In 1909, Jesse, James and Harry Johnson came to St. Louis from Tennessee. Jesse was originally a dance instructor, teaching dance steps and leading dances in various cabarets. By 1916, he was promoting excursions on Monday afternoons and nights on the various segregated excursion boats that were on the St. Louis Levee. African-Americans were only allowed on some of the excursion boats on Mondays, a practice that continued until 1970.
Jesse was an entrepreneur. He began selling records by black St. Louis artists, and eventually opened a record shop behind the Booker T. Washington Vaudeville Theater on 22nd. He later moved this store to Jefferson. He also owned and a cab company and a restaurant. All these enterprises had the name "Deluxe" in them.
Jesse's brother James, known as "Stump" because he was short, became a blues pianist and vocalist. He recorded for various labels from 1929 on as Jesse "Stump" Johnson and also as Shorty George and Snitcher Roberts. His collected works are available on CD as "James "Stump" Johnson: Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order," on Document DOCD-5250. St. Louis in the late 1800's to the 1930's had a quite a number of thriving bordellos that employed him. Most of his repertoire was fairly raunchy. Oliver Cobb's Rhythm Kings recorded his best-known tune "The Duck's Yas Yas Yas" in 1929. In 1932, Eddie Johnson's Crackerjacks recorded it with nearly the same personnel. Quite a few other artists have covered it. A YouTube video has this song as the sound track to a 1930 cartoon called "Alaska." Stump Johnson had a long career in clubs in St. Louis, and recorded as late as 1964. Some of his music was on the soundtrack of the 1970 film Blues like Showers of Rain.
Jesse's music promotions business became so successful by the end of the 1920s that if a nationally-known black band wanted to come into St. Louis, they had to go through him. He increased ticket sales by having local bands "battle" the nationally known bands. An almost disastrous event took place in the spring of 1928 on the steamer St. Paul: Louis Armstrong, backed by the Alphonso Trent Band, battled the Floyd Campbell band. The show was vastly oversold, and had the captain left the dock, several thousand lives could have been lost when the overloaded boat sank. Fortunately, the boat Capitan kept the St. Paul at the dock.
Jesse Johnson promoted shows and dances by the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway bands by dropping leaflets from airplanes over St. Louis. The Cab Calloway show brought 18,000 customers to the Arena at the height of the Depression. Calloway later remarked that he had never had a crowd that big, and was always available to Jesse. Jesse Johnson desegregated Forest Park Highlands by bringing in nationally known black bands and adding St. Louis bands to the bill.
Jesse's Deluxe Café and the after-hours club at 10 North Jefferson was the place where all the nationally known jazz musicians went to jam after their jobs. Duke Ellington discovered bassist Jimmy Blanton, who revolutionized jazz bass playing, at the Deluxe Café in 1939. According to Eddie Randle, a prominent black bandleader in St. Louis then, "the next night Jimmy was in a white suit in front of the Ellington band at the Coronado Hotel." Jesse Johnson died in 1946 and his wife, Edith North Johnson, a prominent blues singer, continued to manage the Deluxe Café and Jesse Johnson's other businesses.
Stump Johnson remained a performer in St. Louis clubs, and had two other sidelines: He was a Wellston policeman, and a tax collector for the city of St. Louis. In the late 1950s, he began helping Edith Johnson manage the Deluxe Café. He married Sara L. Pegues, a secretary for the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners. They had a son, Harry E. Johnson, in 1954. Stump died in 1969.
While his family had been very entrepreneurial and industrious, it also helped serve the community, making opportunities available for St. Louis African Americans. Harry E. Johnson continued that tradition. He went to CBC high school, earned his bachelor's degree in political science at Xavier University in New Orleans, did graduate work at Washington University and decided to go law school. He earned his law degree at Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law and set up his practice in Houston.
He is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest black fraternity in the United States, and became the national fraternity President (2001 to 2004). The fraternity had worked since 1984 to create a national memorial to the late Dr. Martin Luther King. When he left the presidency of Alpha Phi Alpha, Harry Johnson became president and chief executive officer of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation. That memorial was finally dedicated on October 11, 2011.
The Johnson family is another example of St. Louisans who have had a national impact. We should celebrate all of them.
Dennis Owsley has broadcast a weekly jazz show for St. Louis Public Radio (KWMU-FM) continuously since April 1983. Professionally, he holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and is a retired Monsanto Senior Science Fellow and college teacher. His current show, “Jazz Unlimited,” is heard every Sunday night from 9 p.m. to midnight.