Only after they arrived at WBT did Lydia and Jesse Johnson assume, at Program Director Ken Treadwell's suggestion, the nicknames "Ma" and "Pa." He also had them change their repertoire from all gospel to mostly traditional and popular songs.

People | The Johnson Family

The studio clock. Bulova. Twelve inches in diameter; black arms on a white background; large red second hand. It stood on the wall between our microphone and the master control room.

Book Cover
“The Studio Clock” is a chapter in Kenneth M. Johnson's book The Johnson Family Singers:We Sang For Our Supper that focuses on the family's experiences at WBT. These pages are an adaptation of that chapter, published with the author's permission.

When we appeared for our first WBT program on December 29, 1940, the studio clock was there, and it continued to be an important presence in our lives through the final program in May of 1951. If we needed to prolong a song to fill out a program segment, I would hold out both hands in a stretching manner; if the song needed to be shortened, my index finger would cross my neck, and we would stop at the first opportunity. These hand signals helped us adjust to the filling of a ten-minute, fifteen-minute, or thirty-minute time slot.

Timing was everything! During our growing years, we felt that we were the most scheduled children that ever lived, and we envied the comparative leisure of other children. My brothers, Bob and Jim, still resent the fact that they were deprived of a normal childhood. When we weren't working on a radio program or engaged in a recording session, we were traveling to an appearance somewhere. We had no time to get into trouble.

Before looking at the programs and personalities of those golden days of radio, let me make some general observations.

Radio programs usually started with a theme song. For example, one theme written by Larry Walker went like this:

When the family gets together 'round the old log cabin,
the sound of voices singing fills the air;
When they start to harmonizing 'round the old log cabin,
you'll never find a worry or a care.
Ma, Pa, Betty, Red, Jim and Bob—
with music and happiness to share.
When the family gets together 'round the old log cabin,
that's when I want to be there.

Also important was the personality of the announcer. WBT was blessed with a cluster of excellent announcers. Among those on our programs were Grady Cole, Lee Kirby, Kurt Webster, J. B. Clark, Fletcher Austin, Clyde McLean and Larry Walker, each of whom was a celebrity to our listeners across the Carolinas.

Our program format was determined by station management; however, the song selections were left to us. Initially Dad decided upon the songs we were to sing, but gradually this responsibility shifted to me.

Larry Walker

During the early weeks of 1942, the family had our own WBT broadcast, a "sustaining slot" on Saturday mornings at ten o'clock. We still sang on the Sunday Morning Farm Club, from seven to nine, where we had started two years earlier, but gradually we began to branch out into programs of our own. That same year, a man from Florida who was to have a major influence upon our lives joined the station. He was also destined to put Charlotte's first two television stations on the air—WBTV and WSOC-TV—before his retirement in 1962 and his death in 1964. Larry Walker was a smiling, vivacious ex-vaudevillian.

Until the Walkers arrived, we sang only gospel songs. Larry Walker introduced us to popular music. Shortly after we met him, he was asked by the Charlotte Rotary Club to bring some talent from the station to perform at one of their meetings. When Larry spoke to the station manager, Jess Willard frowned, saying, "Larry, the Johnsons can sing only gospel songs." Larry responded, "Okay, Jess, I'll teach them a popular song!" The night of the Rotary program, the family made such a hit that the men demanded an encore. Knowing only one popular song, we sang it through again!

In the early part of 1944, Larry moved from accompanying the Rangers Quartet to playing for my family, and he also sang with us, as did his wife on certain occasions. We marveled at the way this classical musician could "tickle the ivories" with all kinds of music! His piano not only complemented Dad's guitar but gave variety to our music. Larry helped us to learn ballads and popular songs, including "Sweetheart of All My Dreams," "Sweet Sue," "Apple-Blossom Time," "When You Wore a Tulip," and "Rosemary." Mother's favorite, which she later taught our children, was "On Moonlight Bay."

Larry provided us with another dimension to our work, allowing us to be considered a variety-singing group rather than performers of gospel only. Within a relatively short period of time, we had broadened our repertoire in both radio and show appearances. From this time on, we were known as a variety-singing family. But we did not give up the gospel songs and hymns with which we had begun our career and which we considered our bread-and-butter music; we simply incorporated them into a larger body of work.

Our Friends at the Station

We always felt that the Rangers Quartet liked the family and used their influence to help us join them as staff singers at WBT. Much later on, I learned that brothers Vernon and Arnold Hyles had preceded us at the Stamps-Baxter School in Dallas. They were a gifted twosome. For a brief time at WBT, Vernon Hyles served as program director. Arnold had the lowest bass voice I had ever heard. Walter Leverette was a marvelous baritone, and hearing Denver Crumpler soar into the heights with his clear tenor voice was also a joy.

Some people regarded the Rangers as the best gospel quartet ever. They also had wonderful pianists to accompany them. Marion Snyder was their first, in 1941, and he was succeeded by Charles Friar, Larry Walker, Lee Roy Abernathy, Hovie Lister, Doy Ott, and David Reece. Still later, in the 1950s, Cecil Pollock and Elmer Childress played for them.

There were a few occasions when Walter called me up to fill in for him on some of their radio programs. I felt flattered to be singing with the Rangers Quartet.

Grady Cole was another character I remember fondly. He never related to us as the Walkers did, yet he was the primary announcer for our programs, including the popular Quaker Oats series that closed out our radio career in May 1951.

We first met Grady around six-thirty on Sunday morning, December 29, 1940. Why do I remember the exact time? It was my family's first appearance on Grady Cole's Sunday Farm Club—a two-hour show that lasted from seven 'til nine. Our singing was interspersed with Grady's comments, humor, farm reports, weather reports, and commercials. We received the grand total of ten dollars for each show—which was supposed to cover our services and expenses from home in the western part of Lincoln County, near a place called Cat's Square!

Grady was an incessant talker, but a mild and mellow man whose warmth was contagious. He provided a forum for our family and the opportunity for us to develop.

We remember other people with admiration, including the original Carter Family. For almost a year in the early 1940s, we felt honored to appear on WBT programs with A. P, Sara, and Maybelle. Their WBT days turned out to be their final working days together.

In addition to these members of the original Carter Family, Maybelle's three daughters—Helen, June, and Anita—had recently started their own musical group. They sang with us on the Grady Cole programs. Although they lived only a few blocks from the radio station, they chose to attend school with us at Paw Creek High School, out in the county. Little did we realize that young June would someday achieve stardom on her own, eventually becoming the wife of Johnny Cash. We were sorry to see Maybelle and her daughters leave WBT for WRVA in Richmond, Virginia.

We always felt good about our friendships at WBT. Charles Crutchfield, whom we first knew as the Briarhopper announcer, then as program director and, finally, as station manager, always had a kind word for us. Hovie Lister, pianist for the Rangers Quartet, came to WBT in the middle of 1946 and remained through 1947, before leaving to establish the Statesmen Quartet in 1948. While his work did not relate directly to the family, Jack Knell, who for years was the station news director, was a good friend, as was announcer Clyde McLean. Studio engineers—"big" Buster Richardson, "calm" Tommy Callahan, and "dry" Ralph Painter—all had a hand in shaping our career

WBT Voices

My sister, Betty, was a featured singer on a program called Briarhopper Time each weekday afternoon at 4:30. Before we children started driving, Dad spent his time taking us back and forth between home and school and the radio station. As if our regular shows were not enough, WBT scheduled a "weekly barn dance" program with its top-flight personalities on Thursday nights at eight-thirty; it featured Hank and the Briarhoppers, the Johnson Family Singers, the Rangers Quartet, Whitey and Hogan, Claude Casey, Don White, Shannon Grayson, Fred Kirby, Sam Cantrel and his vibraphone, fiddler George Hefferman, and blues singer Billie Ann Newman.

During the winter of 1943-1944, we did a regular show sponsored by Vick Chemical Company. Our product was "4-way cold tablets" and we appeared on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings at 6:45 and Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon at 3:45.

Lee Kirby was our announcer for the cold-tablet programs as well as for the longer-running BC series from 1947 to 1950. This was a ten-minute Sunday program, Hymntime, at 1:05 p. m.

Lee was well known to the WBT listening audience for his annual play-by-play description of the Shrine Bowl football game in Charlotte. He was always immaculately dressed, with a pin-striped tie, and was blessed with a warm if sometimes raspy voice.

Kurt Webster was another popular announcer, usually associated with a late-night record show on which he played the popular songs of the day.

Another prominent announcer for the family was J. B. Clark. Tall, debonair, and sporting a neatly trimmed moustache, the deep-voiced Clark loved poetry and used it frequently in our program. Although he was almost mournful sounding, we enjoyed our work with the cigar-smoking J. B.

Early in the 1940s, still another group came to WBT. We had played some
appearances with Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks while they were still at WSPA in Spartanburg, South Carolina. We welcomed them as regulars to WBT. Brothers Arthur, Ralph, and Sonny were pleasant and easy going. We enjoyed working with them. Later Arthur became the guitarist for our Quaker Oats programs as well as providing fiddle accompaniment for some of our Columbia Records. Sonny joined him at rhythm guitar for one of the record sessions.

A Family Business

While radio was our main interest, the family also traveled about the Carolinas making appearances at schools, theaters, churches, conventions, singings, and rallies.

Certain duties emerged for different members of the family. Mother, of course, saw to it that we were fed and clothed properly. Dad helped to arrange for the various programs and engagements. I became closely identified with him in business arrangements for the family.

After moving to Charlotte, Dad opened his first bank account, but arranged for me to sign his name on the checks as well as make the deposits and withdrawals. Regardless of who earned the money, all that we received went through this account. Moreover, I became the "father" in matters of pocket change and allowances!

Betty's role in the family was largely confined to helping Mother with the cooking, clothes, and housekeeping. Bob and Jim did their share of bringing in the wood and helping to keep the place clean. Though our belongings were meager, they always looked good. Combining school with professional work made for an interesting life. We were always anticipating some new show or appearance.

I ended up helping Larry Walker plan the programs and give hand signals during the broadcasts. As stated earlier, we could adjust numbers, padding or cutting, to meet time requirements with little difficulty by giving the proper signal. Bob doubled with Dad on bass and Jim sang top tenor. If some part were too high or too low for one of us, we'd point to another family member and change parts at the end of a phrase. The listener would never know the difference.

Once when Gene Autry came to town, my brothers and I were hired as back-up singers to augment the music on his Sunday evening program, Melody Ranch, over CBS. That six-thirty appearance proved to be not only musically challenging but also financially helpful, with a large talent check going into the family account for our services. My brother Bob remembers Autry giving each of us a new bicycle as a bonus.

When we moved to Charlotte [from Lincoln County] on November 13, 1942, Dad enrolled all of us at Paw Creek High School, about four miles southwest of our home. Excepting those days when Dad took us out for a broadcast or appearance, we rode a bus to school. Although county schools were generally considered inferior to city schools, Paw Creek was noted for its excellence. My brothers remember the traveling minstrel shows which came regularly to our school.

Today, the artist cards in the Columbia Records archives show that between 1946 and 1953, the family recorded a total of fifty-two songs on twenty-six different 78 rpm records. In addition to the singles released, we had EP's (extended play) and albums that included selections from the 78's and Betty's solos.

In looking over old royalty statements recently, I was interested to see that our best-selling records were the early ones. At our initial session in Charlotte on April I, 1946, we cut eight sides. A royalty earnings summary from Columbia, dated 06-30-47, shows that "Cabin in the Valley of the Pines" and "I'll Reap My Harvest in Heaven" sold 59,934 records. "Sunday Morning in Dixie" and "He Put the Sunshine in My Soul" sold 33,062 copies. Our royalty check for those two records alone came to $1,673.94.

With the added income from record sales, Dad proceeded to purchase thirteen acres of land from "Goat" and Cora Taylor. The tract lay behind Oakdale Elementary School, at the end of a dirt road overlooking an artificial lake. Mother and Dad insisted on calling the road Possum Walk—the name of the old Pleasant Grove Road. We built a lovely three-bedroom house, with a full-sized basement and patio.

When the family broke up in 1951, the house was almost paid for. The final payment was made in 1954, thanks again to the common bank account and faithful work by Bob, Jim, Betty, and my parents. During this particular period, I was involved with my college work and a student pastorate.

During the thirteen years of our entertainment career, we went through three different name changes. We started out in 1938 simply as the Johnson Family.

A new station manager who came to WBT from the North in the early 1940s thought that "Ma" Johnson's Family had a more commercial tone and would draw, no doubt, upon the popularity of another radio celebrity named "Ma" Perkins. The new name lasted only a year or so and was carried on several promotional pieces, but none of us ever liked it. By the mid-1940s, the Johnson Family Singers had evolved, and the name remained with us for the rest of our career.

Jim, Bob, Red, Betty, Ma and Pa going to radio broadcast, 1950. (Courtesy Kenneth Johnson)

The most lucrative contract of our singing career was a regional CBS program sponsored by the Quaker Oats Company. The program had no name as such. We simply referred to it as our "Quaker Corn Meal Program:' Larry Walker was pianist for these shows, assisted by Arthur Smith on the guitar. Ken Tredwell was the producer. Dad is credited with composing the theme song, but it was actually written by Larry Walker. The program opened with a rhythmic guitar introduction, followed by the piano and the family singing our signature song:

When the family gets together 'round the old log cabin,
The sound of voices singing fills the air;
When they start to harmonizing 'round the old log cabin, You'll never find a worry or a care.

We had other family network shows that originated from WBT but, for the most part, they were broadcast without sponsorship. These paid minimum wage, whereas the Quaker shows brought us around three hundred dollars a week, a far cry from the ten-dollar weekly salary in the early 1940s! The Quaker series started in January 1950, and concluded in May 1951, when the contract was suddenly canceled because of Quaker's decision to shift its advertising budget from radio to newspapers.

Throughout our career at WBT our agreements with management had been verbal until the Quaker Oats shows, when we signed a contract with Richard Maxwell of Geruth Enterprises, New York, to be our manager. This management arrangement didn't go well with WBT officials, but it did result in additional income for the family. In retrospect, I suspect both the family and station officials would have been happier if we had simply continued with our verbal agreements.

Growing up…and Apart

After graduating from Harding High School in 1947, Betty went to Queens College in Charlotte and I to Davidson, a liberal arts college twenty miles north. This kept both of us close to the family radio shows. While at Queens, a romance blossomed between Betty and a Davidson football coach, Dick Redding, and they were married in 1949. Clarence Etter, staff organist at WBT, played for the wedding at Pleasant Grove Methodist Church, which secured a new electronic organ for the occasion. Bob and Jim and I sang.

The day of June 24, 1951, stands out especially in my memory. Even though I was attending summer school at Duke University at the time, I traveled back to Charlotte to join the family for an engagement at the annual "Singing on the Mountain" at Grandfather Mountain. People were there by the thousands. Their enthusiasm for our music was obvious from their applause. It was a festive and happy occasion, one that was to be our last family engagement for several years, a time during which Betty moved to New York, Bob and Jim worked as pages at NBC in that city, and I was ordained as a Methodist pastor.

Mother and Dad were left alone on "Johnson Hill" that summer, where they tried to sort out their singing strategies for the days ahead. Looking back over our music career, Dad once said, "We had a rough, hard row to hoe, but we made it. Good things don't come on a silver platter. You gotta work for them. Then you appreciate the good things in life. When you get to the place you don't have to worry about making a living, then you appreciate the tough times."

Since our childhoods had been so intimately involved with the work of our parents, the transition to separate lives was even more difficult than it is for many. Our parents saw the family reduced from six back to the two who had started singing as a couple before the family group was formed at a Greensboro apartment in 1938. This was not an easy transition for them.

The Johnson Family singing on The Ed Sullivan Show, March 30, 1958. (front) Jim and Ma, (back) Bob, Red, Pa and Betty.
(Courtesy Kenneth “Red” Johnson)

In the years that followed, the family performed infrequently and made a few recordings. In 1958 they appeared twice on The Ed Sullivan Show, a bright highlight of their careers.

For the next 30 years, Jesse (“Pa”) worked as a broadcaster, a DJ, at WDIX in Orangeburg, SC, living in a trailer behind the station’s transmitter; Lydia (“Ma”) maintained their residence in Charlotte, and visited him frequently. She died on April 11, 1979. After a time, Jesse remarried. He lived another decade, until May 16, 1989. Jesse and Lydia rest together in Pleasant Grove Memorial Park in Charlotte.