Today, most music fans have never heard of George W. Johnson. Asked to name the first black singing star, even knowledgeable collectors will typically cite Bert Williams, the 1910s Broadway star, or Mamie Smith, the diva who kicked off the 1920s blues craze with “Crazy Blues.” But Johnson was making and selling tens of thousands of records – cylinders, mostly – three decades before Miss Smith conjured her magic, making him the direct forerunner of Bert Williams, Sammy Davis, Jr., Michael Jackson, and other performers who’ve come to be known as “superstars.”
In Johnson’s bio, tragedy trumps triumph. Born a slave on a Virginia plantation, he was forced to work within long-standing racist stereotypes, and spent most of his career singing the same song over and over and over again.
George Washington Johnson probably made his first records in 1890 for the New York Phonograph Co. and the New Jersey Phonograph Co. The following June, he began making experimental records for Edison. Orchestra leader Edward Issler provided piano accompaniment as the entertainer described as “burly and coal black” whistled and sang for two-and-a-half hours. Among the selections was one destined to become his signature tune, “The Laughing Song.” Its choruses of infectious belly laughs no doubt accounted for the enduring success of what was otherwise an egregious “coon song” typical of the minstrel era:
“As I was coming around the corner,
I heard some people say,
‘Here comes the dandy darky,
Here he comes this way.
His ears like a snowplow,
His mouth is like a trap,
And when he opens it gently,
You will see a fearful gap.’
“And when I laugh . . . [laughs uproariously]
I just can’t help from laughing . . . [laughs uproariously]
I just can’t help from laughing . . . [laughs uproariously]
“They said, ‘His mother was a princess,
His father was a prince,
And he’d been the apple of their eye,
If he had not been a quince.
But he’ll be the king of Africa
In the sweet by and by.’
And when I heard them saying it, why,
I laughed until I cried
“So now, kind friend, just listen,
To what I’m going to say.
I’ve tried my best to please you
With my simple little lay.
Now, whether you think it’s funny
Or quite a bit of chaff,
Why, all I’m going to do is
Just to end it with a laugh”
[This 1891 version of “The Laughing Song” and other Johnson tracks mentioned in this blog can be legally downloaded at http://www.archive.org/.]
In his book The Music Goes Round, Fred Gaisberg, an 1890s studio pianist who knew Johnson, described the milieu in which Johnson made his recordings: “The late nineties can be rated as the ‘high spot’ of the phonograph cylinder as an entertainer, brought about, strangely enough, through the vogue of the slot machine. Automatic Phonograph Parlors, as they were called, sprang up like mushrooms on the busy streets of most towns in the United States. They did a flourishing business for just two years, and then the craze vanished.”
With no method of duplicating cylinders available in the early 1890s, artists would re-cut a selection over and over until there was no longer a demand for that particular title. (As technology improved, master cylinders could be copied by a pantograph.) Brass bands could play into as many as ten recording horns at once, while singers with strong voices could simultaneously produce five original records. Johnson had such a voice, producing thousands of fresh takes of “The Laughing Song” and “The Whistling Coon” for the minimum scale of twenty cents a performance.
Music Trades Review reported that Johnson once sang the same song 56 times in one day, and “his laugh had as much merriment in it at the conclusion as when he started.” The U.S. Phonograph Co.’s 1894 catalog listed Johnson’s “Two Great Specialties” – “Laughing Song” and “Whistling Coon” – and claimed that “up to date, over 25,000 records of these two songs have been made by this artist, and the orders for them seem to increase instead of diminish. Mr. Johnson’s laugh is simply irresistible. Whole audiences are convulsed by simply hearing these songs reproduced. No exhibition box is complete without these two records.” Gaisberg wrote that “George achieved fame and riches with just these two titles. His whistle was low-pitched and fruity, like a contralto voice. His laugh was deep-bellied, lazy like a carefree darky.”
Although he often returned to the same themes, Johnson was no two-hit wonder. In one of the earliest examples of integration on record, he waxed the “Laughing Song Minstrel” skit with white comedians Len Spencer, Dan W. Quinn, and Billy Williams for the U.S. Phonograph Co. sometime between 1890 and 1894. He cut his first flat disks for Berliner during October 1895, singing and whistling his two most famous titles, and the following year cut “The Mocking Bird” for the label. During August 1896, Johnson’s records were listed for the first time in Columbia’s catalog, which described him as “the original whistling coon” and claimed that “The Laughing Song” and “The Whistling Coon” have “a wider sales than any other specialties ever made.” The following year Columbia and Edison issued Johnson’s “The Laughing Coon” and “Whistling Girl.” In 1898 Johnson signed an exclusive one-year contract with Columbia and recorded “The Laughing Song Minstrels” – probably meant to be read as “The Laughing Song [performed by] Minstrels” – with white performers Henry and Len Spencer.
Johnson’s songs remained popular well into the new century. Around 1905 the Edison company had him record “The Laughing Coon” and “The Laughing Song” with orchestral accompaniment. The following year, Columbia issued “The Merry Mail Man,” describing: “This jocular record depicts the postman (Len Spencer) delivering letters from door to door until he finally encounters George W. Johnson (The Laughing Coon), whose merry laugh concludes the record.” Recording manager Victor H. Emerson reported in the October 1907 issue of The Columbia Salesman that when he was finally allowed to make a new laughing song by Johnson, “our stock increased 100%.” The U.S. Everlasting Company hired Johnson in 1908 or ’09 to record yet another version of “The Laughing Song.” While the technology to produce four-minute records was well established, George usually stuck to the two-minute length of his earliest versions.
How were these early recording sessions conducted? In a 1907 interview with the San Francisco Examiner, Richard Jose, recorder of sentimental parlor tunes, was asked if there were any secret to singing into a record machine. “Secret!” exclaimed the countertenor. “It’s the most secret thing in the world – for the singer. You’re locked all alone with the band in a big bare room. Your back is to the musicians and your face to a bleak blank wall through which protrudes a solemn horn. A bell rings – one. That is to get ready, for the receiving instrument is so sensitive that if you moved your sleeve against your coat the sound would register. Somebody outside presses the button – two. The band starts the prelude, then you sing, turning neither to the right nor left, always looking and singing into that protruding horn. And you can’t even let out a breath after your last note; you must close your lips on it and wait for the little whir within the horn to cease.” The playback, added Jose, could be heard almost immediately. Jose’s experiences recording for Victor were doubtlessly similar to those of George W. Johnson.
As the 1900s unfolded, African American performers “borrowed” Johnson’s laughing routine, much to his dislike. One such instance was reported in a 1906 article in Music Trades Review: “A talking machine man tells of Johnson that he was in a Western City one day in a gallery at the theatre. A black comedian came out and did a laughing song. Johnson snorted after the first chorus. He moved about restlessly and at the end of the second verse shouted a protest. ‘You ain’t singing dat song right!’ ‘What’s the reason I ain’t?’ declared the singer from the stage angrily. ‘P’raps you can sing it better.’ ‘I sure can,’ declared Johnson. ‘Well, come down and try it.’ Johnson left the gallery, slipped into the stage entrance and took up the dare. He scored his usual success.”
On record, white recording artists were also covering his songs, notably Billy Murray and S.H. Dudley (“The Whistling Coon”) and Cal “Uncle Josh” Stewart (“The Laughing Song”). In his book, Fred Gaisberg described how Burt Shepard, a white comedian raised in New Orleans and based in England, had worldwide “million sellers” with “Whistling Coon” and “The Laughing Song.” “I brought those songs over from America, having transcribed them from memory, and taught them to Burt.” Gaisberg followed with this cryptic line: “I had acquired them from George W. Johnson, the tragic Negro who was hanged for throwing his wife out of the window when in a drunken frenzy.”
George W. Johnson hanged for murdering his spouse?! Say it ain’t so, Burt.
Victor H. Emerson, producer of some of Johnson’s later sessions, provided a different account, describing to The Columbia Salesman, October 1907, “the famous case of the State of New York versus Johnson in which he was arrested for murdering his wife. Two wives prior to this last one had met with violent deaths, and in New York when the third wife meets with a violent death, the police sometimes become suspicious, so the poor man was arrested. Johnson was always sober, industrious and gentlemanly, and nobody believed Johnson would do it on account of the risk involved.” According to Emerson, a day into the trial, the district attorney recommended Johnson’s acquittal. For decades, though, rumors persisted that Johnson had been hung for murdering his wife. Jim Walsh, whose “Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists” columns in Hobbies magazine provide much of what’s known of George W. Johnson and other artists, speculates that the arrest occurred in the 1890.s.
Fred Rabenstein, Edison’s longtime paymaster, told Jim Walsh that Johnson had actually spent his final years with his old recording partner Len Spencer in New York: “When Len opened his Lyceum he had a doorman in full regalia – he was none other than George W. Johnson (who made the old laughing song records). George was something to behold in his full dress admiral (or was it general?) uniform. It was all right for a while – George had a room at the Lyceum, but after they moved from 14th Street up to 28th Street things caught up with George. He used to run errands and always being a little short of cash he used to borrow money from clients. He never paid back and after a while he was afraid to go to some of the places. George could only do the ‘Laughing Song,’ and therefore it was hard for him to pick up extra money. Then he liked to drink. After George died Len started to clean out the room and in the closet they found remains of many lunches (bread, bottles, ham, etc.), including roaches and other livestock. Len didn’t get another doorman, but had an office boy. We understood that Len treated George all right, but was afraid to let him have much money because the ‘doorman’ would be indisposed for several days afterwards.” The exact date of Johnson’s death is unknown, but it was most likely around 1914.
While not much else is known of George W. Johnson, one thing is certain: He deserves credit for his brave and pioneering efforts in what was then a white man’s industry. Among the 42 people in a 1900 photograph of Edison recording artists, he is the only African American.
Thanks to Tim Brooks, Frederick Crane, Tim Gracyk, Dick Spottswood, and the late Jim Walsh for their contributions to this article. The pre-captioned graphics were scanned from 1971 issues of Walsh’s Hobbies – The Magazine for Collectors.