Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson studied voice and piano at New England Conservatory, where he was part of Oriental America, a concert company producing performances of light to serious opera.
After a brief time in Florida, Johnson moved in New York in 1899 with his brother James, quickly teaming up in a performance act with vaudevillian Robert ‘Bob’ Cole. Within a few years, the Johnson brothers and Cole became financially successful with their songs, producing several which broke through racial boundaries of the time. Not only were their songs featured in musicals on Broadway, heard by large audiences, but the songs also extended beyond the stereotypical “black” songs (i.e. ragtime, coon, etc.) of the day. The team went on to produce two musicals featuring an all-black cast: The Shoo-Fly Regiment (1907) and The Red Moon (1909). Neither were very financially lucrative due to segregation; the troupe could only perform in second-rate theaters and stay in segregated accommodations. Cole died in 1911, but, despite the loss, Johnson continued his multi-faceted career.
Following Cole’s death, Johnson continued his composition and performing career in New York and also took up directorship of the Music School Settlement for Colored People in Harlem from 1914 to 1919. In the 1920s, he traveled internationally as a performer and even appeared in the first cast of Porgy and Bess as Lawyer Frazier (1935). Throughout his life, he edited four collections of black American music, including The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925).
Johnson’s songs incorporate aspects of operetta and a complex harmonic language with ragtime rhythms and tuneful melodies. He understood classical forms and technique as well as popular style, and his songs masterfully merge the two.
Source: New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians
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