Charles Johnson was one of just a few white men who studied and mastered the African American ragtime music of the turn of the twentieth century. Although his early music training was not in this type of music, he found his musical talent well suited for ragtime piano playing and composing.
Charles L. Johnson was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on December 3, 1875, the son of James R. and Helen E. Johnson. He lived in the area most of his life and died in Kansas City, Missouri, on December 29, 1950. Johnson began composing music at an early age and was associated for several years with Kansas City’s Carl Hoffman music publishing house. A few of his early hits included “Iola,” which sold 1.2 million copies,” Dill Pickles,” considered by many to be his best known rag, “Doc Brown’s Cake Walk,” and “Sweet and Low.” Much of his time was devoted to the arrangement of music, including the arrangement of piano scores for orchestra instruments.
Johnson had a connection with a famous Missouri song. Although the “Missouri Waltz” was not written by him, Johnson is credited with making the song’s first orchestra arrangement. In 1914, Johnson was working as a “song plugger” at the Forster Publishing Company of Chicago when he first heard the tune, after the company purchased the rights. He couldn’t sell the song and ended up calling it a “flivver.” Eventually it did catch on, and the “Missouri Waltz” became the state of Missouri’s official song. President Harry Truman played the song publicly on the piano many times.
While living in Kansas City, Charles Johnson was associated with William J. (Jack) Riley in orchestras at the Hotel Baltimore and for 20 years arranged music for the American Royal. He was also musical director of the annual Nit-Wits show put on by the local University Club. With his music arranging business, he was employed by song writers and was an arranger for the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville, Tennessee.
Sheet music of the popular songs of Charles Johnson sold in the millions. Over his lifetime he composed rag pieces, pop songs, ballads, waltzes, and teaching pieces. Johnson described what makes a hit song this way: the composer “merely striking the popular fancy of the multitude; hitting on a waltz, a ballad of a bit of rag-time that will be hummed eternally once it gets to going.”
A version of this article previously appeared at http://www.kchistory.org/content/biography-charles-johnson-1875-1950-mus...
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.