Credits for jazz musicians named George Johnson date back to an era when few were even using a name for the genre yet. One George Johnson, however, has made more jazz records then all the George Johnsons combined. Because of some interesting cases of instrumental doubling among the various people named George Johnson; confusion is rampant. The most prolific of the jazzmen Johnsons, logging in with nearly 40 recording sessions, is sometimes assumed to be the same George Johnson who played tenor saxophone in the first Bix Beiderbecke band. While the original Wolverine Orchestra were indeed youthful, none were between the ages of ten and 13, depending on which birthday is accepted as accurate for the George Johnson under discussion here.
He is the only George Johnson who gets a mention in John Chilton's Who's Who of Jazz; none are considered worthy of even a passing nod in Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazz. Chilton claims Johnson was born in Detroit around 1910, while other references place him farther north in former President Gerald Ford's city, Grand Rapids, with 1913 the estimated year of birth. Either way would have made him a trifle green to have been a Wolverine Orchestra member.
Johnson's actual professional career began with affiliations among three bandleaders: Zack Whyte, Benny Carter, and Freddy Taylor. The latter artist took Johnson on a European tour, and this changed his life forever.
Historically, this Johnson's status is principally among one of the early generations of American jazz musicians who sought refuge on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. He was more of a rover than a settler, perusing scenes in a variety of countries including the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Switzerland. When the first Taylor tour ended, Johnson opted to hang in Paris where he began working with Willie Lewis, a pioneer in the art of being an expatriate. The groovy Ville D'Est was a spot where Johnson led his own band, and he continued with similar gigs into the late '30s. Then he went back to the United States until roughly the end of the second World War. During that period he was associated with Frankie Newton and John Kirby; Raymond Scott Fans may notice Johnson as one of the players involved with the legendary 1942 CBS recording sessions.
In the winter of 1946 he was leading his own group in Spain following a sideman stint with trumpeter Rex Stewart. This time, Johnson was absent stateside for a solid decade, spending a great deal of his time in the dreamy land of cuckoo clocks and Emmenthal cheese. Johnson was back in New York City in the early '50s, if only to give discographers the opportunity to confuse him with George "Happy" Johnson, a player doubling on tenor saxophone and trombone and associated with the Chicago jazz scene for at least a chunk of his career. Quickly, the George Johnson who cannot be presumed to be unhappy, in comparison, packed up his alto and tenor saxophones and clarinet and went back to Europe, where he was last seen sitting by the side of a canal in Amsterdam.