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Overdue Ovation: George V. Johnson

The singer’s roundabout route pays off with his latest album.

George V. Johnson. Photo courtesy of artist.

George V. Johnson keeps a recording close at hand. It’s a 16-second clip of Eddie Jefferson, the jazz vocalist who invented “vocalese,” from 1977. In the clip, Jefferson counts off a 4/4 beat; as a trio gets going behind him, he announces, “One of my students, George Johnson, come out from Washington, D.C. He’s next in line, next in line.”

It’s the defining moment of Johnson’s musical career, and perhaps of his life: His teacher, one of jazz’s best-known male singers and innovators (and a dear friend before his 1979 murder), naming the younger singer as heir apparent. Not surprisingly, the tape became his calling card. He used it to introduce himself to musicians, and sometimes played it as a prologue to his performances. He even used it to open his 2000 debut recording—naturally titled Next in Line!

“I don’t do it just for me—not just for me, but for Eddie,” says Johnson, now 71, sitting at a restaurant in College Park, Maryland, a few days after Christmas. “I promised Eddie Jefferson that I would continue his legacy.”

Jefferson isn’t so prominent on the long-awaited follow-up album, 2022’s Walk Spirit Talk Spirit. Perhaps it’s because this album—featuring eight self-penned lyrics to classic jazz compositions and solos, in the vocalese style—is about Johnson’s own legacy. 

He spent eight years as a member of James Moody’s band, touring the world with the saxophonist (although unfortunately never recording with him). He also worked regularly with Jimmy Heath, Lou Donaldson, Barry Harris, and many others in addition to Jefferson. Jazz fans who don’t know his name nonetheless know his voice: It’s the warm tenor that sings on Pharoah Sanders’ 1981 recording of “Moment’s Notice,” still a staple of jazz radio.


Yet in 1985, just as jazz was reaching the height of its “neo-classical” revival, Johnson walked away to raise a family and earn a more stable income. While he’s mostly stayed on the sidelines since then, he’s never quite left the arena. “You don’t see me singing out there all the time,” he acknowledges, “but I’m glad to say I’m still doing my thing.”

Born in Washington, D.C. in 1950, Johnson remembers being surrounded by music for his entire childhood. “My father was kind of the local neighborhood DJ, playing records out the window. People always coming to hear Mr. Johnson,” he recalls. Among the gatherers were the apartment building’s manager, who was also a pianist on the local scene, and other musicians who’d come by to jam with him: Shirley Horn, Keter Betts, and D.C.’s “Wailin’ Mailman” Buck Hill.

Even as a child, he was learning and singing the songs he heard and when he was 18, he bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder and began taping himself singing along to Charlie Parker records. But aside from church choir, he never sang in public until the mid-’70s, when he was working as a Metrobus driver. One day on his route, he heard a radio advertisement for a new jazz club, Pigfoot, which had quickly become the hottest spot in town. 


That night, Johnson walked into the club, introduced himself to the house pianist—Malachi, who had toured with Billy Eckstine’s groundbreaking big band and as an accompanist Pearl Bailey and Sarah Vaughan—and talked his way into sitting in and singing his own lyric to Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes.” “I saw a pretty little girl today/ she only lived a half a block away/ Although we didn’t get the chance to speak/ I knew one day that we would finally meet.”

Before long, they were playing together regularly at Pigfoot. It was also a destination for big name artists passing through town, and Johnson thereby got to meet the likes of Art Blakey, Jefferson, and Donaldson—who collared the singer one night and whispered, “Move to New York.”

“I do it for Eddie. I promised Eddie Jefferson I would continue his legacy.”


Shortly thereafter, he did. It was a struggle at first: He sang on the streets during the day and slept on the subways at night. Then, after three months, he went to Carnegie Hall with his Eddie Jefferson tape, hoping to garner a spot on a Jefferson tribute. It didn’t happen, but while he was there, he met James Moody, who brought him onstage later that night at Sweet Basil. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration. 

“He put me in every great situation he could think of,” Johnson recalls. “I ended up going back to Carnegie Hall next year. Town Hall, Lincoln Center, Sweet Basil, Bottom Line, Fat Tuesdays, 92nd Street Y, South Street Seaport. Touring—Moody took me everywhere. I was probably one of the hippest singers in New York at that time. Weren’t any other male singers out, except for Leon Thomas, Andy Bey, and Joe Williams. Those were the three, and me.” 

It was Thomas who introduced him to Sanders one night at a club. Johnson told the saxophonist he had written a lyric to Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” and Sanders invited him to sing it with the band. Two days later, Johnson—by then married and living in Trenton, New Jersey—got a call from Sanders. “He says, ‘George, we gonna be hanging out in New York for the weekend. You want to come hang out with us?’ He gave me the address. I got to New York, I went to the address, and it was Power Station Studio.” They recorded the song, which still reaps dividends for Johnson to this day.


The dividends weren’t large enough to support a family, however, and Johnson took a job as a conductor on the NJ Transit railroad. (“Ladies and gentlemen!” He recites from memory. “This is the local train to Trenton, making stops at Newark, Elizabeth, Linden, Rahway, Mitchell Park, Metuchen, Edison, New Brunswick, Jersey Avenue, Princeton Junction, and Trenton.”) Trying to balance that with a musical career, however, was brutal—and by 1985 he also had three sons who needed his attention.

He gave his notice to Moody, who understood: “He said, ‘George, keep your job. You got a big house, working the railroad, and even with my name, and my reputation, I can’t even get a house or a car.’” Still, Johnson did some music teaching at Trenton’s Afrikan People’s Action School, and continued writing lyrics—some of which made the cut for Next in Line, which he made just to keep a toe in the music scene. But it wasn’t until the 2010s, after a divorce, retirement, and nursing his mother through her final days, that Johnson retrained his focus on the music.

Walk Spirit Talk Spirit draws on the stockpile of lyrics Johnson has collected across the decades, including two McCoy Tyner songs (the title track and “Fly with the Wind”); Hank Mobley’s “No Room for Squares”; and an old favorite, Parker’s “Moose the Mooche.” Recorded at pianist Allyn Johnson’s Divine Order Studios with an assemblage of D.C.’s best players, the album fills (George) Johnson with high hopes. 


“I think this CD will take me to places I’ve never been,” he says. “It’s gonna take me around the world. Got my passport renewed and everything, so hopefully—because now that I’ve got the time, all I want to do is sing and travel.” 

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.