Watch for the BETTY JOHNSON interview in
A NEW DOCUMENTARY FROM DIRECTOR
AIRING SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 15 on PBS @8pm /7c
BETTY JOHNSON MUSICAL HISTORY
BETTY JOHNSON and THE JOHNSON FAMILY SINGERS
Betty Johnson was born into the renowned American performers The Johnson Family Singers of Charlotte, NC. Popular beginning in the 1940s, the gospel-oriented group toured, performed, and ultimately recorded over 50 songs for Columbia Records and a similar number of songs on the RCA-Victor label. Betty sang with The Johnson Family Singers on early radio broadcasts between 1938 to 1951. By 1948, Betty had her own 15-minute radio program, and her solo-career grew from there – appearing regularly on stage, radio, and television. Betty Johnson was signed by Columbia Records and Bell Records in 1954. Then, in 1955, she signed with RCA Victor and they sent her to Chicago, Illinois where she worked on the syndicated television series Eddy Arnold Time and on Don McNeill's Breakfast Club. This led to a contract with Bally Records, and in 1956, Betty had her biggest hit, "I Dreamed." She continued to appear on the Breakfast Club until 1957. As a solo artist, she recorded multiple pop hits during the 1950s, including "Little White Lies". She regularly appeared on the most prominent of television and radio shows, and headlined prestigious venues such as: The Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles; The Sands in Las Vegas; and The Copacabana, The Persian Room, The Blue Angel and The Algonquin in New York City.
In the late 1950s, Ms. Johnson was hired by Jack Paar for his television show, Tonight. This led to a record contract with Atlantic Records in 1957, for which she had her next big hit, "Little Blue Man". Johnson continued on Tonight until 1962 when Paar was replaced by Johnny Carson, while also making appearances on a number of other television shows. Her musical theater credits include "Carousel," "South Pacific," and "Take Me Along."
After a hiatus to raise two daughters and complete her college education during the 1960s-70s, Betty Johnson returned to show business. She not only performed live – singing great American standards while accompanied by daughters Lydia Gray and Elizabeth Gray – but also digitally restored and published a catalog of her earlier work, founding her own music label (Bliss Tavern Music) in the process. Keeping the legacy of the Johnson Family Singers alive, Betty and her daughters – now accompanied by her granddaughter Betty Gray – have produced a wonderful collection of songs entitled “Four Shades of Gray”.
Recently, The Johnson Family Singers and Betty Johnson are included in the 2019 Ken Burns documentary entitled “Country Music”. Betty is interviewed and appears in the 15+ hour mini-series – airing Sunday, September 15th on PBS.
(See Betty Johnson’s full biography below.)
BETTY JOHNSON - BIOGRAPHY
Betty Johnson was born on March 16th, 1929 in Guilford County, NC in a rural setting with no doctor and only her 11 month old brother, Kenneth in attendance. She became a singer at a very early age and, as soon as she was walking, began her musical career – joining her family in “The Johnson Family Singers”. Her father played the guitar and sang bass; her mother, alto; Kenneth, baritone; Betty, sang lead; and twin brothers Bob and Jim doubled the voices with harmonies.
They signed a contract with Columbia Records in the 1930’s and began singing on radio at WBT in Charlotte, NC, a thousand-watt station operated by CBS. Their programs resulted in public appearances all over the South: churches, school auditoriums, and family reunions. She remembers her father making a sign that he passed out at these events reading ”anyone who falls asleep during our concert, I will give a dollar bill”. To her recollection, no one ever did but the sign got a lot of laughs.
The children were up early for the morning show, following the six o’clock Carter Family Show. Afterwards, they were taken to Paw Creek School, picked up at the end of the school day and driven to the radio station while eating a ham biscuit and a glass of milk for the 5:35 program. Then back home to do chores and homework and early to bed. The next day was a repeat of the day before.
The routine changed during the WWII. They were put into charted planes and flown around the country to sing for the troops at the army bases and after the war went to veterans hospitals to sing for the wounded. This was very hard for Betty emotionally and she asked her dad if she could leave the family and pursue her own career. He agreed and off she went to New York City.
She was so homesick and missed her family so much, but calls home encouraged her to stick it out and learn new material, and she did and she auditioned and won a talent scout program that gave her a week’s work singing on The Arthur Godfrey Show. Her performance of ”Please Mr. President, Don’t Put a Tax On Love” launched her career and gave her not only guest spots on radio and television, but also a paying job at The Copacabana nightclub as the production singer.
After high school, Betty attended Queens College where, during her sophomore year, she met and married Dick Redding, a popular coach at Davidson College and a former Lt. Commander Naval Aviator in the Pacific. She left the city to give birth to her son, Dick Redding. The marriage did not go well however and she returned to singing with her family and other venues opened.
Betty Johnson recorded with Columbia Records (1954) in Nashville and stayed with June Carter Cash and had friends from The Grand Ole Opry who encouraged her to keep singing. However, Betty felt she could not sing country well and the following year went again to NYC to pursue her career singing popular standards. There she met and signed with Csida-Grean Management (Joseph Csida & Randolph Grean) and RCA Victor, and they sent her to Chicago to work with Eddy Arnold.
In Chicago, Betty co-starred with Eddy Arnold in the tv series Eddy Arnold Time. The back-up singers were the Jordanaries who later became famous for singing backup for Elvis Presley.
Betty was also asked to join Don McNeils Breakfast Club radio program on ABC’s 700 stations. Betty was right at home doing this show and had a regular weekly check. This was heaven for her.
She also had hit records from her work with Bally Records and was invited back to NYC to do The Ed Sullivan Show. In the audience was Jack Paar, who asked her to join his new nightly show. Her boss reluctantly let her go East. She sang on The Tonight Show for four years.
At that time, she asked her husband Charles Grean for a divorce. He agreed and they parted but kept working together. She had many personal appearances around the country, the most enjoyable being the hotel circuit including The Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, The Sands in Las Vegas, and The Copacabana, The Persian Room, The Blue Angel and The Algonquin in New York City.
In the early 1960s, Johnson performed on stage (Charlotte’s Summer Theater), setting attendance records playing to sell-out audiences including roles as Nellie Forbush in "South Pacific," as Maria Rainier in “Sound of Music,” and key roles in “The King and I,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” and “Brigadoon”. In 1964 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Betty met Arthur Gray, Jr. – an investment banker from New York City. They married, and had two daughters, Lydia (born 1966) and Elisabeth (born 1968). For many years, Betty mostly stayed out of show business, attending college and raising her young family.
While raising her two girls, Betty attended some classes at Dartmouth College beginning in 1977, and she ultimately earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of New Hampshire in 1981.
1980s - 1990s
In 1985, Johnson appeared on Broadway as Essie Miller in the Goodspeed Opera House’s revival of “Take Me Along!” Her return to the stage was just the beginning of the next segment of her career.
In 1993, Betty returned to singing, performing Cabaret at The Algonquin Hotel (Soft Lights & Sweet Music) in New York to critical acclaim. With some support from Arthur Pomposello, the longtime manager of the legendary Oak Room at the Algonquin, Betty put a band together that included veteran pianist Tony Monte and famed guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Betty Johnson delighted audiences once again with American standards, this time often accompanied by daughters Lydia Gray and Elizabeth Gray. She was the toast of New York City.
The positive reviews – and a subsequent interview on NPR's Fresh Air and Betty Johnson again had a national audience. Fans who grew up on her music reached out. With momentum behind her, Betty started her own music label, Bliss Tavern Music, and has released dozens of recordings.
Betty’s recent Bliss Tavern Music projects include: Four Shades of Gray, a collaboration with her daughters Lydia Gray, Elisabeth Gray, and granddaughter Betty Gray. Bliss Tavern Music also took on the project of the restoration and remastering from LP's of The Take Five Sessions – including: The Take Five Sessions, Vol. 1, The Take Five Sessions, Vol. 2, The Take Five Sessions, Vol. 3, and The Take Five Sessions, Vol. 4 – that Betty recorded in NYC with the Lou Garisto Quartet on the late 1950's through early 1960's.
Betty Johnson appears in the 2019 Ken Burns film, a documentary entitled “Country Music” reflecting upon her journey through early American Country music with the Johnson Family Singers and as a solo act on radio, early television, and climbing the pop-charts. The film “Country Music” airs beginning Sunday, September 15th on PBS.