At the height of his career, George Washington Johnson sold thousands of records. He is the first African-American vocalist to have made commercial records in the late 1800s. According to National Public Radio, his contributions to the music industry as an African American have mostly gone unnoticed.
As part of its efforts to commemorate his works, the Library of Congress has included his song “The Laughing Song” in the National Recording Registry’s collection. Johnson was born as an enslaved African in 1846. According to historical records, he was adopted by the Moores, a white family looking for a playmate for their newly born child Sam.
His formative years were spent at Glenmore, the Moores’ farm plantation, where he mingled with other white youngsters and learned to read and write. Tim Brooks believes he learnt music via sitting in on Sam’s piano classes.
He moved from Glenmore to New York in the 1870s and became a street performer. He was praised for his compositions “The Whistling Coon” and “The Laughing Song” which were among the most popular albums in the U.S. in the 1890s.
In his music, he addressed societal injustice and racial segregation against African Americans. “Of course, it was a terribly racist time. Blacks were barred from a wide range of occupations. And his ability to become a celebrity in this new, nascent industry that was just getting started was astounding. “It demonstrated that the color line did not appear to apply to records,” Brooks told NPR.
Over 25,000 wax cylinders were sold by Johnson. Every recording at the time was a master copy. Johnson would repeatedly record the same song, sometimes up to fifty times per day. However, by 1905, he no longer needed to record each copy individually since improved recording technology allowed him to create thousands of duplicate discs from a single master. He was no longer popular as a result of this.
When economic conditions did not favor him, Johnson was forced to return to Harlem. His friend Len Spencer, who had become a renowned artist and agent, had hired him as an office doorman, but Johnson began drinking frequently and lost his job. That drove him to a small tenement room in Harlem, where he died forgotten and alone on January 23, 1914, according to Brooks. Johnson died at the age of 67 from pneumonia. He was laid to rest in Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York, in an unmarked grave.
Johnson would be remembered for breaking down racial boundaries in the music industry by demonstrating that an African American could sell thousands of recordings in a business dominated by white performers. However, there was some embarrassment about him in the Black community because most of the songs that made him successful in the 1890s insulted Black people, according to Brooks. “And they [those songs] weren’t considered racist at the time but by 1914, the NAACP had been created. And there was a movement afoot to better the status of African-Americans. “As a result, he was pushed out of the public mind,” Brooks added.