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JOHNSON, EVELYN JOYCE

Evelyn Johnson (1920-2005)
Evelyn Johnson. As business manager of Don Robey's Duke-Peacock
recording empire as well as president of Buffalo Booking Agency,
Johnson played a formidable role in shaping Houston's recording industry
and beyond from the 1940s into the 1970s.
Photograph by James Fraher.

JOHNSON, EVELYN JOYCE (1920–2005). Evelyn Johnson, recording company business manager and booking agent, daughter of Sophronia “Sophie” Davis and an unidentified Creole father, was born in Thibodaux, Louisiana, on September 28, 1920. From the late 1940s through 1973, as the primary business manager assisting the Houston-based entrepreneur Don Robey, Johnson worked behind the scenes to create, develop, and operate one of the most commercially successful African-American-owned-and-operated music enterprises of the mid-twentieth century, a conglomeration that ultimately encompassed at least five record labels, a powerful booking agency, a music publishing company, and other concerns. As such, she was directly involved in recording, managing, or promoting a large number of influential artists in blues, rhythm-and-blues, gospel, and pop during the era in which they first established themselves as major stars.

In 1926, at the age of six, Johnson moved with her mother to Houston, first settling in the Fourth Ward before moving to the Fifth Ward (home of the “Frenchtown” district, populated mainly by black Creole immigrants from Louisiana). There Johnson graduated from Phillis Wheatley High School, after which she worked as an x-ray technician at a local hospital and studied at Houston College for Negroes (the institution that later became Texas Southern University).

Johnson’s career path changed in 1946 when she affiliated professionally with Don Robey and initially served as the office manager of his Fifth Ward-based nightclub, the Bronze Peacock, one of the largest and most prestigious African-American-owned performance venues in the Southwest. It was there in 1947 that the previously relatively unknown guitarist and blues singer Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown created a sensation when he replaced the esteemed T-Bone Walker onstage and delivered a fiery performance, a phenomenon that prompted Robey and Johnson to sign Brown to a management contract and launch his professional career.

Following a directive from Robey in 1949, Johnson researched the mechanics of the nascent independent recording industry and prepared the documents and a business plan for a new company, Peacock Records, which sought to capitalize on Brown’s talents. In 1950 the American Federation of Musicians granted Johnson a license (#652) to book and manage union artists, and she founded the Buffalo Booking Agency, installing herself as president and becoming one of the few African Americans to compete against white-owned booking agencies at the time. These two companies, both of which were bankrolled by Robey and managed by Johnson, found quick success with Brown, so they soon signed new talent and expanded their roster of shared artists to include various gospel groups, such as the Original Five Blind Boys and the Dixie Hummingbirds, and numerous blues or R&B singers, such as Floyd Dixon, Clarence Green, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, Elmore Nixon, Marie Adams, and others.

In 1952 Robey acquired the fledgling Memphis-based Duke Records label and artist roster, merging its operations with those of his already established Peacock imprint in Houston. This acquisition infused new blues talent from the Mississippi Delta region into Robey and Johnson’s realm of business interests in recording and touring, including eventual Duke stars such as Johnny Ace, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, Rosco Gordon, and Earl Forest, as well as B. B. King, who did not record for Robey but toured for Buffalo Booking Agency for nine years and credited Johnson with much of his early success. Johnson continued to oversee the business affairs of Robey’s Duke-Peacock recording empire as it expanded in 1957 to add the subsidiary label Back Beat and again in 1963 when it added another two labels called Song Bird and Sure-Shot. She remained in charge of Robey’s office through 1973, at which time Robey sold all of his music-related assets to the ABC/Dunhill corporation and retired. 

In subsequent years, Johnson remained in Houston, working in real estate and banking prior to her own retirement. In November 2003 the nonprofit organization Project Row Houses celebrated Johnson’s achievement in the music business by staging a Duke-Peacock Reunion concert in her honor at the historic Houston venue called the Eldorado Ballroom.

Johnson remained an active member of St. James United Methodist Church of Houston until shortly before her death and served on the finance committee and as the church historian. Despite a close personal relationship with Robey during the 1950s, Johnson never married and had no children. She died on November 1, 2005, and was buried at Paradise North Cemetery in Houston.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Galen Gart and Roy C. Ames, Duke/Peacock Records: An Illustrated History with Discography (Milford, New Hampshire: Milford, Big Nickel Publications, 1990). Nelson George, “The Rhythm & the Blues,” Billboard, March 1, 1986. In Celebration of Eternal Life: Evelyn Joyce Johnson (funeral program) St. James United Methodist Church, Houston, Texas, November 7, 2005. John Morthland, “Royal Blue,” Texas Monthly, August 1997. James M. Salem, The Late Great Johnny Ace and the Transition from R & B to Rock ‘n’ Roll (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999). Roger Wood, Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003). 

Roger Wood

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Roger Wood, "JOHNSON, EVELYN JOYCE," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fjodb), accessed July 29, 2014. Uploaded on May 6, 2013. Modified on August 19, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.