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Johnson Family Singers and Betty Johnson

The singing of hymns and gospel songs was a staple of country music performances in the 1930s and ’40s. One of WBT’s best-loved groups, the Johnson Family Singers, specialized in sacred music and were known to many as “radio’s sweetest singing family.”

Betty Johnson
Betty Johnson

Lydia and Jesse Johnson, known affectionately as Ma and Pa, lived in the White Oak community of Greensboro, North Carolina and worked at Cone Mills. They raised four children, each of whom had musical talent: Kenneth, Betty, and the twins, Bob and Jim.
In 1937, Pa Johnson attended the Stamps-Baxter Music School in Dallas, Texas and learned the shape-note system of musical notation. After his return he taught his family the shape-note method and led singing schools in the community. Soon the family began performing at church programs and family reunions. In 1940 they were invited to sing on WBT radio. They were so well received that the station offered them a contract to broadcast five times a week. Their success persuaded them to try to make a living with their music and they took to the road to supplement the income provided by WBT.

With the encouragement of WBT pianist Larry Walker, they added popular songs to their repertory. Walker was a classically trained musician and greatly influenced the family’s musical style and development. Under his direction they produced the “sweet, mellow, and blended sound” that, along with Pa Johnson’s guitar accompaniment, became Johnson Family trademarks.

The Johnson Family Singers and Grady Cole: (L to R) Grady Cole, Pa, the twins Bob and Jim, Betty, Kenneth, Ma
The Johnson Family Singers and Grady Cole: (L to R) Grady Cole, Pa, the twins Bob and Jim, Betty, Kenneth, Ma

Their signature song on WBT wasThere’s a Little Pine Log Cabin; favorite hymns included The Old Rugged Crossand Precious Memories. Veteran WBT listeners may also fondly recall their renditions of popular songs such asGoodnight Irene, Moonlight on the Bayand Carolina Moon.

In the early 1940s, Betty Johnson appeared as a soloist on the Briarhopper show with Whitey and Hogan, Hank Warren and Claude Casey. She sang popular numbers of the day with the accompaniment of the Briarhopper musicians and regularly joined Claude and Whitey and Hogan for duets and trios.

During the 1940s, the Johnsons toured with Bill Monroe and Arthur Smith and appeared with the Carter Family on WBT. In 1947 they made their first appearance on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. They remained regulars on WBT for over ten years, receiving carloads of fan mail. Their broadcasting career came to a close in 1951 when sponsors chose to invest their advertising budgets in newspapers rather than radio.

But by then, the Johnson children had grown up and were ready to pursue careers of their own. Kenneth attended Dickenson College and prepared to enter the ministry. Betty began a highly successful career as an actress and professional singer which eventually carried her to Broadway. The twins became Charlotte businessmen. Ma and Pa Johnson retired to Orangeburg, South Carolina where they continued to sing in the family tradition. In 1958, the Johnson Family Singers reunited for two appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and a year later they recorded an album in Nashville.

It has been many years now since the Johnsons have been heard in public, but they are well remembered by thousands of Carolinians who listened to WBT four decades ago.

— from George Holt, ed., The Charlotte Country Music Story (Spirit Square Arts Center and North Carolina Arts Council, 1985)

Updated 2015

Kenneth Johnson authored a book The Johnson Family: We Sang for Our Supper and compiled a CD of 1940s-1950s vintage performances under the same title.

Betty Johnson makes her home in Haverhill, New Hampshire.  She has donated extensive papers to UNC Chapel Hill.

Johnson Family grandkids Chris and Wes Johnson continue the family’s musical tradition in a part-time Charlotte band Hardcore Lounge.