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Biography Billy Johnson, 1858-1916

Image: Cover of Chicken
Chicken by Will Accooe (New York : Howley, Haviland and Co., c1899.). African-American Sheet Music, 1850-1920, American Memory, Library of Congress.

Billy Johnson was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in1858 and was educated in Augusta, Georgia. By 1881 he was performing in minstrel shows. In 1886 he joined Lew Johnson's minstrels and the following year moved to Hicks and Sawyer's minstrels, where he stayed for six seasons. During stints with several other minstrel troops, he began writing songs and eventually landed a job with Bob Cole as songwriter and stage producer for the more upscale Black Patti Troubadours.

Cole and Johnson produced a musical sketch for Black Patti, then left that company to produce their own musical, A Trip to Coontown (1898), the first full length black-produced musical on an American stage. Johnson and Cole both played starring roles. However, during the third season of this musical, Cole accused Johnson of either financial impropriety or of drinking too much (sources vary).

After a period in Chicago, where Johnson got married, dabbled in politics, wrote some songs, and appeared in the last Pekin Stock Company production, he returned to the New York stage around 1911. The last show he performed in was Twenty Miles from Home in 1914. Billy Johnson died in 1916 after a fall.