Wini Johnson

aka Winnie Johnson

Photo of Wini Johnson
  • Birth Name

    Winifred Claudia Johnson
  • Born

    December 3, 1917
  • Died

    1980
    New York, New York
  • Orchestras

    Duke Ellington

Dancer and singer Wini Johnson spent only a few months with Duke Ellingtons band dur­ing 1944, but 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.

During the 1930s in 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. They per­formed to­gether as the Three Johnsons, work­ing in Ellington’s 1937 Apollo re­vue and ap­pear­ing 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 son, 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 1942, she’d be­gun billing her­self by the short­ened first name Wini, and in May she re­turned to Broadway again 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 ca­nary 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 some­time in 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 1945, Johnson re­tired from show busi­ness and mar­ried 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.

Sources

  1. “Wini Johnson.” Internet Broadway Database. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
  2. “Winnie Johnson.” Internet Broadway Database. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
  3. “Wini Johnson and Wini Brown.” Ellingtonweb, tdwaw.ellingtonweb.ca/WiniJohnson.html. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
  4. Stratemann, Klaus. Duke Ellington, Day by Day and Film by Film. JazzMedia, 1992, p. 259.
  5. Clark, Champ. Shuffling to Ignominy: The Tragedy of Stepin Fetchit. IUniverse, 2005, pps. 58, 133
  6. Johnson, Howard Eugene. A Dancer in the Revolution: Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club. Empire State Editions, 2014.
  7. Magazine section. Oakland Tribune 4 Dec. 1938.
  8. Walker, Danton. “Broadway.” San Antonio Express 23 Feb. 1938: 7.
  9. “Night Club Reviews: Famous Door, New York.” Billboard 31 Jan. 1942: 19.
  10. “Broadway Openings: South Pacific.” Billboard 8 Jan. 1944: 33.
  11. “Broadway Showlog.” Billboard 5 Feb. 1944: 31.
  12. “Broadway Showlog.” Billboard 26 Feb. 1944: 18.
  13. “Tunes Hot in Hub, But Gross Isn't.” Billboard 25 Mar. 1944: 28.
  14. “Night Club Reviews: The Hurricane, New York.” Billboard 15 Apr. 1944: 24.
  15. “Night Club Reviews: The Hurricane, New York.” Billboard 27 May 1944: 22.
  16. “Duke Socko 3G, Earle, Philadelphia.” Billboard 16 Sep. 1944: 28.
  17. “Stretch Johnson, 85, Tap Dancer and Activist.” The New York Times 12 Jun. 2000. www.nytimes.com/2000/06/12/nyregion/stretch-johnson-85-tap-dancer-and-activist.htmlAccessed 20 Mar. 2018.