Betty Johnson couldn’t believe that Ken Burns wanted to talk to her. Johnson caught word that Burns, known for crafting multipart documentaries like The Civil War and Jazz, wanted to interview her for his latest documentary, Country Music, premiering September 15 on PBS.
As part of the Johnson Family Singers, Charlotte’s first nationally known music act who broadcasted live five times a week on WBT radio and the CBS network throughout the 1940s, Johnson, now 90 years old and living in upstate New Hampshire, played a crucial role in the development of country music.
After the singing family’s run on radio ended in 1951, Johnson moved to New York City, where she carved out a successful career as a pop singer and performer on early television shows. As a solo singer and then back with her family, she performed twice on The Ed Sullivan Show, the influential CBS showcase that introduced The Beatles and Elvis Presley to wider audiences in America.
The family, comprised of Betty; her parents Lydia and Jesse; and her brothers Kenneth, Bob and Jim; had been singing at home, churches and family gatherings, Johnson remembers, when her father Jesse decided the clan should turn professional. They entered a competition and won first prize: a spot on WBT for a week.
“They were finding out whether we were saleable or not,” she tells Queen City Nerve.
The musical family proved plenty saleable, winning over fans with a repertoire of gospel tunes and hymns supplemented with popular tunes like “Goodnight Irene.” The Johnsons toured with country legends like Bill Monroe and played Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1947, but by the end of the decade their string of successes was winding down.
“It just faded away,” Johnson says. “We were a family first and a family of singers second.”
Her oldest brother Kenneth departed to study for the ministry. His sons, Wes and Chris, carry on the Johnson family’s music-making legacy as members of Charlotte band Hardcore Lounge. Betty attended Queens University (then Queens College), but continued to perform
Betty later moved to New York and found success, starting with the 1954 novelty tune “I Want Eddie Fisher for Christmas,” and released two albums on Atlantic Records. She performed on programs like the hit CBS series The Arthur Godfrey Show and Tonight Starring Jack Parr.
By 1964 she was married with a small son. She retired and moved to New Hampshire, but reemerged in the ’90s to perform live and record a series of albums with her daughters. Their most recent album, Four Shades of Gray, was released in 2018.
Singing, it seems, remains in the Johnson family blood.
“The greatest thing about performing [is when] you sing a song and you’re looking out at your audience and they’re just loving it,” Johnson says. “The love goes out from you and it comes back … so it’s like a big beautiful ring of love and enjoyment.”