J.C. Johnson was born in Chicago in 1896 with the given name of Jay Cee Johnson, although through his entire adult life he shortened it to J.C..
Around 1920, he moved to New York City, where he began working as a session pianist with singer Ethel Waters.
She sang his first recorded song, “YOU CAN’T DO WHAT MY LAST MAN DID” in 1923 and proceeded to record 10 more of his songs and collaborations.
Her discography includes the very first recording of TRAV’LIN ALL ALONE, subsequently recorded by dozens of artists including Billie Holiday and Billy Eckstine.
In the late 20s and early 30s, J.C. wrote for many reviews and shows on Broadway and on tour. He also co-wrote LITTLE BLACK BOY, which became the theme song for the 1934 NAACP convention.
J.C.’s association with Bessie Smith was his most productive with a singer, and he wrote more than 10 hit recordings for her.
The most famous is the classic EMPTY BED BLUES, which has has over 100 recordings. Other songs for her include BLACK MOUNTAIN BLUES, SLOW AND EASY MAN and ME AND MY GIN.
Numerous other artists through the ’20s and ’30s also sang and recorded J.C.’s tunes, including Connie Boswell, Mamie Smith, Clarence Williams, and Lonnie Johnson. The first three songs recorded by a young Ella Fitzgerald were co-written by J.C.
He also had his own band, J.C. Johnson and his Five Hot Sparks, and played piano on many other artists’ recording.
J.C. collaborated extensively with other composers and lyricists, many well-established in their own right.
J.C. wrote music for numerous songs with lyrics by Andy Razaf, such as GUESS WHO’S IN TOWN (Ethel Waters) and LOUISIANA (Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire). The pair also co-wrote lyrics for many compositions by Fats Waller, the best known being THE JOINT IS JUMPIN’.
J.C. on his own wrote lyrics for other Fats Waller tunes and for songs with music by Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb and Claude Hopkins, among others. He also worked with lyricists George Whiting and Nat Schwartz and co-wrote the last two Texas Guinan revues with Whiting.
During World War II, J.C. volunteered as an ambulance driver. With Andy Razaf he wrote YANKEE DOODLE TAN, honoring the African American soldiers, which appeared in the movie HIT PARADE OF 1943.
J.C. continued to write for the theatre in the early 1950s.
The first show, THE YEAR ROUND, was produced in a renovated Harlem supermarket and included a young Brock Peters still performing under his given name of George Fisher. J.C. also wrote for the Ink Spots and for a few years acted as their manager.
In 1953, J.C. collaborated on JAZZ TRAIN, which was a huge hit when it opened in a New York night club. The following year it was retooled as a large musical revue for London’s West End, where its run included two command performances for the Queen. The show then toured England and the Continent for three years.
In the 1970s, J.C. enjoyed the renewed interest in his songs, which appeared in many movies and Broadway revues (AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, ME AND BESSIE, BUBBLIN’ BROWN SUGAR, the West End’s RENT PARTY and COTTON CLUB). Many modern artists such as Bette Midler, Bobby Short and Della Reese also recorded his work.
J.C. retired to the village of Wurtsboro in upstate New York. He would perform there with a community of Harlem musicians who had settled near-by until his death in 1981. The village is also where he met a young Gary Holmes and the story of TRAV’LIN began.