The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

Singer breaks color barrier in music

By Isaiah Smith/reporter
   One of the most important recording artists in black history is an almost forgotten pioneer.
   George W. Johnson paved the way for such artists as Aretha Franklin and Alicia Keys by breaking the color barrier in the 1890s.
   Though records are spotty, it is estimated that Johnson was born around 1855 into a life of slavery on a Virginia plantation.
   According to legend, Thomas A. Edison discovered Johnson in 1889 while Johnson was whistling on the Staten Island Ferry. In a photograph of 42 of Edison’s recording artists, taken in 1900, Johnson is the only black.
   Johnson was selected for recordings because of his booming voice and rich tone, which was necessary to the recording process. Technology limited recording to a maximum of five copies at a time by having the artist sing into five recording horns at once. By 1984, Johnson had sold more than 25,000 records recorded in this way.
   According to a report in the 1906 Music Trades Review, Johnson once sang the same song 56 times in one.
   “ His laugh had as much merriment in it at the conclusion as when he started,” the review said.
   His most popular recordings, considered comedy at the time, were filled with derogatory slurs toward blacks. Even the titles would be censored today.
   “ The Laughing Song,” one of his tamer songs, featured his laughing robustly during the chorus. Johnson made a habit of using simple sounds in his music. For example, in “The Whistling Mockingbird,” Johnson displays his skills as he whistles the entire song.
   Johnson also performed in vaudeville. During this stint on the vaudeville circuit, he met up with Len Spencer, another vaudeville star of the day. Spencer hired Johnson to be his valet and eventually the two of them recorded a few songs together.
   Life did have ups and downs for Johnson. In the 1890s, he was arrested and charged with the murder of his third wife.
   Two wives prior to this last one had met with violent deaths, so when the third wife met with a violent death in New York, the police became suspicious. However, Johnson was acquitted upon recommendation by the district attorney, Victor Emerson, former manager of Columbia’s recording department, said in a 1907 Columbia Salesman article.
   The trial did not affect Johnson’s career. During his time as an artist, he recorded for three different labels releasing several different versions of “The Laughing Song,” including versions featuring Spencer.
   Johnson died in 1914.
   According to www.wikipedia. org, rumor said he was either lynched in a racially motivated hate crime or executed for the alleged murder of his third wife.
   In reality, he died of natural causes while employed by Spencer as a doorman at the Lyceum Theater in Manhattan.
   However stereotypical his music might have been, George W. Johnson had a large impact on blacks entering the recording industry.

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