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Ken johnson Drummer for Steve Miller Dies

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Ken Johnson, blues drummer with 'punch'

March 28, 2005 9:34 AM EST

ATLANTA _ Keeping the beat chomping on his Juicy Fruit chewing gum, blues drummer Ken Johnson played behind Ike and Tina Turner as a teenager and drove the band for blues men James Cotton, Steve Miller and Kenny Neal.

With cymbals held high to accommodate his long arms _ he was the first drummer to use this setup _ he could easily be seen by his admiring audience, said Chuck Grundt of West Palm Beach, Fla., a friend since the 1970s and a musician himself.

"He was always aware of everybody else in the band. When you're the rhythm section, you really have to work with the bass player," Mr. Grundt said. '`Ken knew just when to drop the volume down and work with the lead guy and work the music. Blues goes in waves, and the drummer is the guy driving the whole process.''

Mr. Johnson was the James Cotton Blues Band drummer for 13 years, billed as Kenny ``The Snake'' Johnson. He recorded two albums with the Steve Miller Band: ``Fly Like an Eagle'' and ``Book of Dreams.''

His distinctive drumming style is so essential to the Chi-Lites' 1972 ``Oh Girl'' that they asked him to play with them when they performed at President Richard Nixon's inauguration, said his companion, Carol Elrod of Jonesboro, Ga..

Kennard Johnson, 53, died of complications from diabetes March 19 at his Jonesboro residence. The body was cremated.

It was at a Christmas parade in his native St. Louis that Mr. Johnson realized drums would be his life. ``He said the bass drum sent chills up his spine,'' Ms. Elrod said. ``He played his mama's pots and pans and got his first set of drums, Ludwigs, bright red, for his 16th birthday.''

She said his father would sneak him out of the house to play behind Ike and Tina Turner in clubs. He moved to Chicago and joined the James Cotton Blues Band in the early 1970s. After 13 years, ``he was ready for a different groove,'' Ms. Elrod said. ``He wanted to get out of the Chicago sound, which was more of a shuffle. He went to New Orleans and played with Louisiana Red.''

Ready for another challenge, he joined Kenny Neal's band in 1990. They had met in New Orleans, and Mr. Neal knew his sound ``was missing that punch that Ken Johnson had,'' Ms. Elrod said. He toured and recorded with Mr. Neal for 13 years.

``His snare work was real, real crisp,'' Mr. Grundt said. ``It was all wrist action, no pounding. His meter was impeccable. He never missed a beat. It became like a clock. It was almost hypnotic.''

Touring all over the world gave him an ongoing interest in international affairs. His most memorable trip was to Africa to perform at the request of the State Department, Ms. Elrod said.

Mr. Johnson moved to Jonesboro in 1992. When not touring or playing with local musicians Deacon Blues and Theodis Ealy, he could be found fishing, cooking ribs or frying a turkey to entertain his friends or supervising neighborhood children swimming in his pool.

``The thing that always made him feel the best was being behind those drums,'' Ms. Elrod said. The bass drum from his original bright red Ludwigs set is now a coffee table in his living room.

Survivors include two sons, Kennard Johnson of Wisconsin and Kendrick Johnson of Chicago; and a grandson.

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