Jazz drummer Gus Johnson was born in Tyler, Texas, on November 15, 1913. He grew up in Beaumont and Houston before attending Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas. After learning how to play the drums from his next-door neighbor, Johnson was featured by the age of ten at the Lincoln Theater in Houston. At age eleven he played in local jazz and blues bands, most notably McDavid's Blue Rhythm Boys.
After graduating from high school he moved to Kansas City and enrolled in Sumner Junior College. He could not stay away from music, however, and decided to take up drumming full-time in Kansas City, where jazz was flourishing. He drummed in various acts before joining Jay McShann's band in 1938. Playing alongside McShann and Charlie "Bird" Parker, Johnson built a reputation as a solid percussionist. In 1941 he, McShann, and Gene Ramey performed and recorded as a trio. Johnson joined the military in 1943. After his discharge in 1945 he moved to Chicago and joined the Jesse Miller Band. He subsequently headed to New York City and began drumming for the legendary Count Basie.
Johnson recorded and toured extensively with Basie's band. Some of his best work is featured on the 1952 classic Basie Rides Again. Two years later an attack of appendicitis forced Johnson out of the band. Following a slow recovery, he climbed back behind the drum kit to support Lena Horne and, later, Ella Fitzgerald. Through the 1960s he played with numerous bands and was featured on hundreds of recordings. In 1969 he joined the World's Greatest Jazz Band, with which he recorded and toured throughout America and Europe. Three years later he and his old bandmates McShann and Ramey recorded the album Going to Kansas City.
Johnson subsequently moved to Denver and performed into the 1980s. He developed Alzheimer's disease in 1989 and died on February 6, 2000, in Denver. He is buried in Fort Logan National Cemetery in that city.