- Posted April 5, 2014 by
Kew Gardens, New York
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Tell us the Good Stuff!
George Washington Johnson - First African American Recording Music Star to get Monument
Over 120 years ago, a singer and performer by the name of George Washington Johnson recorded songs on some of the earliest recording instruments of the day, becoming one of the earliest recording stars in music history. The Recording Industry was at its infancy and George recorded songs first with the Metropolitan Phonograph Company of New York in 1890 and later with Thomas Edison. His recordings were the earliest musical hits in the United States. It was reported that over 50,000 copies of his songs were sold by the late 1890s. Many of the earliest recordings, he had to sing each song over and over again, as duplicating machines were not yet invented to keep the popular wax cylinders in stock.
George Washington Johnson began life as a slave from Virginia born in 1846. After the Civil War he journeyed north to New York City to make a better life for himself. He made a living in the music field using his powerful voice, robust whistling ability and hearty laugh. He was able to whistle and laugh while keeping time with certain musical songs. Two of his earliest musical hits were the Laughing Song and the Whistling Song.
George sang during a time period that discriminated and suppressed people of color. The lyrics of some of his songs are offensive to us today but were the standard from that time that mocked and humiliated. Through it all, George remained professional and built a substantial career. He was known for his friendly manner, hard working ethics and was well liked in the music industry. He made history as a singer and recording artist and opened wide the doors for the many black performers who followed him with less offensive materials.
After some misfortunes, George moved to a small tenement room in Harlem. On January 23, 1914 he died at the age of 67, forgotten and alone. George’s final resting place was an unmarked pauper’s grave in Maple Grove Cemetery, Kew Gardens, Queens.
In 2004, Tim Brooks, noted television and radio historian, author and television executive wrote Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922. The first three chapters of the book devoted to the life and career of George Washington Johnson. A double-CD companion to the book with many of the songs mentioned in the book including those performed by George Washington Johnson, won a Grammy Award in 2007 for Best Historical Album.
The Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery is a non-profit organization committed to increasing public awareness and appreciation of the Cemetery's historical and cultural resources made it their goal to erect a monument over the unmarked grave of George Washington Johnson. The MusiCares Foundation, Inc., established in 1989 by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences known for its Grammy Awards, upon hearing about the need to create a monument for George Washington Johnson provided the funding. A bronze plaque has been design and will include an engraving of George Washington Johnson by celebrated artist David Ostro. The text for the plaque was written by students of the Aquinas Honor Society of the Immaculate Conception School, Jamaica Estates. These students have been praised for their many historic preservation projects in the past. The plaque will be unveiled by Tim Brooks and others during a prestigious ceremony at the grave of George Washington Johnson at Maple Grove Cemetery on April 12, 2014 at 2 PM in time to mark the 100th Anniversary of his passing. A lecture and workshops are being planned for that day and further information will be found on the Friends of Maple Grove website as the date of the ceremony approaches. www.friendsofmaplegrove.org
A copy of the text written by the Aquinas students is printed below.
George Washington Johnson (1846 – 1914) the first successful African-American recording star in recording history. Although born a slave in Virginia he was taught to read and write and learned music. Traveling to New York City in the 1870s he developed a musical career with a strong voice and a talent for whistling and laughing in time with music. He performed on the streets, ferries and public places. One of his early songs was the Laughing Song. He recorded songs in 1890 for the Metropolitan Phonograph Company and with Thomas Edison on wax cylinders. The early recordings were done individually by George. Best sellers in the United States, selling over 50,000 copies. “He never thought of himself as a pioneer but as the first black recording artist he made history.” Tim Brooks Lost Sound
Friends of Maple Grove 2014
It was just announced by the Library of Congress that for 2013, George Washington Johnson's Laughing Song was selected as one of the 25 recordings to be preserved for posterity and placed in the National Registry of Recording Sounds!