Conrad O. “Prof” Johnson, celebrated bandleader, educator, music producer, and musician, was born on November 15, 1915, in Victoria, Texas. The family moved to San Antonio and then settled in Houston when Johnson was nine years old. When he was a boy of twelve, he participated in a sales promotion for a skin product in which if he sold a dozen cans of salve he would receive a saxophone. Johnson quickly met his sales quota but to his surprise was sent a toy saxophone. Nevertheless he learned the rudiments of the instrument, and this experience sparked his ambition to be a musician.
He attended Jack Yates High School and played in the school band. His father, a dentist by profession but also an accomplished trumpet player, flutist, and vocalist, was the school’s bandleader. After graduation, Johnson played saxophone and clarinet in various clubs all over Houston. Inspired by the orchestras and musicians of the big band era, Johnson was influenced by musical notables such as Count Basie, Jimmy Withersmith, Duke Ellington, and Lester Young. Around Houston, he performed with other up-and-coming jazz greats including Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb. Johnson attended Houston College and then went on to Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. After attending Wiley he did some studies at the University of Southern California before returning to Texas to do post-graduate work at Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University).
He was hired as a band director at Carnak, Texas, in 1941. Thus began a career that spanned almost four decades. Because of a lack of classroom space at the school, Johnson taught the marching band in an old Chevrolet bus. He later taught at Booker T. Washington High School in Houston, where he also taught jazz band.
During the 1940s and 1950s Johnson also continued to perform in big band, jazz, and later blues groups, and he earned a considerable reputation as a writer and producer. He was hired to write and produce blues recordings for a company called Freedom Records. His rhythm-and-blues band, known as Connie’s Combo, included budding funk musicians Leon Spencer and Melvin Sparks. His musicianship and professionalism caught the attention of major figures in big band and jazz. The Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, for example, asked Johnson to go on the road, but Johnson, by this time married and with four children, preferred to stay rooted in Houston and devote his talents to teaching his band students.
By 1969 he left Booker T. Washington High School and took a job at Kashmere Senior High School in North Houston, where he started leading the stage band. Johnson, acknowledging the popularity of soul and funk at that time, successfully melded funk rhythms with big-band jazz arrangements. As director of the Kashmere Stage Band from 1969 to 1977, Johnson, affectionately known as “Prof,” had a remarkable run of success that earned the program international respect. With their dynamic stage shows, tight arrangements, and impeccable timing, the Kashmere Stage Band won forty-two out of forty-six competitions on the local, regional, and national level. They won the title “Best Stage Band in the Nation” in 1972. They performed a variety of soul, jazz, and big band selections. Johnson himself wrote some of their best-loved songs, including “Lost Love,” “Zero Point,” and their showcase piece “Kashmere.” During the course of Johnson’s tenure, the Kashmere Stage Band recorded eight albums produced by Johnson beginning with the LP Our Thing in 1969. They were released on Johnson’s own label, Kram Records. They played concerts and festivals throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan. Johnson’s knowledge of jazz, along with the art of performance and the techniques of the studio, provided invaluable experience to his students—predominantly African-American teenagers. Some of his pupils went on to be respected professional musicians in their own right, but a majority of students made their livelihoods in other careers.
Johnson retired by 1978 but continued to teach Houston schoolchildren through private tutoring and summer workshops. In 2000 he was inducted into the Texas Bandmasters Hall of Fame, where his profile described him as “perhaps the most widely recognized and beloved music educator in Houston.” His albums of the Kashmere Stage Band achieved legendary status for record collectors and eventually led to the release of a compilation of their recordings titled Texas Thunder Soul 1968–1974 on Now Again Records in 2006. In his honor, Kashmere High School named their Conrad O. Johnson School of Fine Arts after him.
At the beginning of 2008 alumni of the Kashmere Stage Band gathered to rehearse for two reunion concerts to honor their “Prof” Johnson and to raise funds for the Conrad Johnson Music and Fine Arts Foundation and its proposed Conrad Johnson Interactive Center. With much fanfare, the Kashmere Stage Band performed at Kashmere High School on February 1, 2008, for their delighted “Prof”—ninety-two-year-old Johnson in attendance. Even though Johnson had been hospitalized for a heart attack several days earlier, he was able to attend the festivities. They performed a second concert on February 2 at a Houston club. Los Angeles film director Mark Landsman filmed the concerts as part of a planned documentary about Johnson’s life and the band. The weekend ended with Johnson’s meeting with Now Again Records owner Eothen “Egon” Alapatt to discuss the release of future anthologies. Conrad Johnson died later that day on February 3, 2008. Alapatt later wrote, “He received one hell of a send off.”
Landsman’s documentary on Johnson and the Kashmere Stage Band, titled Thunder Soul, made its world premiere in Austin in 2010 at the South by Southwest Film Festival. The film won an Audience Award at SXSW and also garnered awards at other independent film festivals. After the reunion concerts in 2008, members of the Kashmere Stage Band reformed under the directorship of alumna Jimmy Walker as the Kashmere Reunion Stage Band and performed regularly at various Kashmere High School events.