"I determined I'd make them like swing at the Café, or die in the attempt, and boy, I nearly died" - Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson.
Kenrick Reginald Huymans Johnson was born in British Guiana on September 10 1914. The Johnson family was of one the elite in the British colony, and Ken’s father was a prominent doctor in the community. He attended Queens College in Guiana, and at the age of 15, he was sent to The William Borlase School in Marlow, Buckinghamshire by his parents.
Ken did well in his studies, and also played for the school cricket and football teams. He was tall as a youth, well on the way to his full height of 6 foot four inches, making him an ideal choice as a goalkeeper. Naturally, Ken stood out in the team. This would not be the only time that he would find himself breaking down barriers in his own pioneering way. But although his family harboured medical aspirations for their son, the young Ken had other ideas.
Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson
Having been exposed to the music and dance of the West Indies, his interest continued in England, where he sought out the American choreographer, Buddy Bradley. Bradley, six years older than Johnson, first appeared in a New York revue in 1926 and became the dance director for many musicals there in the late 1920's and early 1930's. He coached stars such as Ruby Keeler, Lucille Ball, Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire. Astaire it was who suggested to theatre impresario C B Cochran that he brought Bradley over to England to work with Britain’s bright young dance star, Jessie Matthews, in her 1930 stage show Ever Green.
Thus, it was Buddy Bradley that taught Ken Johnson to dance. As fellow West Indian musician Frank Deniz, brother of Joey, one of Ken's band members, was later to recount, it was Johnson's fluid and flexible style that earned him the nickname Snakehips. He would always be dressed immaculately, often in a white suit with a flower in the lapel. Sadly, there is only one example of film footage of Ken dancing, in the 1934 film Oh Daddy, where his performance of a routine called Old Vaazoo is interspersed with many cutaways to the main cast. Bradley was the dance director for the film.
Sidestepping the style of music prevalent in England at the time, it was the swing sound across the Atlantic that inspired the young Johnson. In 1934, he made a trip to the United States. While he was there, he got some film work in New York, and starred in cabaret in Hollywood. It was a trip to Harlem and hearing the orchestras of Cab Calloway and Fletcher Henderson that inspired him to put together an orchestra of his own.
Ken Johnson’s journey from dancer to bandleader began in 1936. In his autobiography (Rabbit Press 1985), Leslie Thompson relates how he asked Johnson to join his band, The Emperors of Jazz, as a ‘dummy conductor' because he looked good and could dance. It was Thompson’s intention to have a charismatic person fronting the band, while he ran it musically. They had been touring England looking for work, when agent Ralph Deane travelled to Sheffield to sign them up for a residency at a club in London’s Mayfair. From itinerant musicians, Thompson and his band now had an agreement to play at The Old Florida Club in Bruton Mews for six months beginning on New Year's Eve 1936.
The future for The Emperors of Jazz seemed good. But suddenly, after a couple of months, Thompson was staggered to learn that Johnson had signed a new contract with Deane, without consulting either Thompson or the band. In his book, Thompson states that the reaction of the band was to tell Johnson that since he had signed the contract, they were not bound by it, and that they would stay with Thompson. However, in the next sentence, Thompson says, "my band ended that night".
Whatever the causes, Johnson went on to form his own orchestra, originally billed as Ken Johnson and his Rhythm Swingers. The rhythm section of Tom Wilson (drums), Abe Clare (bass) and Joey Deniz (guitar) stayed with Johnson from the Emperors Of Jazz, as did trombonist Freddie Greenslade. Also amongst the musicians was Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson, who was a close friend of Johnson. Hutchinson asked Johnson to be godfather to his daughter, current jazz singer Elaine Delmar, when she was born in 1939. However, Johnson had to replace some pieces, and turned to the West Indies for new sidemen. Four new players duly arrived in 1937, including saxophonist and clarinettist Carl Barriteau. Together they responded to Ken Johnson's desire to recreate an American swing sound.
The band continued at The Old Florida Club, and received enthusiastic reviews. One such account appeared in the Melody Maker of 29 May 1937, when journalist Andrew Gray recalls how the show started at 2am. The numbers played that night included Cowboy In Manhattan, It's A Sin To Tell A Lie and Only Make Believe (from Showboat). For this last song, Johnson introduced an American visitor, and singer Helen Morgan joined the band on stage. The show finished at 5 o’clock in the morning, at which time they had breakfast and gave their interviews to Gray.
By 1940 they were regarded as one of the top swing bands in the country. A year later, The West Indian Orchestra became the resident band at The Cafe de Paris in London's West End.
Johnson gained a mass following through radio broadcasts for the BBC. It was here that the majority of his repertoire could be heard, since together with his Orchestra he only recorded sixteen songs. He had used Sunny Side Of The Street as his signature tune initially, retitling it On The Side Of The Street That's Sunny. When he began broadcasting, Johnson opted for Dear Old Southland by Henry Creamer and Turner Layton. He was a very well-spoken young man, but when the music called, he responded so enthusiastically that he was asked to calm down his performance! Shades of Elvis Presley being filmed from the waist up two decades later.
So what was the Cafe de Paris actually like? Towards the end of 1940, Heather Charlton visited the club on Coventry Street for a tea dance, escorted by her cousin Malcolm Andrews, a Major in Highland Light Infantry. She remembers: "There was a long steep staircase, which went down a long way. Once inside, the place itself was quite small, and the dance floor itself was small - it didn't take many couples to fill it up. In those days a tea dance was exactly that. Tea was served to the customers as they sat at the tables around the dance floor. Although The Blitz was happening outside, you felt quite safe because you were underground, away from where the bombs were landing".
Aftermath of the Cafe de Paris bomb
On Saturday 8 March 1941, Ken Johnson and The West Indian Orchestra were entertaining London’s swing set at the Cafe De Paris as usual. That night, the area between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square was being strafed with bombs. One of them found its way down an airshaft into the club where it exploded. Guitarist Joey Deniz recalls that the band would usually start around 9.30pm, and that night they had just started playing Oh Johnny, probably ten minutes later, when the glass ceiling of the club was shattered. The numbers of dead and injured vary, but most reports agree that over 30 people died and a further 60 or more were injured by the blast.
Survivors were taken to the Charing Cross Hospital, where Frank Deniz, who had been playing with his band in a club nearby, found his brother, injured but alive. Tragically, Ken Johnson was not one of the survivors. An eyewitness recalls how he was found lying dead, but unmarked by any outward signs of injury, a flower still in his lapel. He was 26 years old.
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