Best known as one half of the duo Eddie & Ernie, who cut a series of brilliant if criminally unknown singles that rank with the finest soul records of the 1960s, singer Ernie Johnson was born October 22, 1945, in Lubbock, TX. In his liner notes to the Eddie & Ernie retrospective Lost Friends, historian Dave Godin states that after the family's relocation to the Phoenix area, Johnson's father, Ernest Sr., begin singing with a local gospel group dubbed the Crusaders. As a teen, Ernie Jr. joined the lineup as well, and through fellow member Lloyd Campbell met Campbell's younger brother Eddie, himself a member of the rival gospel outfit the Heavenly Travelers.
Eddie and Ernie fast solidified their friendship by joining secular vocal group the All-Stars, in 1962 backing local singer Little Worley on his Ramco label single "Who Stole My Girl." As a duo, they also headlined Phoenix's Zanzibar Club, appearing with house band Carl LaRue & His Crew (a forerunner to Dyke & the Blazers of "Funky Broadway" fame). In 1963, Eddie & Ernie cut their debut single, "It's a Weak Man That Cries," for the Nightingale label -- the first of many gorgeous showcases for their heartbreaking falsetto harmonies, the record was scooped up for national distribution by Chess Records' Checker subsidiary but proved a commercial flop, the first of many spread across their star-crossed career.
Both Checker and Eastern Records, a subsidiary of Juggy Murray's New York-based Sue label, licensed Eddie & Ernie's 1964 follow-up, "Time Waits for No One." The single proved a huge hit in the Big Apple area, topping the charts at station WWRL and cracking the Billboard Hot 100, and Murray sent the duo airline tickets for a performance he booked at the famed Apollo Theater. There Eddie & Ernie shared the bill with the Temptations, Gene Chandler, and Wilson Pickett; while in New York, they also cut several additional sides for Eastern, including the 1965 singles "I'm a Young Man," "I'm Goin' for Myself," and "I'm Gonna Always Love You."
Murray pleaded with the duo to remain in New York, but they insisted on returning to Phoenix, home to Johnson's wife and young son. The decision crippled their commercial momentum, as their records proved popular on the East Coast but faltered without the support of live appearances and additional promotion. A frustrated Murray finally terminated Eddie & Ernie's contract following 1966's "I Can't Do It (I Just Can't Leave You)," and that December the duo returned to New York, cutting their lone Columbia single -- the sublime "Doggone It" -- with producer Richard Gottehrer. Fellow Columbia artist Dee Clark also cut their composition "In These Very Tender Moments" during their brief tenure with the label.
Eddie & Ernie next landed at the tiny Phoenix label Artco, where in 1967 both issued solo singles -- Campbell's "Contagious Love" appeared first, followed by Johnson's devastating "I Can't Stop the Pain" (a sought-after soul collectible that commonly traded in the neighborhood of £1500 three decades after its original release). Neither record generated much interest, and the singers agreed to go their separate ways -- Campbell relocated to Los Angeles to focus on songwriting, while Johnson remained in Phoenix, battling substance abuse. In 1970 their longtime friend Hadley Murrell, a Phoenix music promoter and manager, reunited Eddie & Ernie for a studio date that yielded the remarkable ballad "Thanks for Yesterday," arguably the most potent record of their career. Released via the Revue label, it went nowhere, as did the follow-up, a cover of the Aaron Neville classic "Tell It Like It Is." Their lone Buddah effort, 1971's "Standing at the Crossroads," proved another should-have-been-a-smash and their final U.S. release.
Both Johnson and Campbell later collaborated in the group Phoenix Express, which cut several sides that remained unreleased until the 2002 release of the aforementioned Lost Friends. By that time Campbell was dead, the 1994 victim of cirrhosis, while Johnson was homeless -- royalties from Lost Friends eased his burdens somewhat, but on August 20, 2005, he was killed in a Phoenix hit-and-run accident at the age of 62.