Not to be confused with primal New Orleans bassist Bill Johnson (born circa 1872), Will Johnson was born in Lexington, KY, in 1905. Active in the music scene in and around Louisville, Johnson traveled to New York with the Dixie Ramblers near the end of 1926 and worked with a band led by drummer George Howe in 1927, the year he began a five-year stint with Luis Russell's Orchestra. From 1928 to 1930, Johnson sat in with quite an assortment of hot jazz artists. His first noteworthy recorded performances were as a member of King Oliver's Dixie Syncopators, with whom he can be heard playing both banjo and guitar on their November 1928 recording of "Slow and Steady." Johnson was a very busy session man during the years 1929 and 1930, appearing on records with Jelly Roll Morton, clarinetist Wilton Crawley, Regina "Queen" Victoria Spivey, and even with Victoria's sister Addie "Sweet Pease" Spivey. Johnson made a handful of records with Fats Waller & His Buddies in December 1929 and with trombonist J.C. Higginbotham's Six Hicks in February 1930. His singing may be heard on records he made with Jack Purvis and with trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen, with whom he recorded "You Might Get Better But You'll Never Get Well" on February 18, 1930. Amid all of this activity, Johnson was still working with Luis Russell. He recorded with Russell in 1929 and 1930 and continued to work with this Panamanian pianist and his excellent jazz orchestra until 1932. Johnson was a member of the Fess Williams band in 1933 and 1934, then worked as guitarist-for-hire until he gave up performing full-time at some point during the middle '40s. He returned to Lexington, where during the summer of 1955 he is said to have perished in a fire that destroyed everything he owned.
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