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The Unsinkable Betty Johnson

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Betty Johnson has had three careers in show business. As a child, she was a member of the Johnson Family Singers, a group that had its own daily program on CBS Radio. As a young adult, she was a singing star in the 50s and early 60s, a regular presence on the pop charts and national television. In 1962, she got married and retired from active performing. She'd been on the road since the age of 9, and wanted nothing more than to settle down and raise a family.   
 
Then, after more than three decades of "retirement," her career had an unexpected revival: 

 
 

In 1993, a health crisis prompted a return to music. At age 64, Johnson developed a growth on her vocal chords that threatened to silence her voice. She underwent a successful operation. Afterward, one of her doctors found out she was a singer, and expressed relief that he didn't know that when he was cutting around her voicebox. 

 

After the surgery, her doctors said she would have to take voice therapy. "I said, 'Well, I'm not going to take therapy -- I'm going to get a job!'" She called an old acquaintance: Arthur Pomposello, the longtime manager of the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, a legendary New York City nightspot. "I said, 'Hello, I'm Betty Johnson. I'd like to have a week's performance.' 

"He said, 'Betty Johnson? You're not dead?' 

"I said, 'Well, not quite.'" 

 

She got the gig, and then put a band together with some help from Pomposello: veteran pianist Tony Monte and famed guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, among others. And her two daughters, talented singers themselves, joined in for part of the show. "I got all these flowers, all these wires. It was like being at your own memorial service!" 

 

The show received favorable reviews in the New York press, and relaunched her singing career almost 30 years after her "retirement." An interview on NPR's Fresh Air brought her story to a national audience, and she began hearing from fans who grew up on her music. She started her own music label, Bliss Tavern Music, named for her house in Haverhill, New Hampshire. (Once owned by Captain Joseph Bliss, a Revolutionary War vet; it was a tavern/inn/courthouse/social center during the early years of the Republic.) She has released more than a dozen recordings: reissues from her first career, two records by the Johnson Family Singers, and brand-new titles, often with one or both of her daughters. 

 

She's not going to crack the Billboard charts, but her recordings sell steadily -- thanks to a newfangled thing called the Internet. She set up a Website, www.betty-johnson.com, which allowed fans around the world to reconnect with her music. She's built up a database of about 20,000 names. Every day, she gets e-mails from fans who are thrilled to rediscover the pop star of the 1950s, and from others who simply enjoy well-done popular music. 


 

There's a lot more to Betty's story; you can read it in my book. She was remarkably honest about the good and bad in her life, including some very difficult events that happened at the height of her fame.
  
In these excerpts from our interviews, read about the beginning of her solo career, some of the troubles she faced offstage, and how she met her second husband at the renowned Coconut Grove nightclub. 
 
Visit Betty Johnson's website for information about her music on CD and mp3. She's recorded new material in recent years, and reissued albums from the 1950s and the Johnson Family Singers. She has also recorded "In Her Own Words," an 8-CD audiobook telling her own life story.
 
 
 

Contact me by e-mail at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com.