by Mike Streissguth
Atlantic Records collected a hopping bundle of black talent in the 1950s. Almost every week, Atlantic executives Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, and Jerry Wexler could find their artists high on the R&B and pop charts. A group picture of Atlantic artists, if such a snapshot ever existed, would show a hall of fame of rhythm and blues talent including Ray Charles, the Drifters, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner. A closer examination of that photo, however, might reveal a wee inconsistency. For standing among this congregation of R&B giants would be a slight white woman, a pop singer no less.
Betty Johnson recorded several pop hits for Atlantic from 1958 to 1960 while the label built a reputation for R&B greatness. Primarily a novelty singer at the time, Johnson posted Billboard pop hits such as "The Little Blue Man," "Hoopa Hoola," and "You Can’t Get To Heaven On Roller Skates." "The Little Blue Man," a cute song about a tiny person, would be her tallest hit on Atlantic.
In the early 1960s, after making money for Atlantic, recording hits for other labels and appearing on a host of television and radio programs, Johnson exited the music business to concentrate on family life. Her retirement marked the end of her second career in music. It would be 30 years before she began a third.
The Johnson Family Singers
Johnson’s first career in music coincided with the music career of her family, the Johnson Family Singers. Starting toward the end of the Great Depression in 1938 and throughout the 1940s, the young girl sang hymns with her parents and three brothers. The family had a daily broadcast on the powerful WBT radio in Charlotte, North Carolina and appeared at churches, military bases, and all-night sings throughout the South. Singing in the vein of the better known Carter Family and Speer Family, the Johnson Family garnered enough attention to appear on the Grand Ole Opry and record for RCA-Victor and Columbia records.
Born on March 16, 1929, Betty Johnson joined a family poor in material possessions, but rich in drive and creativity. Johnson’s dad, Jesse Seymour Johnson (or "Pa") worked a series of jobs around Guilford County, North Carolina during the Depression and sang with a barbershop quartet as far back as the 1920s. Lydia Florence Craven’s brother and father sang in the quartet as well. The quartet often practiced at the Craven’s house where Lydia and Jesse became friendly. The two later married and would be the "Ma" and "Pa" of the Johnson family and the Johnson Family Singers.
In the early 1930s, the Stamps-Baxter Quartet brought their spiritual music act to nearby Greensboro and Pa met Virgil Stamps who told him about their music school in Texas. Pa didn’t forget the school, and in 1937 he set out for the Stamps-Baxter Music Company’s singing school in Dallas. By 1937, the Johnson family was singing informally, and Pa figured he could pass some formal training on to his wife and kids. Seeing few alternatives to the thin living earned from picking cotton and tobacco, Pa saw a future for his family in music. "We never owned anything because we worked for the ‘man,’" recalls Betty. "We would get our lodging which would be a little cabin. We were like migrant workers. And that’s when my dad, with his unbelievable foresight and gumption, wanted to get us out of those fields. He thought we could sing, and we all could."
Pa returned with simple music charts and taught the family all he knew. Soon the family brought their voices to church gatherings and singing conventions in Charlotte which were often broadcast by the CBS radio network. The family’s Charlotte appearances caught the attention of WBT radio, and by the end of 1940, the Johnsons were Sunday morning regulars on the station. The radio gig became daily and lasted until 1951. At the station, the Johnson Family Singers often appeared with the Carter Family and were backed for a time by Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, the pioneering guitarist.
Amplified by the WBT exposure, the Johnsons hit the road, tugging a hammered together wooden trailer. They rarely ventured out of Virginia, the Carolinas and Tennessee, but their exposure was significant enough to improve the family’s station. The Johnson’s often appeared on bills with bluegrass father Bill Monroe, and in 1945 CBS invited them to sing on a radio tribute to the recently deceased President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia. Although they worked hard and often at the expense of normal childhood and family activities, Pa had succeeded in his dream for a better living through music. The family even purchased a 13-acre tract of land near Charlotte, North Carolina on a road they dubbed "Possum Walk."
Records were next. Six years after their first appearance on WBT, the management at the station arranged for a session produced by Columbia’s Don Law. The first session, on April 1, 1946, produced eight sides and over the next seven years Columbia released almost 50 more sides. In the mid-50s, during the height of Betty’s solo career, the family (with Betty) also recorded for RCA-Victor.
The frequent personal appearances, radio work and recording were lifting the family, but nobody benefited more than Betty. An attractive young lady with a booming voice, she was distinguished among the family. Percy Faith at Columbia (he was an A&R man as well as a conductor and arranger) had offered to help her in a solo venture and 20th Century Fox came forward with a movie contract. She refused Faith and Fox. But her professional split from the family wasn’t far off. A lasting fracture developed in 1951 at a Wheeling, West Virginia veterans’ hospital. The family profited from steady performances at veterans’ hospitals, but the frequent contact with badly injured American fighting men traumatized Betty. "We would be singing to them," remembers Betty, "and the doctors and nurses said it would be wonderful if we would let them talk to us. I guess nobody prepared me that these guys had been very badly damaged psychologically. They would be talking to you and all of a sudden they would start crying uncontrollably or start screaming. It really affected me."
After the Wheeling performance, Betty reconsidered a previous offer. From her hotel, she dialed Percy Faith collect and asked for help on a solo career. Betty’s second career began when Faith brought her to New York and found her a room at a girls’ club in Manhattan. "Let me tell you something," says Johnson. "when I got there I did nothing but cry. I was so lonely." At first, anyway, the promise of New York failed to replace the comfort of working with family. "We did everything together. We worked the farm together. We worked in the studio together. We worked personal appearances together. So being alone for the first time was God awful."
Faith tried to convince Mitch Miller, Columbia’s head of A&R, to sign Betty, but Miller chose to concentrate on popular Columbia colleens Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney. Johnson found work recording demos and won the top prize on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. She also found a regular Sunday evening radio job singing with the CBS orchestra and a Saturday morning spot on the Galen Drake Show.
Betty Johnson’s career took a decided turn upward in 1954 when she visited the offices of Trinity Music in Manhattan. Trinity was backed by BMI and operated by Joe Csida (a former Billboard editor) and Charles Grean (an RCA-Victor executive). Lee Eastman, Paul McCartney’s future father-in-law, was a silent partner. Csida and Grean also owned an artist management company which handled the careers of Eddy Arnold, Bobby Darin and Jim Lowe. Betty soon joined the family.
Charles Grean took an immediate interest in Betty. Grean had worked as a copyist for Glenn Miller in the late 1930s and early 40s and later labored under Steve Sholes in RCA-Victor’s country and western division where he worked on the recordings of Eddy Arnold, Pee Wee King, the Sons of the Pioneers, Texas Jim Robertson, Elton Britt and others. Truly one of the unsung heroes of popular music, Grean leap frogged over Sholes to become head of RCA’s popular music division. His most indelible impression on popular music was the 1950s novelty smash "The Thing," written by Grean and recorded by the late Phil Harris. Grean also arranged and conducted on classics such as Nat "King" Cole’s "The Christmas Song" and Vaughn Monroe’s "Ghost Riders In The Sky."
Grean pegged Johnson as a novelty singer, and helped her find her first hit in November of 1954. Recorded for New Disc Records, "I Want Eddie Fisher For Christmas" debuted at #22 on the Billboard charts and disappeared the next week. For New Disc, Betty also recorded "Did They Tell You" b/w "Buckle The Boot."
"At that time in history," says Betty, "for a girl singer to make hits you either had to do a hit from a Broadway show like ‘Hey There’ from The Pajama Game or you had to do a novelty or you had to be Connie Francis. My voice didn’t suit any of those things except the novelty. All of my songs were the novelties."
After the bright flash at New Disc, Betty recorded for RCA. In 1955, RCA released "Be A Lover" b/w "Seven Pretty Dreams" and "Beginner’s Luck" b/w "I’m A Sinner," but neither had chart success. A clause in Betty’s contracts with record labels allowed her to move on if she failed to sell a certain amount of records. Exercising the out in the RCA contract, Johnson went to Bell Records where she generated little recorded acclaim. At Bell she released singles such as "There’ll Be No Tear Drops Tonight" and "This Is The Thanks I Get." Bell also released an album entitled Make Yourself Comfortable.
Johnson would have better luck at her next stop, Bally Records, in Chicago. Bally, a young label in 1956, was owned by the famous pinball and slot machine company of the same name and would tilt in 1957, but not after releasing the biggest hit of Johnson’s career. "I Dreamed," a novelty about a dreaming girl who sings "I dreamed that I was queen of France and at a royal palace dance, I waltzed all night with the prince of Timbuktu," spent 22 weeks on the Billboard pop chart in 1956 and ‘57, peaking at #12. At the time, Johnson lived in Chicago where she appeared on Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club (she sang hymns and pop hits for McNeil) and an Eddy Arnold TV program. Charles Grean recorded the background for "I Dreamed" in New York and had Betty lay down the vocals in the Windy City. "I remember when we made ‘I Dreamed,’" says Grean, "and we were in the studio at midnight. Over and over, we were getting takes and trying this and trying that -- [Betty] always worked well. She was a hell of a good worker. At the time, I was convinced she was going to be a big star."
From most indications, Grean was right. Johnson had two Billboard hits for Bally in 1956 before "I Dreamed" -- "I’ll Wait" (#94) and "Clay Idol" (#72) -- and she frequently appeared on programs hosted by Bob Newhart, Jack Benny and Perry Como. Television viewers could also often catch her on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. To crown and confirm her success, Cash Box magazine named her the most promising female vocalist of 1957. Grean was so confident in Johnson that he sold his share in the management company for Johnson’s contract. The two also married, but soon broke up after realizing the professional relationship was more successful than the personal.
Despite the strains of a bumpy marriage, Johnson kept a breathless pace. In addition to her recordings and television, she was the spokeswoman for Borden dairy products and starred in summer stock performances of Brigadoon, The King And I and South Pacific. She met live dates at the Copacabana in New York, the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, the Drake Hotel in Chicago, the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, the Sands in Las Vegas, the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, and other clubs around the nation. She also appeared at fairs and rodeos with Gene Autry. "I rode a white horse and a pink outfit and a cowgirl hat," says Johnson of her appearances with "Oklahoma’s Singing Cowboy." "I would ride out and be so grateful when that horse stopped. I’d sing. Then I could get off the horse. Then I got back on it and rode off. Then [Autry] came out." In the late ‘50s, Johnson recorded 10 sides for Autry’s Republic Records (including "A Gal’s Best Friend Is Her Makeup" and "Luna Caprese") with only minor reaction from record buyers.
Before Bally folded Betty scored two more Billboard hits with the label in 1957, "Little White Lies" (#40) and "1492" (#70). Johnson continued her string of top 100 hits when Grean brought her to Atlantic in late in 1957. By this time, Grean, who arranged and conducted on much of Johnson’s live and recorded work, was recording his client independently and selling the finished work to companies like RCA and Bally. Atlantic would be the next recipient of Johnson and Grean’s musical efforts. Both Johnson and Grean knew the Erteguns. Based on the friendship and Betty’s recent success, Atlantic agreed to release Betty’s songs. "I was very thrilled with that and I was thrilled with the Erteguns," says Johnson. "They were very special people. They understood music. And I was different. I was not like anybody else on the label. They liked me and thought I had great potential."
Johnson was certainly unlike "anybody else on the label." The kinds of hits Atlantic charted in the 1958 were apt to be R&B hits by black artists not pop hits by white artists -- Betty Johnson was the sole exception. In 1958, while Atlantic’s Big Joe Turner had "(I’m Gonna) Jump For Joy" at #15 on the Billboard R&B chart and the Coasters worked off their number one pop and R&B smash "Yakety Yak," Betty Johnson hit #19 on the Billboard pop chart with "The Little Blue Man." It camped on the charts for four months. Later in the year, she racked up two more Billboard hits -- "Dream" (#58) and "Hoopa Hoola" (#56). She failed to make 1959 a better year. Her Atlantic release "You Can’t Get To Heaven On Roller Skates" poked its nose into Billboard’s top 100 for one week, struggling to reach #99. A follow up "Does Your Heart Ever Beat For Me" failed to make the Billboard top 100, limping to #91 on the Cash Box pop tally.
Although Betty Johnson continued to make regular appearances on television and the club circuit, her novelty recordings ultimately couldn’t compete with the rock sound. Johnson had tried several times to shed the novelty tag, but to no avail. "I wanted to do more of the standards, and I would do standards in my personal appearances," explains Johnson. "But recording-wise, your A&R people really were in charge. You could sneak a few [in]." In 1958, Johnson did just that. Atlantic released the LP Songs You Heard When You Fell In Love which included "Red Sails In The Sunset," "Dancing In The Dark" and "Always" but the new direction only produced one hit, "Dream." In the late 50s, Johnson entered Gotham Studios in New York City to record a series of radio public service announcements for the U.S. Marine Corps to be aired on Armed Forces Radio and U.S. commercial radio stations. The announcements were coupled with brief versions of pop standards such as "You Go To My Head" and "Just In Time," but even the worldwide broadcast of the tunes failed to help Betty enter new fields (Betty has released two CDs worth of the songs recorded for the Marines, The Take Five Sessions, Vol. 1 on Johnson and Gray (1993) and My Heart Sings on Bliss Tavern Records (1995)).
Johnson’s frequent appearances on Captain Kangaroo and Kukla, Fran and Ollie in the 1950s and her records for children (like Fun For Everyday With Little Johnny Everything And His Sister Judy on RCA in 1958) only reinforced her novelty label. A 1960 stab at country for Randy Wood’s Dot Records only had gasping prosperity. The Ernest Tubb standard "Slipping Around" (b/w "One Has My Name, The Other Has My Heart," a 1948 Jimmy Wakely tune) bubbled under at #109 on the Billboard pop chart.
Faced with injuriously low record sales and the loss of a dedicated manager (Grean and Johnson’s professional arrangement disintegrated soon after their divorce in 1959), Betty concentrated on personal appearances where she found steady employment. It was a personal appearance in 1962 that would bring the end of her second career and, in effect, pave the way for her third. Johnson met her future husband, Arthur Gray, after a nightclub show.
The two married in 1964 and settled into a life of familial normalcy, a new experience for Betty. And, except for an album of hymns she recorded with her mother in 1966 (Ma and Betty Johnson Favorite Hymns on the Super Recordings label), Betty avoided public life and set about raising her and Arthur’s two daughters.
Back To The Boards
In the 1980s, her children in college, Betty caught a whiff of show business again. Johnson had completed a drama degree in 1981 and returned to acting soon after, starring in Shear Madness and taping commercials. She continued to act, appearing in Take Me Along next, but singing beckoned. A serious illness in the late 1980s fueled her resolve to return to her first professional love. "It was after that, that I thought ‘now you’ve been hiding long enough acting. Now you really are supposed to go out there and sing.’" By 1993 she debuted at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City to approving reviews. In addition to the release of her 1950s U.S. Marine Corps radio transcriptions in 1993 and ‘95, she entered the studio again to record with her daughters, Lydia and Elisabeth. A collection of pop standards, Johnson released the album A Family Affair on her Bliss Tavern Music label in 1994 and handled distribution duties herself.
An interview she gave to National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program opened a floodgate of requests for the album. The response prompted her to innocently ask a Tower Records store manager if the store would sell her album. The amused manager directed her to a distributor who agreed to handle her CD releases. The deal freed Johnson to concentrate on singing, not business, and the occasional acting job (she had small roles in the films Reversal Of Fortune and Good Fellas).
Betty Johnson works hard on her third career in music, a career that’s defined by pop standards and cabaret performances. Recently, Back Stage: The Performing Arts Weekly awarded Betty their 1995 Outstanding Vocalist award, almost 40 years after Cash Box recognized her potential. The modest success she sees today is built upon her two previous careers. Betty draws from the Johnson Family Singers who groomed her voice and a 1950s solo tenure that proved her ability to sell whimsical pop records in the midst of the rock revolution (even on a label that emphasized R&B music!). She presses on in the 1990s. "I feel like I’m about 23 years old. I feel very young because this is all so challenging for me and a little scary and very rewarding."