Starting his musical career in the early 1900’s, Johnny St. Cyr is one of the original pioneers of jazz music. He played with the best of them; Baby Dodds, Johnny Dodds, King Oliver, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong. He is the banjo player on all of the original Hot Five, and Hot Seven recordings made by Armstrong from 1925-1927. The other Hot Seven tracks from 1928 feature banjoist Mancy Carr, and one tune with Eddie Condon.
On the Hot Five recordings made in 1925, Gut Bucket Blues and Heebie Jeebies both stand out with some funky melodic banjo parts, where Cyr primarily plays a rhythmic role in the group. His sound is notably different from other banjo music recorded in that era, as was all the music from the infamous sessions. Even keeping simple time playing chords, he has the perfect feel; it swings, it blends, it excites, it’s hot jazz banjo.
I hate to burst your bubble though, it is a banjo-guitar. 4-string players may be sad to discover, Johnny always played a 6 string banjo. He got the idea of playing banjo early on before he starting playing on riverboats in New Orleans. He took the neck off of a banjo and stuck on a guitar neck that he had made himself. It’s worth noting that Johnny St. Cyr has made some excellent recordings playing guitar as well (i.e. Boogie Woogie).
Seeing a pop star play open position guitar chords on a banjo-guitar, and then having people tell you that so-and-so plays banjo too, can leave a banjo player very dispirited. Musicians say that banjo fell out of phase when electric guitar took over, but the guitar created and developed into a whole new playing style altogether. Johnny St. Cyr played the banjo-guitar, more like a banjo, in one of the greatest bands of all time. He is the banjo player in some of the greatest recordings of American music ever made.
In 1955, Johnny moved to L.A. and in 1961 started playing on a riverboat, much like he had in his early days. This time the boat was the Mark Twain, floating around the Frontierland section of Disneyland where he played until the year he died in 1966. There are not many videos of Johnny St. Cyr, but enjoy this 10 minute video of Louis Armstrong visiting Johnny and Kid Ory on the boat in 1962.