Born Woodrow Wilson Johnson on January 10, 1915, in Darlington, SC; died on February 9, 1977.

Pianist Buddy Johnson enjoyed the peak of his musical career as the leader of his self-named big band, The Buddy Johnson Orchestra. With up to 17 members--including Johnson's sister, Ella, as vocalist--the group was a favorite at New York's famed Savoy Ballroom in the 1940s and 1950s, prompting Johnson to be nicknamed "King of the Savoy." As composer and arranger, Johnson helped shape the distinctive sound of his band, fusing big band jazz with blues. It was a popular sound that helped pave the way for rhythm and blues. According to the Big Bands Database, "[Johnson] was one of the important links between the Rhythm and Blues style and the swing era." He penned a number of chart-topping songs and recorded extensively with Decca Records, Mercury, and Roulette. Since his 1977 death, a number of compilation albums of his work have been released.

Johnson was born Woodrow Wilson Johnson on January 10, 1915, in Darlington, South Carolina. In addition to his sister, Ella, he had a brother, Hiram, who would also go into the music industry as a band manager. Buddy took up the piano when he was just four years old and, according to All Music Guide, "although he specialized professionally in tasty R&B, classical music remained one of his passions." By the time he graduated from Mayo High School in Darlington County, South Carolina, he had evolved into a talented musician. Johnson began performing with several bands including the famed Cotton Club Revue out of New York City. With that group he traveled extensively, honing his talents and preparing to launch his own band. Soon after returning from a tour of Europe with the Cotton Club Revue, he got his chance.

In New York, Johnson formed The Buddy Johnson Orchestra in 1939 and promptly landed a recording deal with Decca Records. His cut his first record for the label late that same year and continued making records for them through 1952. At the time he formed his band, other big bandleaders were exploring bebop and swing and creating new musical forms. Johnson instead turned for inspiration to the blues, prompting many reviewers to label his group a "jump blues band" or a "New York blues band." The sound was widely popular and Johnson and his group were in demand throughout the country, especially the south. According to the Big Bands Database, "In an annual poll conducted by the Pittsburgh Courier, Buddy was, because of his continuous bookings, dubbed 'King Of The One-Nighters.'" Following the war, Johnson's sound began to evolve into the emerging R&B sound. His hit song, "Please Mr. Johnson" with Ella on vocals, was evocative of this new sound. The group's popularity continued to grow. In 1946 The Buddy Johnson Orchestra landed a gig as one of the house bands at New York's famed Savoy Ballroom. Johnson and company performed there for standing-room only crowds until 1958.

Johnson also encountered success offstage with his recordings. He composed a number of hits, many sung by Ella. In 1944, "When My Man Comes Home" went to number one on the national charts. Other chart-toppers included "Fine Brown Frame," "Let's Beat Out Some Love," and "Baby Don't You Cry." In 1945, with Ella providing the vocals, Johnson recorded one of his most enduring hits, "Since I Fell For You." The song, now considered a classic, has been covered by many artists, including singer Lenny Welch, who went to the top of the charts with his doo-wop version of the song in 1963. Another hit Johnson penned was "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit that Ball?" recorded on Decca in 1949. The song, honoring the legendary ball player who broke the color barriers in professional baseball, went as high as number 13 on the charts. After Decca Records, Johnson joined the Mercury label from 1953 to 1958, switched to Roulette in 1959, and finally recorded a single session with the Old Town label in 1964. On Mercury Johnson scored a few more smash records including "Hittin' on Me" with Ella on vocals and "I'm Just Your Fool."

During its two-decade long heyday, the size of The Buddy Johnson Orchestra grew along with its popularity. What had originally started as a nine-piece group, had 14 members by the mid-1940s and a whopping 17 members by 1950. Despite the size of the group, Johnson maintained control. According to the Big Bands Database, "He not only did the charts for the songs, but even drilled the musicians and taught the vocalists how to present the song, the lyrics and themselves to the audience." Over the years, a number of prominent musicians launched their careers playing with Johnson, including vocalists Etta Jones and Arthur Prysock. Jones joined the group in 1944 when Ella took a pregnancy leave from touring. Johnson's group was performing backup at the Apollo Theater during a talent contest when Jones took the stage. Her performance impressed Johnson, who then asked Jones to join the group. She stayed with him for over a year. In 1998 she helped lead a revival of Johnson's music when she recorded her acclaimed album, My Buddy, a retrospective of Johnson's greatest hits.

The wild success that The Buddy Johnson Orchestra knew in the 1940s and 1950s eventually ended. According to All Music Guide, "Rock and roll eventually halted Buddy Johnson's momentum." Although Johnson made guest appearances with musicians such as Benny Goodman, Eddie Harris, and Weldon Irvine in the 1960s and early-1970s, his orchestra was disbanded. On February 9, 1977, Johnson died from a brain tumor and sickle cell anemia. Fortunately for fans of old blues and R&B--both predecessors to rock and roll--his music did not die with him. Numerous retrospective albums of his work have been released since his death. Highlights include Rockin' and Rollin' on the Collectibles label, Walk 'em: Decca Sessions on the Ace label, and Band That Swings the Blues on the Culture Press label. Johnson's contribution to American musical history has not been forgotten either--at least not in his home state of South Carolina. In May of 2001 the South Carolina legislature passed a bill recognizing the achievements of Johnson and his sister. It provided for the placement of a historical marker at his old Darlington County alma mater, Mayo High School. Later that same month, the Johnsons were inducted into the South Carolina Music Hall of Fame.

by Candace LaBalle

Buddy Johnson's Career

Pianist, Cotton Club Revue, mid- to late 1930s; performed and recorded with various musicians, 1930s-70s; bandleader, composer, with The Buddy Johnson Orchestra, 1939 to early-1960s; house band, Savoy Ballroom, New York, NY, 1946-58; recording artist.

Buddy Johnson's Awards

Induction, South Carolina Music Hall of Fame, 2001.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 13 years ago

I grew up in Jacksonville, florida in the 40's through the mid 50's and one band always stood out in my memory. Buddy and Ella Johnson. I'm now 75 and still love and think of all the beautiful music they made. Thanks for the Bio of this great music talent. Lee Clark, queens, New York

over 15 years ago

I thought Buddy and Ella had a fairly big hit of "smack dab in the middle" covered by Count Basie,with Joe Williams,and also by the Mills Bros.It was in the '50s when R&B was only heard on black stations.Please confirm,Thanks