Though dancer and singer Wini Johnson spent only a few months with Duke Ellington’s band during 1944, she is perhaps one of the more interesting vocalists that Ellington employed. Born in 1917, Johnson began dancing at an early age. After her family moved to New York in 1932, she worked at local affairs under the name Winnie Johnson and caught the eye of famous dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who hired her to perform with him for a one-week stay at the Alhambra Theater. When Robinson told Cotton Club talent scout Elida Webb about Johnson, Webb hired her for the chorus of the Broadway revue Flying Colors, which ran from September 1932 to January 1933. Once that show closed, she began working in the chorus line at the Cotton Club itself.
In 1930s New York, Johnson brushed shoulders with and, according to her brother, Howard, slept with many famous celebrities of the day, including Ellington and boxer Joe Louis, marrying more than once. Her career as a dancer and singer kept her busy, and after leaving the Cotton Club in 1935 she worked regularly, often in conjunction with Howard, known professionally as Stretch, and another brother, Bobby. Performing together as the Three Johnsons, they working in Ellington’s 1937 Apollo revue and appeared in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1936, where she attracted the attention of actor/comedian Stepin Fetchit, who eloped with her in October 1937. She gave birth to their son, Donald, five months later, in March 1938.
After the birth of her child, Johnson worked briefly as a dancer at the Cotton Club again before striking out to appear in several musical productions around New York and Washington, D.C. By 1941 she’d begun billing herself by the shortened first name Wini when she danced in musical short films featuring Count Basie. In May 1942 she returned to Broadway for Harlem Cavalcade. At the same time, her marriage to Fetchit was falling apart, and the couple were in the process of divorce. Johnson briefly gave up show business at that time, moving to Chicago to pursue higher education. She reportedly worked in a lawyer’s office and a rationing board office during this period.
In late 1943, Johnson returned to show business, working as an understudy in the Fats Waller Broadway musical Early to Bed. She left the production to star in another Broadway show, South Pacific, which had no relation to the later hit musical. This version of South Pacific featured an all-black cast and opened on December 29, 1943. Largely panned, it promptly closed three days later, on New Year’s Day, and Johnson returned to Early to Bed, where she stayed until February 1944, when she left to sing for Duke Ellington’s orchestra.
Johnson joined Betty Roché as one of Ellington’s two female vocalists. When Roche left in either late March or early April, Johnson remained as sole vocalist for the band. The choices that Ellington made when it came to hiring female singers were often controversial, and reviewers at the time were less than impressed with Johnson, one critic describing her as a “cute trick with a good figure but a fair voice.” She remained with Ellington’s band until either late September or early October 1944, when she was replaced by Rosita Davis and Marie Ellington. Unfortunately, her entire tenure with Ellington coincided with the American Federation of Musician’s recording ban which ran from August 1942 to November 1944, and she never entered the studio with Ellington.
In June 1944, Johnson married actor Canada Lee. The marriage was brief, however, as in 1945 she retired from show business to marry Dr. Middleton Lambright Jr. The couple settled in Cleveland, where they were socially prominent, and Lambright adopted Donald, her son with Fetchit. The couple divorced sometime in the 1960s, and Johnson briefly married again. Donald made the news in April 1969 when he began shooting at cars along a Pennsylvania highway and then killed his ex-wife, who was in the same car with him, before shooting himself and taking his own life. Wini Johnson passed away in 1980 in a New York hospital.
Johnson’s oldest brother and sometimes dancing partner, Stretch, become an activist for the Communist Party and eventually its youth leader before stepping down in 1956. He then pursued a degree in higher education and became a professor of sociology and black studies. Johnson’s father, Monk, was a professional baseball and basketball player as well as a pool shark and gambler who spent time in Sing Sing prison with Cotton Club owner Owney Madden. Monk also worked as a waiter at the Cotton Club for a period of time. Johnson’s uncle, James Anderson, founded the influential black New York newspaper The Amsterdam News.
During the 1930s, Stepin Fetchit was a highly successful African-American actor and a respected member of the black community. He was also one of the richest African-American men in the United States. Attitudes later changed, however, and as time went on Fetchit became reviled because he built his success and fortune on playing stereotypical black characters for comedy, in particular that of the lazy, ignorant black man. Where earlier black audiences had praised Fetchit for gaming the Hollywood system for wealth, later generations saw him as a sell-out. ↩︎