#George Washington Johnson was the first African-American recording star of the phonograph. Johnson was born in Virginia in either Fluvanna or Loudoun County. It is possible that Johnson’s father was a slave, and if so he was most likely freed by 1853. From an early age, Johnson was raised near Wheatland as the companion and servant of a prosperous white farmer’s son. While with the family he developed his musical talent and learned to read and write, which was unusual for a #Black child in Virginia before the American Civil War. By Johnson’s late twenties he had moved to New York City, and by the late 1870s he was a street entertainer specializing in whistling popular tunes.
Johnson was recruited around the early part of 1890, by two different regional phonograph distributors who were looking for recording artists for their coin-operated machines. Charles Marshall of the New York Phonograph Company and Victor Emerson of the New Jersey Phonograph Company both heard Johnson performing in Manhattan, probably at the ferry terminals on the Hudson River. Both of them invited Johnson to record his loud rough whistling on wax phonograph cylinders for a fee of twenty cents per two-minute performance. Johnson could whistle all the popular tunes of the day, but his first recording was called “#The Whistling Coon.” Johnson sang and whistled during the recording. His second recording is what made him famous “#Listen to the Mockingbird.” He also did other short show performances with other performers.
Songs during these early days were all considered a “master”. Anyone with a strong voice could make three or four usable recordings at once, with as many machines running simultaneously with their recording horns pointed towards the singer’s mouth.
By 1895, Johnson’s two tunes “The Whistling Coon” and “#The Laughing Song“ were the best-selling recordings in the United States. The total sales of his wax cylinders between 1890 and 1895 have been estimated at 25,000 to 50,000, each one recorded individually by Johnson. Remarkably, the New Jersey record company marketed Johnson as a black man, during an era when much of American life was strongly segregated by race. “The Whistling Coon” was characterized by a light-hearted tune and lyrics which would be unacceptable today, in which a Black man is compared to a baboon.
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Johnson’s popularity had diminished by 1905. New recording technology had evolved and Johnson was no longer needed to record each copy. Johnson later worked as an office doorman in Harlem. He died at the age of 67 from pneumonia and myocarditis. In 2013 the Maple Grove historical society began a campaign to honor Johnson, and received a grant from the MusiCares Foundation to erect a plaque on his grave site. On April 12, 2014, a century after his death, the singer was finally recognized in a ceremony including displays, presentations and a performance by actor Larry Marshall who impersonated Johnson.