John Rosamond Johnson
Composer, Conductor, Actor
1873 - 1954
Inducted in 2006
A native of Jacksonville, John Rosamond Johnson was a musical prodigy–at age 4, he was an accomplished pianist. After studying at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Johnson returned to Jacksonville and served for a time as the musical director of the Bethel Baptist church.
In 1905, Rosamond set a poem written five years earlier by his talented brother, James Weldon Johnson, to music. The NAACP later adopted "Lift Up Ev'ry Voice and Sing" as "the Negro national anthem."
A passion for musical comedy soon drew Johnson into show business. By age 23, he was touring as a vocalist with the company of Oriental America, thought to be the first all-black show on Broadway that wasn't a burlesque house act.
While in New York, Johnson met numerous luminaries in the music field, most notably Oscar Hammerstein, who would ultimately help shape his career. He also met and teamed up with gifted singer/songwriter Bob Cole, of Atlanta. For seven years, the pair toured as "Cole and Johnson," and wrote and published more than 200 songs, including Under the Bamboo Tree, which sold more than 400,000 copies, making it one of the nation's most popular tunes. Besides crafting a sophisticated vaudeville style, Cole and Johnson produced two musicals, The Shoo-Fly Regiment (1907) and The Red Moon (1909).
Brother James Weldon eventually joined Cole and Johnson, and the trio soon became one of the most influential song composition and musical show writing teams in New York. These men elevated the "Negro Songs" from music that promoted negative stereotypes of African Americans to sophisticated tunes that were used in Broadway musicals.
In 1912, Oscar Hammerstein appointed Rosamond as musical director of his Grand Opera House in London, making Johnson the first African American to serve in this capacity in a white theatrical (light opera) company. After two years in London, he returned to New York with his new wife, Nora Floyd, and the couple started the Music School Settlement for Colored People.
Later, after directing a singing orchestra and appearing in a series of groundbreaking plays given by The Colored Players at the Garden Theater in Madison Square Garden, Johnson appeared in 1935 in what would become the classical musical Porgy and Bess.
When World War I broke out, Johnson received a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 15th Regiment. After the war, he toured with his own groups, and even sang and played the part of a lawyer in the original production of Porgy and Bess in 1935. Although he did not write another musical comedy, Johnson continued to compose songs, instruct young people in music and serve as a "theater doctor" for many plays until his death in 1954.