George Washington Johnson is one of the most fascinating unsung heroes in recording history. He was probably the first African-American to record, and certainly the first to become widely successful as a recording artist (in the 1890s).
However, he has been passed over in the history books, perhaps because of embarrassment about the songs he sang. The first successful black recording artist was, after all, billed as “The Whistling Coon”.
George started life as a slave in Loudoun County, Virginia in 1846. His exact date of birth will never be known with certainty and it is likely that he didn’t know it himself.
There were no birth certificates for slave children and his parents were probably two illiterate teenage slaves. It was illegal to teach slaves to read or write in Virginia then but somehow George picked up those skills as well as the ability to read and write music.
After the Civil War, George, now in his early twenties, continued to work in the area as a labourer under the tenant farmer system but this was just slavery under another name. He seems to have worked briefly as a schoolteacher but oppression of blacks continued through Jim Crow laws and there was no future for him in Virginia
Sometime during the 1870s, Johnson “went North” to New York City to try to carve out a new life. He had become an expert whistler and also had a talent for “laughing songs,” odd little ditties in which he laughed in time with the music.
With his broad smile, hearty laugh and willingness to mock himself, white audiences found him quite appealing. He slowly developed a small-scale musical career in New York, while living in the Hell’s Kitchen slums of Manhattan’s west side.
Upper class whites (including future Vice President of the U.S. Levi P. Morton) sometimes hired him for entertainments but most of his time was spent busking on the streets of New York and he became quite a familiar street character.
When Edison’s invention of the phonograph developed into a bit of an industry, he was recruited as one of the first artists to perform for the production of these wax cylinders. Naturally, there were some “technical problems”. It was not possible to make duplicates of a wax cylinder, so the singer had to perform the same song over and over again to build up enough stock to sell.
Sometimes, several recording machines could be grouped in front of the singer to yield three or four copies at a time but that was about it. Also the sound was still not very clear, and recording required someone with a very strong voice and clear articulation.
The friendly, middle-aged black man who sang and whistled on the streets of New York was available, cheap and willing to work all afternoon. He had a strong pair of lungs and his whistling and laughter were as hearty at the end of the day as they had been at the beginning - just what the entrepreneurs needed.
Moreover, he had two specialties that made listeners (at least white listeners) laugh. One was “The Whistling Coon,” a comic minstrel song written a decade earlier, in which he whistled in time with the music; and the other, “The Laughing Song” in which he laughed along with the melody.
Both made fun of blacks (“He’s got a pair of lips, like a pound of liver split, and a nose like an injun rubber shoe… He’s an independent, free and easy, fat and greasy ham, with a cranium like a big baboon…”), and the sight of a jovial black man indulging in such self-mockery was, to many, highly entertaining.
Johnson first recorded these two songs in the spring of 1890 for the Metropolitan Phonograph Company of New York. They were immediate hits and Johnson was brought back to the studio again and again to produce more copies.
Although he didn’t get royalties, he was paid by the session and began to make good money from this sideline. However, this success seems to have fueled racial tension and jealousy, which were to trouble him later.
When the phonograph industry took off, Johnson’s cylinders were shipped across the country and even overseas. Edison invited him to his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, to record there and other companies began pursuing him as well.
Remarkably, as years passed, the records kept selling, becoming standards rather than transitory hits and Johnson became widely known.
By the late 1890s they were said to have sold over 50,000 copies, a phenomenal total considering the labour involved in producing that number and the still small scale of the industry. They are believed to have been the best selling records of the entire decade of the 1890s.
Johnson's personal troubles began in the late 1890s when he was arrested and charged with the murder of a mulatto woman acquaintance. Numerous friends, black and white, rallied to his side. Character witnesses came forward to testify. A collection was taken and two first-rate defense lawyers were hired.
When the trial opened on December 20, 1899, the courtroom was packed, with reporters from the major New York newspapers in attendance ("'Whistling Coon' on Trial" was the New York Herald headline).
The prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial and was a shambles. Its own witnesses spoke highly of Johnson, the wrong morgue attendant was subpoenaed, neither the physician nor the coroner could testify as to the actual cause of death and, most importantly, no one had seen anything.
Finally, after many objections and motions for dismissal by Johnson's attorneys, the D.A. abandoned the case. Johnson never took the stand. He emerged on the steps of the courtroom to a cheering crowd.
He resumed his career without difficulty, but there were troubles ahead. All through the 1890s, record companies had been working on ways to make duplicate copies, with some success. By 1902 both disc and cylinder makers had developed methods to mass-produce copies from a single original.
As soon as each record company had secured a suitable master recording from Johnson, they didn't need him any more and his income dropped precipitously. In addition, white artists began to imitate his recordings, especially the whistling numbers.After a 12-year run, "The Whistling Coon" was becoming yesterday's news.
Whatever compromises Johnson had to make in order to be heard in those racially oppressive times, he showed that it was possible for a black man to sell a lot of records to white America and he opened the doors for those who would come later with more pride and less offensive material.