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Queens is the final resting place for many famous musicians, like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, and will soon add another name to its roster of celebrity music-makers: George Washington Johnson.
The Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery will honor this early music industry star with a plaque unveiling, lectures and workshops this Saturday as part of marking the 100th anniversary of Johnson’s death.
“We wanted to carry over our Black History Month celebrations,” Carl Ballenas, president of Maple Grove, said.
Saturday’s events will also include a visit to the nearby African-American burial ground of the Shiloh Church.
Johnson was the first African-American recording star of the phonograph. Born in 1846, he began life as a slave in Virginia. After the Civil War, he traveled to New York City to make a better life for himself.
He made a living in the music industry using his powerful voice, robust whistling ability and hearty laugh. He had a talent for whistling and laughing in time with music, and performed on the streets, ferries and in public places.
The industry was in its early stages when Johnson started recording songs. He did so first with the Metropolitan Phonograph Company of New York in 1890 and later with Thomas Edison. While recording at that time, he had to sing each song over and over again since duplicating machines were not yet invented. His recordings were the earliest musical hits in the United States.
It was reported that over 50,000 copies of his songs were sold by the late 1890s. Two of his earliest hits were the “Laughing Song” and the “Whistling Song.”
The Library of Congress recently selected “Laughing Song” as one of its recordings to be preserved.
Johnson’s career emerged during a time period that discriminated and suppressed people of color. Some of his song lyrics may seem offensive today, but were common at that time because they were used to mock and humiliate. However, Johnson remained professional and built a substantial career. He was known for his friendly nature, hardworking ethics and was well-liked in the music industry. He opened wide the doors for many black performers who followed him with less offensive materials. Johnson died Jan. 23, 1914 at the age of 67.
In 2004, Tim Brooks, noted television and radio historian, author and television executive wrote “Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922.”
The first three chapters were dedicated to the life and career of Johnson.
Brooks wrote in his book, “He never thought of himself as a pioneer, but as the first black recording artist he made history.”
This event will feature the unveiling of a bronze plaque which includes an engraving of Johnson. The plaque will be unveiled by Brooks and others.
“The Aquinas Honor Society students of the Immaculate Conception School were asked to write the text,” Ballenas said. “Many of them will be coming. Sen. Malcolm Smith will also be attending.”
Ballenas hopes Saturday’s event will show people that historic elements exist at local cemeteries.
“The Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery is striving to bring the public to realize the great historic resources and treasures that can be found at local cemeteries. We hold workshops, lectures and walking tours in honor of the notable people and historic periods of our past,” Ballenas said. “The friends at Maple Grove inspired us to erect a monument on the unmarked grave of George Washington Johnson.”
If You Go
George Washington Johnson Plaque Unveiling
When: Saturday, April 12, at 2 pm
Where: The Center at Maple Grove Cemetery, 127-15 Kew Gardens Road, Kew Gardens
©2014 Community Newspaper Group
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