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Raw materials: Betty Johnson interview excerpts

 

In the late 1930s and early 40s, the Johnson Family Singers had two daily radio shows on the CBS network -- 15 minutes in the morning, and 10 in the evening. But as the era of live radio was ending -- and the kids were entering adulthood -- the family group was breaking up. 

The Johnson Family Singers had a recording contract with Columbia Records, and their A&R man (Artists & Repertoire) was the legendary musician Percy Faith. Here, Betty Johnson talks about how she got started as a solo singer. 

 

(Why did the Johnson Family Singers break up?) 

The radio station was changing its format, they were not doing the live shows any more. The formats were changing, so there wasn't as much need for live programming. And we lost our biggest sponsor, BC Headache Powder. 5:35 every afternoon we did a 10-minute show for them, for years and years and years. 

And of course they gave me my own show, I was a sophomore in college. I did a 15-minute show in the morning. 

 

(You were the only one of your siblings to go into show business?) 

Yes. I was married at 19, I married the football coach at Davidson [College]. In World War II, Mother, Daddy and I were hired by the government to go to different camps and sing. We gave a lot of joy to the soldiers, especially the camps where they were about to go overseas. Then we got this offer from the Veterans Administration to go to the different hospitals. And I went with Mother and Daddy, because my brothers were in school. And it was in Wheeling, West Virginia that I said to my mother and dad, "This is really tough, this is tough on you. And do you remember that man at Columbia Records who came in and said to us, 'I think Betty could be a big star?' What did he mean by that?"

Dad said, 'Well, if you went out on your own, you could probably make it. Why don't you call Percy Faith at Columbia Records?' 

So I went down to the crank phone and called. "Mr. Faith, this is Betty Johnson." 

"Betty, where are you?" 

"I'm with my family in Wheeling, West Virginia. Did you really mean what you said?" 

And he said, "Oh, I think you could do very well." 

I said, "Well, I have to go home and talk to my husband. But maybe I will come up." 

He said, "If you do, call me and I'll find you a place to stay." 

So I went, and things started happening.  He got me a job at a publishing company, and then I got on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts and won, and that really started things for me. Then I became pregnant. I came home and said, "this is over, forget it." And I wasn't that upset about it. But then the marriage didn't work, so I had to make a living. Which I did, thank God. 

I was married at 19, my son was born when I was 23. The marriage was over before then, but my husband wouldn't give me a divorce. Which was fine, because in show business you don't want to be single anyway. 

It's very tough being a young, attractive, good singer, and be in show business. The marriage, I can't say it was a mistake because we have a beautiful son. But in retrospect, it was very very difficult. I worked at the Copacabana nightclub until I was five months into my pregnancy. 

 

(How did your solo career get off the ground?) 

First of all, I did not tell anyone I was married or had a child. Keeping a secret that big is not an easy task. It makes you rather secretive. That was unhappy for me. I was so happy about my son. I was not happy about my failed marriage, because at the time, divorce meant there was something wrong with you, and it was always the woman's fault. 

But I tell you what happened. I got fabulous management in New York. And then I got a job in Chicago with Eddy Arnold, and he was very supportive. He had worked with my family, and that gave me a great sense of security. 

And then I recorded a song called, "I dreamed that I was the Queen of France." And that song was played on the radio, and on the charts for months and months. And you know, I started singing that song, and all of a sudden, I got my -- what do you say, joie de vivre, that I had as a young girl. And I thought, oh my goodness, this is wonderful. 

_________________________

 

"I Dreamed" was the first of many hit records for Betty Johnson. She was a fixture on network television in the 50s and early 60s. But she had more than her share of personal troubles. After the divorce, her husband abducted their son, and she didn't see her son for years. And she couldn't tell anyone. And then, as she told me in a matter-of-fact tone, there were "the rapes." Plural. The first happened during the radio years; the second came in the 50s.

 

My family was just getting established at WBT, and I had extra jobs, I worked in the mailroom, I worked at the switchboard. You know, we all worked extra to make money, because we only made $60 a week on all these radio shows. 

So then I was delivering mail one day to this very famous man who broadcast my family. And I was raped. And I couldn't tell anybody. 

_____________

Gene Autry hired me, and we did big stock shows. That's when all these people ride the broncos and all that. And we all stayed in the same hotels, you know. And once there was a knock on my door, I said 'Come in,' and this guy, world-famous bronco rider -- he looked at me, and I said, 'Can I help you?' And he said 'Yes.' And he pushed me down on the bed, and proceeded to do his thing. 

And I said, 'You must be crazy!' And he said, 'I watch you every night on television, and I've always wanted you.' And then he walked out. 

And I thought, 'Now what do I do? Do I want my face to be on the front page of the paper tomorrow?' It's always the woman's fault. 

Every woman has a secret. And it's a secret that one has to keep, to survive. And this is what makes the story real, because it isn't all Betty Johnson, number-one hit singer. 

My personal life was tough. But I had tremendous faith. And I also had a long-term vision of myself. One day I was going to have a family.  

 

 

 _________________________

That vision finally came true with her second marriage, to Arthur Gray. Here's how they first met.

 

I was in California, playing the Coconut Grove, I played there every year. When I first met him, he thought I was the babysitter, because he saw me in the house of the club's manager. I was coming out the door and he was coming in. He thought I was the babysitter. 

He was at the performance that night, it was New Year's Eve, and he brought his date with him, a beautiful blond starlet who was talking all the time I was trying to sing. 

And I stopped singing, I stopped the orchestra, and I looked at that table, and I said, "I'm singing as quietly as I can." 

Well, 4,000 people just went "Shhh!" 

He called me the next morning, and I thought, well, he's an actor, I'll never see him again. But I really liked him the minute I saw him. I sort of flipped over this guy. But I thought, he's an actor, and I will never date an actor. No show business people. He called me the next morning, and I tested him. I said, it must be wonderful being out here and being able to swim every day. He said, oh I don't live here. I'm at the airport, I'm on my way to New York. I said, what do you do?  And he said, I work on Wall Street. And he said, I'd like to see you again. I said, okay. I'm going to the Fairmont Hotel from here, and then I'm going to the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, and then I'll be home two months from now. I was very nonchalant. 

And two years later we were married. He has been a wonderful husband and father. He's been more than I could ever dreamed of. 

 

After living virtually her entire life on the road, Betty decided to settle down with Arthur. They had two daughters together, and had a long and happy marriage that lasted until Arthur's death in 2010.

 



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