Fabulous ’50s: Betty Johnson and a life less ordinary

By  Hank Davis

This Fabulous ‘50s column will be different than just about everything that’s appeared here before. It isn’t so much the artist, herself. Betty Johnson had hit records in the 1950s, appeared on TV and got plenty of spins by pioneering R&R disc jockey Alan Freed. She passes that test with flying colors. It’s more that the product that we’re focusing on — her autobiography — is different from most.

Fab50sBettyJ1.jpgRather than write a conventional book, Betty has chosen to tell her story in her own voice on a series of eight CDs. The resulting experience is far more intense than usual. Instead of turning the pages and hearing the words in your own head, you’ll have Betty talking directly to you about her trials and frustrations and secrets and joys.

And believe me, there are plenty of all of them.

Some of them are personal (very personal), and others are professional. When that eighth disc is over, you won’t be left wondering much about her life. About the only question that might remain is where she found the courage (or stamina) to undertake this project. Intercut with about 10 hours of narrative are over 40 samples of music from all stages of her career.

That may not mean much for some artists, but in Betty Johnson’s case, it covers quite a range. This has been quite a busy and productive life, boys and girls. It starts in the proverbial log cabin, growing up dirt-poor in Appalachia.

Only the Johnson Family did more than eat chickens and hunt possums. They literally sang for their supper. The Johnson Family Singers were a staple at WBT in Charlotte, N.C. They appeared in local churches and fairs and also recorded for Columbia Records in the 1940s, switching to RCA Victor in the ‘50s. If you’ve ever hunted through stacks of old 78s in a yard sale or Salvation Army south of the Mason-Dixon, you’ve seen their singles. These folks were very popular.
Betty went on to record some singles of her own for the Bally label (a wing of the reportedly mobbed-up jukebox/slot machine company).

Growing up in New York, I listened to Betty Johnson sing songs like “I’ll
Wait” and “Little White Lies” often spun by Freed. Betty was also a regular (the “girl singer”) on the Don McNeil Breakfast Club, broadcast nationally over the ABC radio network, and she later appeared as a regular on the Jack Paar late night TV show. Betty did theatre and appeared at the Copa. She went from hillbilly to rock & roll to pop to cabaret. She also did TV commercials that you couldn’t escape if you’re of a certain age.

Her autobiography reports all of this in detail, along with her failed marriages and enough harrowing backstage tales to genuinely upset most listeners. If you want an unvarnished look at the stupidity and narrow-mindedness of life in the ‘50s, you’ve come to the right place. You’ll wonder how she had the self-control not to commit murder or found the will to persevere. But she did find both. And she succeeded more or less on her own terms.

Now in her 70s, Betty has come out strong at the other end of this trial by fire. She has family ties, a list of wonderful accomplishments, and the pleasure of hearing from and meeting fans who still value her work. She’s turned a lot of this into an internet success story.

When you email her at Betty@Betty-Johnson.com, visit her Web site (www.Betty-Johnson.com) or call her 800 number (1-800-838-6110), there is some chance that she will answer. I can promise you, that has shaken up more than a few customers who were calling to purchase one of the Betty’s Greatest Hits CD packages she offers for sale. They weren’t expecting a chat with the artist, herself.

Whether you choose to listen to recordings of the barely pubescent Betty singing gospel songs with her family, the teenage R&R hits or the grown-up version of Betty singing sophisticated standards with a small jazz combo, you’re going to hear some style and grace.

But most of all, I recommend the autobiography. It’s a perfect companion for driving around in your car or daily commuting. I’ve found myself laughing out loud, reacting with pure anger and pumping my fist in satisfaction. You just grow to care about this lady.

I can’t admit to being a big cabaret fan, but it didn’t seem to matter. Whether you met Betty through the early hillbilly sides or the teenage R&R or maybe the 1958 novelty hit, “The Little Blue Man,” or her more adult phase with Jack Parr and beyond, you’ll find a way to get hooked on this audio biography. At $34.95 for eight CDs in a handsome package, it’s a bargain.

You might choose to supplement the purchase with one of the music collections from a style and era of your choosing. I promise, it will turn into quite an adventure. It’s unlikely that the fans who joined Betty for the country-gospel era will be fans of sophisticated cabaret music. And the cabaret folks may stumble over the ‘50s rock & roll. But, the bottom line is, there aren’t many artists who have enjoyed this much success in so many aspects of the music business and chosen to divulge so much about their lives and careers. You’ve just got to respect that.


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