Betty Bonney

aka Betty Jane BonneyJudy Johnson

Photo of Betty Bonney

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. The band even­tu­ally signed with the Gene Austin tent show be­fore set­tling in New York, where they be­came known as Colonel Manny Prager and His Cavaliers. In early 1941, she be­came part of the Jimmy James Orchestra.

Bonney left James for Les Browns band in May 1941, singing on their first big hit, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.” Bonney was young at the time, though how young be­came a mat­ter of ru­mor. Gossip put her at age four­teen, though some later re­ports say she was thir­teen. She was more likely sev­en­teen how­ever.[1] She re­mained with Brown un­til August 1942, when she left to get mar­ried.

Bonney, who was also billed as Betty Jane Bonney, sang with Jan Savitts or­ches­tra in early 1943. She left Savitt in July of that year for Jerry Wald, stay­ing un­til at least November. In February 1944, she was vo­cal­ist for Frankie Carles 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 Lombardos 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.

Notes

  1. The birth­date usu­ally listed for Bonney, aka Judy Johnson, is March 8, 1928. If that were true, she would have been only thir­teen years old at the time of her de­but with Brown’s band. According to critic George T. Simon, ru­mors placed Bonney as young as four­teen, though she did­n’t look it. Bonney, how­ever, mar­ried in late 1942, then di­vorced and re­mar­ried in 1945. If she had been born in 1928, that would have made her four­teen and sev­en­teen at the time of those mar­riages. While that’s cer­tainly not im­pos­si­ble, it’s im­prob­a­ble and would have been quite scan­dalous in the world of show busi­ness gos­sip. The pop ca­reer of Jerry Lee Lewis ef­fec­tively ended in 1958 when it be­came known that his wife was only thir­teen years old. 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, mean­ing she was sev­en­teen or eigh­teen at the time she sang for Brown and that the 1928 birth­date was a later ad­just­ment. It was hardly un­usual for singing stars to be­come younger as they aged, so to speak, and con­sid­er­ing that she changed her name in 1950 an age ad­just­ment might be ex­pected as well.

Music

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  • Joltin' Joe DiMaggio
    Les Brown (Betty Bonney), Columbia (1941)
  • I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)
    Les Brown (Betty Bonney), Columbia (1941)
  • Ho Hum (Wish I Were Someone in Love)
    Betty Jane Bonney, Victor (1945)
  • How Little We Knnow
    Betty Jane Bonney, Victor (1945)
  • You Oughta Be in Pictures
    Sammy Kaye (Judy Johnson, Tony Alamo), Columbia (1950)
  • Love You
    Bill Hayes and Judy Johnson, MGM (1953)

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Films

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  • Screenshot
    Out of Breath
    Bill Hayes and Judy Johnson
    from Your Show of Shows, NBC (1951)

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Sources

  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 31 May 1941: 10.
  3. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 31 Jan. 1942: 22.
  4. “Les Brown's New Chirp.” Billboard 22 Aug. 1942: 25.
  5. “Vaudeville Reviews: Strand: New York.” Billboard 17 Apr. 1943: 14.
  6. Honigberg, Sam. “On the Stand: Jan Savitt.” Billboard 24 Jul. 1943: 17.
  7. “Jerry Wald Debut at Hamid's Pier.” The Sunday Morning Star [Wilmington, DE] 25 Jul. 1943: 32.
  8. Honigberg, Sam. “Vaudeville Reviews: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 13 Nov. 1943: 22.
  9. “On the Stand: Frankie Carle.” Billboard 26 Feb. 1944: 16.
  10. “Music Grapevine.” Billboard 27 May 1944: 99.
  11. Kilgallen, Dorothy. “On Broadway.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 17 Apr. 1945: Daily Magazine, 2.
  12. “Movie Machine Reviews.” Billboard 31 Mar. 1945: 14.
  13. “Movie Machine Reviews.” Billboard 28 Apr. 1945: 72.
  14. “RCA Uses Limited Area Sales Tests on Bonney Disks.” Billboard 19 May 1945: 27.
  15. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 19 May 1945: 27.
  16. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 23 Jun. 1945: 66.
  17. “Dinah Isn't Sore Over Bonney Ads, Just Me, Too-ing.” Billboard 21 Jul. 1945: 15.
  18. “Oberstein Back to RCA-Victor To Handle Rep and Artists' Slot.” Billboard 21 Jul. 1945: 15.
  19. “Bonney, Morris Phfft Over Radio.” Billboard 4 Aug. 1945: 15.
  20. “Chi Columnist Has Own Juke Survey to Tab Top Tunes.” Billboard 15 Sep. 1945: 85.
  21. Cover Billboard 22 Sep. 1945: 1.
  22. “Betty Jane Bonney.” Billboard 22 Sep. 1945: 20.
  23. “Television: Reviews: N.Y. Elections, 1945.” Billboard 17 Nov. 1945: 12.
  24. Advertisement Billboard 24 Jan. 1948: 68.
  25. Smith, Bill. “Night Club Reviews.” Billboard 17 Apr. 1948: 6.
  26. Herzog, Buck. “Reviews of New Shows: High Button Shoes.” The Milwaukee Sentinal 3 Dec. 1949: 5.
  27. “Music As Written.” Billboard 6 Aug. 1949: 33.
  28. “Music As Written.” Billboard 24 Jun. 1950: 19.
  29. “The Show of- Still Great But May need Some Changed.” Billboard 22 Sep. 1951: 3.
  30. “MGM Signs Pact for TV's Judy Johnson.” Billboard 29 Mar. 1952: 20.
  31. “Diskeries Balk at Long-Term Pacts.” Billboard 29 Mar. 1952: 20.
  32. “Tempo Etches Navy Shows.” Billboard 4 Apr. 1953: 11.
  33. “Night Club Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 4 Jul. 1953: 13.
  34. “Night Club-Vaude: Cocoanut Grove, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles.” Billboard 26 Dec. 1953: 43.
  35. “35-Cent Pop 78's Make Bow Sept. 1.” Billboard 29 Aug. 1953: 20.
  36. “'Guy Lombard' Sales Moving Briskly.” Billboard 6 Nov. 1954: 5.
  37. Bundy, June. “Disk Stars' Aliases Thicker Than a P.O. Bulletin Board.” Billboard 21 May. 1955: 39.
  38. “Night Club: Guys and Dolls, City Center, New York.” Billboard 11 Jun. 1955: 14.
  39. Hevesi, Dennis. “Mort Lindsey, TV Bandleader and Accompanist to Stars, Dies at 89.” The New York Times 9 May 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
  40. McLellan, Dennis. “Mort Lindsey dies at 89.” Los Angeles Times 10 May 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
  41. “Reviews of New Polka Records.” Billboard 24 Nov. 1956: 46.
  42. “Talent on the Road.” Billboard 11 Jan. 1960: 54.