Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Johnson, Betty

Johnson, Betty, singer, actor; b. Greensboro, NC, 16 March 1929. 

Johnson has, in effect, had three careers spanning close-harmony rural Appalachian singing, popular music and jazz. In the early 1940s, Betty and her family - father, Jesse Deverin Johnson (1905-1989), mother, Lydia Florence Craven (1907-1979), brothers Kenneth (b. 1928) and twin brothers Jim and Bob (b. 1931) - began to sing in churches and at family events as The Johnson Family Singers. Her father had attended the Baxter-Stamps School of Music in Dallas, Texas, and the family used shape notes to develop a repertoire of largely home and hearth and gospel songs. The Johnsons began an association with WBT, Charlotte, in late 1940 that would last until 1951 and include CBS network carriage. The family recorded more than fifty titles for Columbia Records (1946-1953) and RCA Victor (1954-1959).  Betty herself first appeared as a soloist on WBT's "Briarhopper Time" in 1943, and in 1948, while a freshman at Queens College, had her own 15-mi nute show sponsored by Bendix Company.

In 1949, Betty married Dick Redding with whom she had a son, Harold Richard "Dicky" Redding (b. 1952).  Johnson and Redding divorced in 1954.  In 1951, with Percy Faith as a mentor, Betty began recording for Columbia in 1951. She would go on to have associations with Bell (1954), RCA Victor (1955), and ten other labels.  In late 1957, she began a fruitful association with Atlantic label with several of her records reaching healthy positions on the charts. On radio, Johnson appeared on the Galen Drake Show (1954) and became a regular on Chicago-based Don McNeil's Breakfast Club (1955-1957).  She made a transition to television, appearing as a regular on Eddy Arnold Time (1955).  Early on, she became well known to viewers in advertisements as the Borden Girl. In 1957, she returned to New York to join the cast of the Tonight Show, also titled in these years The Jack Parr Show, remaining with the show until 1962 when Johnny Carson became host. She guested on the Mike Douglas Show, the Jack Benny Show, The Perry Como Show, Candid Camera, Kukla, Fran and Ollie.  In addition to her own frequent guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Johnson Family Singers had a memorable reunion on the program in 1958. Betty During this period, accompanied by a group, Betty recorded a number of transcriptions for the USMC recruiting program, "Take Five," and similar shows. For "Take Five," Betty recorded transcriptions with the Metropolitan Quartet, featuring jazz reedman Phil Bodner.  In 1957, Betty married Charles Grean, who produced many of her sessions for Bally; they were divorced in 1961.  During this period, Betty appeared at the Copa, the Blue Angel, the Coconut Grove, the Sands and Harrah's, and began to appear in summer stock productions of major Broadway shows. Following her marriage to New York investment banker, Arthur Gray, in 1964, and the birth of her daughters, Elisabeth (b. 1966) and Lydia (b. 1968), Betty withdrew from her career to raise her family. Beginning in 1977, Betty resumed her education, attending classes at Dartmouth College and receiver her Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) Degree from the University of New Hampshire in 1981. After a hiatus of many years as a performer, Betty Johnson resumed her career in 1993 with an engagement at the Algonquin Hotel in New York.  She has since made new recordings for her own Bliss Tavern label, featuring her in small group and big band settings. She has been working on her memoirs.

Recordings, Broadcasts, Films:
Johnson Family Singers: We Sang For Our Supper (1997), Sunday Mornings in Dixie; Chattanooga Swing (2001); Other releases on Bliss Tavern Music include two volumes of Betty's late 1950s transcription recordings with the Metropolitan Jazz Quartet.  As a counterpoint, Bliss Tavern has also released two volumes of Betty's recordings for Atlantic from the. In addition to various radio series with the Johnson Family Singers, Betty appeared on "Briarhopper Time" (1943), "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts," (network, 1951) "Galen Drake Show" (1954), "On A Sunday Afternoon" (CBS, 1954), "There's Music in the Air" (CBS, 1954?) "Take Five" (United States Marine Corps recruitment program, late 1950s). Appeared as a guest on the public radio program, "Fresh Air," interviewed by Terry Gross (1995).

Broadway stage appearances: "Take Me Along" (revival, 1985)

Publications about Betty Johnson: Kenneth Johnson, The Johnson Family Singers: We Sang For Our Supper (University Press of Mississippi, 1997).  Unpublished autobiography in manuscript.

Master flower show judge, Federal Garden Clubs of America; Recipient of Grateful State for Excellence in the Performing Arts Award from Governor of North Carolina (1962)

Contact information:
Betty Johnson
Bliss Tavern Music, On-the-common
Haverhill, NH 03765
Phone: 1-800-838-6110, Fax: 1-603-989-5443

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