During the first half of the 20th century there were several noteworthy African-American pianists named James Johnson. Most famous was New Jersey-born James P. Johnson, the father of Harlem stride piano. James "Steady Roll" Johnson was from New Orleans, worked in St. Louis, and is mainly remembered as the brother of guitarist Lonnie Johnson. James "Stump" Johnson was born in Tennessee in 1902, and moved to St. Louis with his family at the impressionable age of seven. Fascinated by the city's thriving music scene, he idolized Son Long, who lived near 15th and Morgan and performed regularly at a place known as Boots' on the Levee. Johnson recalled hearing him play piano there and throughout the levee district, a thriving business center that catered to wealthy slumming tourists fresh off the riverboats. According to Johnson, Long was a boogie-woogie pioneer. Aspiring to emulate his hero, the young man taught himself to play piano in the back of a pool hall and eventually secured regular employment at the city's many sporting houses. Because Johnson was short and stocky, he became known as "Stump" or "Little Man."
He was "discovered" by QRS talent scout Arthur E. Satherly in January 1929 while playing piano in a record store on Market Street owned by his brother, Jesse Johnson, who also worked as a session coordinator for various record labels. Stump's first records were cut in Long Island City, New York soon afterwards. From the get-go, he was identified on record labels as James "Stump" Johnson, although he would also record as Shorty George and Snitcher Roberts. During the year 1929, he waxed records for Brunswick and OKeh in Chicago, Illinois and for Paramount in Richmond, Indiana. He cut a couple of sides for Paramount in Grafton, Wisconsin in February 1930, made a fine double-sided 78-rpm record for Victor with Roosevelt Sykes in Dallas, Texas in February 1932, and cut three titles for Bluebird in Chicago on August 2, 1933 with Pinetop Aaron Sparks and Dorothea Trowbridge. The closest that Johnson ever got to having a hit was his own composition "The Duck's Yas Yas." He is also credited as the composer of "Snitcher's Blues" and "Don't Give My Lard Away." Tampa Red covered "The Duck's Yas Yas," and did up "Snitcher's Blues" under the title "Friendless Blues."
Although he worked in clubs throughout St. Louis for many years, decades would pass before Stump had another chance to record. After serving in the Second World War, he met up with blues lover and police officer Charles "Lindy" O'Brien. In addition to encouraging him to resume gigging, their friendship led to Johnson becoming a cop (Washboard Sam's chosen non-musical profession), as well as a tax collector. In the late '50s, he commenced co-managing the DeLuxe Restaurant in St. Louis with sister-in-law Edith North Johnson, who had recorded with Roosevelt Sykes back in 1929. Stump made a handful of recordings in 1964 for Euphonic and provided music for the soundtrack of the film Blues Like Showers of Rain, which came out in 1970. He succumbed to esophageal cancer at the Veteran's Hospital in St. Louis on December 5, 1969. James "Stump" Johnson should not be confused with hypothetical alto and soprano saxophonist Stump Johnson, whose almost certainly erroneous name is listed in the personnel from a Ma Rainey recording session that took place in February 1926. That musician, whose identity has never been fully established, would have been Paul "Stump" Evans, or else Barney Bigard.