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Who is George W. Johnson?

Wax cylinders were marketed in 1880 and have been widely used in the music industry at the time. But did you know how famous George W. Johnson was during this time?

George W. Johnson sold over 25,000 wax cylinders. Back then, every recording was a master copy, he would record the same song multiple times, often fifty times each day.

Who Is George Johnson?

George W. Johnson was an African-American vocalist and musician who pioneered recorded music in the United States. Johnson was born in 1846 in Virginia.  His father was a slave but was likely freed in 1853. He was raised near Wheatland and was the companion of a rich white farmer’s son. During his time with their family, he was taught to read, write, and even learned music.

In the 1870s, he relocated to New York City and began working as a street musician, essentially singing songs for pennies and coins on the city’s streets. (Source: NPR)

The Whistling Coon and The Laughing Song were two of Johnson’s most recognized songs. In the 1890s record industry, his tunes were the most popular in the United States. At the time, technology did not allow for the replication of Edison cylinders. Johnson, accompanied by a pianist, sang each of his songs thousands of times for about 20 cents each. By 1894, an estimated 25,000 copies had been printed.

Johnson’s popularity had waned by 1905. Johnson was no longer required to record each copy personally since new recording technology-facilitated thousands of duplicate discs from a single master. Johnson was employed as an office doorman by his friend Len Spencer, who became a prominent musician and booking agent.

Johnson worked for Spencer for several years and resided in his office building before returning to Harlem. Johnson died of pneumonia in 1914, at the age of 67. Johnson was laid to rest in Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York, honored with a 2014 memorial. (Source: African American Registry)

Johnson’s Legacy

Black America’s music did not significantly impact popular recorded music until the 1920s blues and jazz explosion; African-Americans were integral to the recording business from the start. (Source: LOC)

Johnson was able to recreate and document the experience of a street singer. He slurred his words somewhat when singing. His voice was crisp and penetrating, as were his whistles. And the majority of singing in those days was quite formal and took its cues from the music note by note. He was quite naturalistic in comparison to the other types of vocalists and records available at the time.

The chorus, in which Johnson laughed in rhythm with the music, was what made this ridiculous song irresistible. While this may seem absurd, it never failed to elicit grimaces, smirks, and laughs from even the most jaded listeners to the crude phonographs.

In his time, African Americans were excluded from virtually all occupations. The fact that Johnson was able to establish himself as a celebrity in the music industry was astounding. It demonstrated that the race did not appear to apply to records. However, even among the black community, there was some embarrassment about him. His songs, which gained popularity in the 1890s, essentially insulted African Americans. (Source: NPR)

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