The Recordings of Ken Snakehips Johnson

The West Indian Orchestra
The West Indian Orchestra

Following the news that a rare recording of Ken Snakehips Johnson was to be played at Jumpin' At The Woodside 2000, Swing Time got on the case to find out what other gems may have been left in the legacy of Britain's only black swing bandleader. Huge thanks to Andrew Simons, Jazz Curator at The National Sound Archive, Malcolm Laycock of the BBC, Nigel Bewley and John Wright for the information that they have provided.

Snakehips Johnson recordings are rare, and these days only appear on compilation albums and CDs. Even then, you are only likely to find one or two tracks such as Exactly Like You, The Sheik of Araby, Snakehips Swing, Tuxedo Junction and It Was a Lover and His Lass.  This is because he only recorded sixteen titles in all, four for Decca and twelve for HMV. This would be deemed an insufficient number nowadays to fill up a CD, when people expect around two dozen tracks on what would be seen as a 'nostalgia collection'.

The full list of tracks recorded by Ken Johnson and his West Indian Orchestra is as follows:

Track Title Composer Notes
1 Exactly Like You Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh Up-tempo number with vocals by the Orchestra
2 Snakehips Swing Adrian de Haas Fast, swinging instrumental
3 The Sheik Of Araby Smith/Wheeler/Snyder Swinging instrumental version
4 My Buddy Donaldson Joe Deniz plays Hawaiian guitar
5 Seventeen Candles Strauss/Dale/Miller Slow bluesy number sung by Don Johnson
6 I'm In Love For The Last Time Parker/Charles Sprightly tune sung by Don Johnson and Orchestra
7 Goodnight, My Beautiful Yellen-Fain Joe Deniz's Hawaiian guitar leads a slow number sung by Don Johnson, 
8 Give Me My Ranch Costello/Uranga Fast, 'cowboy' feel sung by Don Johnson and ensemble
9 A Small Cafe By Notre Dame Annie Mills Slow swing with vocals by Don Johnson
10 Careless Quadline/Howard/Jurges Medium-paced swing sung by Don Johnson
11  Tuxedo Junction Erskine Hawkins Excellent fast version with solo by Carl Barriteau
12 Ida Leonard Fast swing and ensemble vocal
13 Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind Shakespeare/Arthur Young Swinging backing track with vocals by Al Bowlly and The Henderson Twins
14 It Was A Lover And His Lass Shakespeare/Arthur Young Lively medium-paced swing with vocals by Al Bowlly and The Henderson Twins
15 It's A Blue World Wright/Forest Slow, clarinet-led number sung by Don Johnson
16 Sing A Round-up Song 'Yippy-I-Yay' Box/Cox/Noel/Pelosi Swinging little number sung by Don Johnson and the orchestra

Ken's Snakehips Swing appeared on Decca's double LP And The Bands Played On (DDV 5001/2). It also can be found on the similarly-titled And The Bands Played On (MOR 529), which is a single album but with a different track listing. According to Malcolm Laycock, the quality of the transfer to record in both cases is not good. The best quality reproduction is the 1998 transfer to CD by John R.T. Davies which was issued to accompany the Marshall Cavendish part-work series Jazz Greats (049) entitled Jazz In Britain.

The original 78 rpm disc of Snakehips Swing, the track played by Gary Boon on Saturday night at Jumpin' At The Woodside 2000, is DECCA F 6854.  It was composed by Adrian de Hass and almost certainly recorded in London's Decca Studios on 22 September 1938. The matrix number of the record was DR 2940-2. The prefix '2' means that it was the second take of the recording session that was used. The record was first released in November 1938. Since then, it has been made available on the albums DECCA MOR 529, DECCA DDV 500 and the LONDON RECDL 16 album entitled Dancing The Night Away.

See August 2000 News for details of two newly-discovered songs.

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