tony Pone, a former employee of Decca in 1967 to set up WABS Publishing Company with offices on 3695 Kinghill Drive in Winston-Salem, NC. William H. Brigh(t) was also associated with WABS Publishing; a 1976 university thesis discussing the history of US black college bands reveals that he was a piano player at Winston-Salem State University.
Several name variations and pseudonyms associated with Tanner have appeared on label writing and production credits including Fred Tanner (linked to the Kinard release by Willy McDougal), Doug Tanner and intriguingly “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. In The BMI Repertoire online database, two dozen songs including “I’ll Try” and “I Feel Like Crying” are listed against a Fred Douglass Tanner. He was also involved in producing some of Patti Austin’s material on Coral such as “Too Much a Part of Me” (Coral 62531); and also Drifter member Chuck Cockerham’s ultra rare “Have I Got a Right” for Mala (M-12036). Tanner is credited with writing “I’ll Try”. The song was also released in the US, Canada, continental Europe and the UK (Brunswick 05973). An outing on the DEC label by The Friends is reported to be a West Indian bootleg of the Decca 45.
Label evidence indicates that Sam and Bill’s second Decca single “I Need Your Love To Comfort Me” / “Trying To Get Back To My Baby” (Decca 32200) in 1967 came from the same session or series of sessions at Greensboro. The top side is another quality deep soul side, backed by a more uptempo dancer. This 45 also sold in Canada and Spain (Decca ME355). Possibly on the back of international sales or to promote both releases, Sam and Bill did undertake a UK tour. A review in Soul Music magazine described them as an energetic pair who provided a very physical show, with a performance on a par with James Brown. Their live repertoire included their Decca releases as well as covers of other R&B artists and soul duo hits. According to Davie Gordon, member of the Soulful Detroit online forum, whilst on tour in late 1967 the act reported that they were in the middle of recording tracks for a forthcoming album. The project was not completed. To the author’s knowledge no unissued material has surfaced in a later format.
After this, all went quiet on the recording front, until appearing in 1970 on the Walden brother’s Capricorn label. Phil Walden had been Otis Redding’s manager throughout his career. Following Otis’ untimely demise, Phil and Alan Walden and Frank Fenter (previously head of Atlantic’s UK office and the man responsible for organising the European Stax tour) formed Capricorn Records in Macon, Georgia in 1969. With the help of the Jerry Wexler / Atlantic business relationship they had established during their time with Otis, Capricorn ultimately became known as the label which spawned the development southern rock with The Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and others. However, the initial half dozen 45s released were R&B acts including Oscar Toney Jnr., Johnnie Jenkins, Jackie Avery – and Sam and Bill with “Things I’d do” / “Who Will It Be” (Capricorn C-8001). Both sides of their 45 were written and produced by Avery, originally from Louisiana, who was essentially a staff writer and occasional artist at the Macon studio.
Their last release in 1971 was for the short lived House of the Fox. Label owner Lelan Rogers was the older brother of Kenny Rogers. Unlike Capricorn - and relatively unusual for a Nashville label in the early 1970s - the artist roster consisted entirely of black acts, mainly providing funk tracks such as Little Johnny Blair’s uptempo “Momma’s Gone” and a few from Maceo and All The Kings Men (saxophonist Maceo Parker and other band members had temporarily split from James Brown’s entourage at this point). Sam and Bill’s “Come On Show Me” (House of the Fox HOF-9) was not issued however, existing as DJ copies only.
The personal histories of Bill Johnson and Sam Davis from this point on is largely unknown. There appears to be no further recordings by them either as a duo or as solo acts. The 1974 soul rarity by Bobby Rich “There’s a Girl Somewhere (For Me)” recorded at Reflection Sound Studios in Charlotte NC, was co-written and produced by Sam Gary. Although it remains unconfirmed whether this is the first Sam, he did originate from Columbia SC, so the link is plausible. Sam Davis Jnr. died from cancer in Augusta, Georgia in 2003. Bill Johnson passed away more recently, and is survived by his son in Queensland, Australia.
Sam and Bill is a chapter excerpt from "Rhythm Message" a book by E. Mark Windle. Available to order in the new book section.