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George Washington Johnson

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Biography

George Washington Johnson (c.1855? - 1914) was a singer and pioneer sound recording artist, the first African-American star of the phonograph.

Johnson was born in slavery on a plantation in Virginia. About 1889 Johnson was whistling on the Staten Island Ferry in New York City when he was heard by someone connected with the infant recording industry (one story says that it was Thomas A. Edison himself). Johnson was invited to record his loud raggy whistling on wax phonograph cylinders for a fee of twenty cents per 2 minute performance. The recording went well, and in 1890 Johnson began recording regularly for various companies in the New York and New Jersey area.

Johnson sang as well as whistled, and also was able to give a boisterous laugh in musical pitch. From this he developed the two performances that made him famous, “The Whistling Coon” and “The Laughing Coon”. “coon” was slang for an African-American at the time. While on occasion he recorded other material, including whistling the song “Listen to the Mockingbird” and some short minstrel show performances done with other performers, it was these two songs that Johnson would perform and record over and over for years.

In the earliest days of the recording industry, every record was a “master”.

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