Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but raised in Norfolk, Virginia, singer Betty Bonney began her professional career at age eight, when she earned a regular solo spot on a children’s radio program. At age eleven, she had her own fifteen-minute program on Newport News, Virginia, radio station WGH, and by the following year she had begun to sing with local orchestras, ending up as regular vocalist for the Auburn Cavaliers out of Auburn College, Alabama, in 1938. The band toured the South with the Gene Austin tent show in 1939 before settling in New York in early 1940, where they fell under the leadership of Colonel Manny Prager, who had been featured saxophonist with Ben Bernie.
In early 1941, Bonney, who was also billed as Betty Jane Bonney, joined Jimmy James. She left James for Les Brown in May 1941, singing on their first big hit, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.” She remained with Brown until August 1942, when she quit to get married. Bonney then sang with Jan Savitt’s orchestra in early 1943, leaving in May of that year for Jerry Wald, where she stayed until at least November. In February 1944, she was vocalist for Frankie Carle’s first orchestra, singing during the band’s debut at the Hotel Pennsylvania. She quit Carle in May of that year to work on Broadway and study voice. She also sang for Charlie Spivak.
In 1945, Bonney divorced her first husband and married a recording executive. She made three soundies for Filmcraft that year and released six sides on the Victor label. Victor tried a new technique to test Bonney’s sales potential, first releasing only a limited amount of disks in the New York market. The records sold out, and the label then heavily promoted Bonney, prompting singer Dinah Shore to cry foul, claiming that Victor had focused its resources on Bonney and had ignored her own recordings released at the same time. As a result of that promotion, Billboard magazine featured Bonney on its September 22, 1945, cover. She also appeared on WNBT television in November, lipsyncing to her records in-between election coverage reports.
While 1945 proved a good year for Bonney on wax and film as well as in print, she had trouble finding radio work, prompting her to switch booking agencies. She continued singing, appearing on stage and in nightclubs throughout the rest of the 1940s. In 1948, she recorded “Baby’s in Bermuda” on the Gem label and also appeared as part of the stage show at the Copacabana. In 1949, she sang and danced in the Broadway musical High Button Shoes. She also toured with the production. In 1949, she signed with the Rainbow label.
In 1950, Bonney changed her professional name to Judy Johnson and in June of that year became vocalist for Sammy Kaye, though she didn’t stay with the bandleader for long. Also in 1950, she made the first of what would be several television appearances throughout the decade, which included guest spots on Arthur Murray’s Dance Party and Guy Lombardo’s short-lived program. She performed multiple times on Your Show of Shows, often with duet partner Bill Hayes.
Johnson recorded two sides with Hayes for MGM in 1952 and two in 1953. In 1953, she recorded solo on the Tempo label as part of a series of disks commissioned by the Navy for enlistment purposes. She also recorded on the Bell label that year. Owned by Pocket Books, Bell released inexpensive 78rpm singles for 35 cents each. In 1956, she made a polka record on Victor.
In 1953, Johnson toured the nightclub circuit with a backing male group, calling her act Judy and Her Dates, and in 1955 she appeared in a New York revival of Guys and Dolls. In the mid-1950s, she married Mort Lindsey, who later went on to lead the orchestra for Merv Griffin’s television program. He also worked as musical director for Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand. Johnson continued singing through the 1960s, often appearing on television.
Bonney was at least seventeen years old at the time she joined Brown, though rumors and gossip years later questioned that age, putting her as young as thirteen or fourteen. The source for this confusion comes down to Bonney changing her professional name to Judy Johnson in 1950. With that change, she also magically became younger. The birthdate usually listed for Johnson is March 8, 1928. Bonney, however, married in late 1942, then divorced and remarried in 1945. If she had been born in 1928, that would have made her an unlikely fourteen and seventeen at the time of those marriages. A 1945 Billboard article stated that Bonney had been in show business thirteen years and listed a radio spot at age eight as her first job. That would push Bonney’s birth year to a much more realistic 1924, and an October 1943 newspaper article confirms it by stating her age as nineteen as well as an August 1942 article giving her age as eighteen. It is possible that she was actually born in 1922 however. Articles in both Down Beat magazine and a newspaper in April 1940 list her age as eighteen. It’s likely they took the information from the same press release. No other sources confirm it, but that would actually make more sense in the narrative of her early career as fourteen was very young for a girl to be traveling with a band whereas sixteen was a more common age for such employment. ↩︎
Her first husband was an Army officer who served overseas. ↩︎