Bill Johnson

Biography by

William K. Johnson, usually credited as Bill Johnson and creating loads of confusion for discographers in the process, was a historic figure on the Lexington, Kentucky jazz scene. He was born there close…
Read Full Biography

Artist Biography by

William K. Johnson, usually credited as Bill Johnson and creating loads of confusion for discographers in the process, was a historic figure on the Lexington, Kentucky jazz scene. He was born there close to the beginning of the 20th century, and came home in the '40s after leaving full-time music. A large section of the pile of records featuring Johnson as banjoist, guitarist, or vocalist, are the recordings he made with King Oliver in the late '20s. These sessions became era-makers when historians began looking back on the history of the genre, not only because of the importance of Oliver's innovations, but due to the fact that a fellow named Louis Armstrong was also in this group. Oliver also employed another banjoist named Bill Johnson in the '20s, an older musician from New Orleans whose middle initial was "M." That distinction has hardly made it easier to keep the two of them apart. William M. "Bill" Johnson is credited with inventing the idea of plucking rather than bowing the strings on a bass. If the credit on an Oliver or Armstrong side is for bass, then it is the older Bill Johnson that is present. But it is hard to tell who is who if that Johnson plays either banjo or guitar, especially considering the almost total lack of presence these instruments have on recordings from the '20s and early '30s. The Kentucky Johnson began his career in local bands, then hit New York City on a tour with the Dixie Ramblers circa 1926. The following year he worked in a band fronted by drummer George Howe, moving on to a five-year stint with Luis Russell, during which there was time allotted for freelancing. This was the period when he recorded with Oliver. In the '30s, he seemed to focus more on the guitar as well as on vocal performances, including a recording of the vaguely optimistic "You Might Get Better," cut with the Henry Allen Orchestra in 1930. His death was the result of a house fire in the summer of 1955.