George W. Johnson: First Black Recording Artist

A few words of homage to recording pioneer George W. Johnson (ca. 1846-1914). I had previously been under the mistaken impression that Williams and Walker were the first African American recording artists, but it turns out that Walker beat them by over a decade (although it might be accurate to say that Williams and Walker were the first African American STARS to record). Born in Virginia, Johnson was a street performer in New York City in 1890, when he was scouted by record companies in 1890 and hired to record two songs that became among the biggest hits of their day “The Whistling Coon” and “The Laughing Song”. These being the pioneer days of the industry, each cylinder had to be recorded individually — hence just the two tunes, which he recorded tens of thousands of times to fill the demand. Naturally, the content of “The Whistling Coon” would be considered racist by our standards, though it was very much in line with the doleful tastes of the day. The success of the songs was sufficient to get Johnson bookings in vaudeville on the strength of his fame. Later in the decade, he recorded two additional tunes, “The Laughing Coon” and “The Whistling Girl”.

In 1895, Johnson’s common-law wife, a German-American woman was founded dead in their apartment. This sad event might not be considered noteworthy but for the fact that four years later, a second common-law wife by the name of Roskin Stuart was found beaten to unconsciousness in his apartment. She died of her injuries a short time later. Johnson was tried for murder and found not guilty.

Johnson’s recording career lasted until about 1910, by which time numerous other performing artists had followed the trail he blazed, and he was forgotten. His final years were spent working as a doorman for Len Spencer, with whom he’d earlier performed. He was in his late 60s at the time of his death.

For more on vaudeville and variety theatre,  please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.