George W. Johnson: African-American Recording Pioneer

George Johnson

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The most important African-American recording artist of the 1890s, George W. Johnson was a former Virginia plantation slave. His most famous record was "The Laughing Song," written by minstrel performer Sam Devere. Its choruses of infectious belly laughs no doubt accounted for the enduring success of what was otherwise a fairly standard "coon song" with piano accompaniment:

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,
And when I laugh . . .

I just can't help from laughing . . .
I just can't help from laughing . . .

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

Like other African American entertainers of the era, George was forced to work within long-standing racist stereotypes, and he deserves credit for his brave and pioneering efforts in what was then a white man's industry. Among 42 artists in a 1900 photograph of Edison recording artists, Johnson is the only African American (this photo appeared in the January 1971 issue of Hobbies).

In the British publication of his book The Music Goes Round, Fred Gaisberg, who had worked as a studio pianist during the 1890s and 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."

Since no method of duplicating cylinders was available in 1890, artists would recut a selection over and over until there was no longer a demand for that particular title. As technology improved, the master cylinders were sometimes copied by a pantograph. Brass bands could play into as many as ten horns at once, while singers with strong enough 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. According to a 1906 report in Music Trades Review, he 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."

According to Gaisberg, "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." Within a decade of Johnson's first releases, white recording artists were covering his songs. Returning to England, Gaisberg transcribed copies of Johnson's recordings and taught them to Burt Shepard, who rerecorded them and enjoyed strong sales in Japan, China, Africa, and India. Stateside, Billy Murray and S.H. Dudley covered "The Whistling Coon," and Cal "Uncle Josh" Stewart recut "The Laughing Song."

By 1894 Johnson had recorded a version of "Laughing Song" with white performers Len Spencer, Dan W. Quinn, and Billy Williams, released as New Jersey Phonograph Co. Minstrel Record No. 6. A later Spencer & Williams Minstrels version, Columbia cylinder 13004, also featured Johnson along side Spencer and Williams.

Johnson cut his first 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 special-ties ever made." The following year Columbia and Edison issued Johnson's "The Laughing Coon" and "Whistling Girl," and in 1898 Johnson signed an exclusive one-year contract with Columbia.

Johnson waxed yet another "Laughing Song Minstrel" skit with white comedians, released as a 7-inch Columbia disc (644-2). "Laughing Song Minstrels" was probably meant to be read as "The Laughing Song [performed by] Minstrels." In true minstrel style, the performance began with Mr. Interlocutor announcing, "Gentlemen, be seated," followed by clattering castanets, a numbskull comedy exchange in pseudo Negro dialogue, and a patriotic conundrum asking why the "stars and stripes" are like the stars in heaven ("why, because, sir, it's beyond the power of any nation on earth to ever pull 'em down"). George W. Johnson then concluded the performance with a verse and pair of choruses from his famous "Laughing Song." Recording manager Victor H. Emerson reported in the October 1907 issue of The Columbia Salesman that when he was allowed to make a new laughing song by Johnson, "our stock increased 100%."

Emerson supplied details on a tragic side of Johnson's life, "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." A day into the trial, the district attorney recommended Johnson's acquittal. For decades, rumors persisted that Johnson had been hung for murdering his wife. Jim Walsh, whose January and February '71 "Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists" columns in Hobbies provide much of what is known of George Johnson, speculated that the arrest occurred in the 1890s.

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." 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 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 similar to those of Johnson and other recording pioneers.

Fred Rabenstein, Edison's longtime paymaster, provided Jim Walsh this description of George W. Johnson's 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.

Len Spencer

"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."

George W. Johnson passed away in 1914, followed a few months later by Len Spencer.

The author gratefully acknowledges Tim Brooks, Frederick Crane, William Shaman, and Dick Spottswood for their contributions to this article.