He was born Kenrick Reginald Huymans Johnson in 1914 in Britsh Guiana, his father a prominent doctor in the community. He was educated locally until he was fifteen when he was sent to the Sir William Borlase Grammar School in England.
Johnson grew to be six feet four which made him ideal to play in goal for the school football team. He also did well academically and his parents had ambitions for him to follow his father in the medical profession.
But Johnson had other ideas. He was interested in song and dance, particularly those with a Carribean influence, and he sought out the American choreographer, Buddy Bradley, who had coached such stars as Lucille Ball and Fred Astaire and had come to England to work with Jessie Matthews.
And so Bradley taught Johnson to dance and it was his smooth, fluid style that earned him the nickname Snakehips. He also did so with style, dressed in a white evening jacket and with a flower in his lapel, and quickly began to make a name for himself, appearing in the film Oh Daddy in 1934. Sadly, this short clip from the film of him doing a routine called the Old Vazoo is the only one we have of Johnson in action.
Johnson travelled to America in 1934 where he starred in film and cabaret and also where he heard the orchestras of Cab Calloway and Fletcher Henderson which inspired him to put together an orchestra of his own. His first step was as a ‘dummy conductor’ for The Emperors of Jazz, effectively a charismatic frontman who looked good and danced well while the band took care of the music itself.
The Emperors toured the provinces and were spotted in Sheffield when they were signed up for a six-month residency at the Old Florida Club, off Berkley Square in London, starting on New Year’s Eve 1936. (You can hear them playing Fidgety Feet here, although you may want to cut out the 2:40 intro by the owner of the record)
Johnson broke away from the band, taking several of the Emperors with him, to form his own orchestra billed as Ken Johnson and his Rhythm Swingers. He also brought in four new players from the West Indies and together they began to recreate America swing.
They continued at the Old Florida Club and received rave reviews, such as the one in Melody Maker in May 1937 which described how the show began at 2am and ran through to 5am when Johnson gave his interview over breakfast.
By 1940, the band had been renamed The West Indian Orchestra and was one of the top swing bands in the country. Johnson had a wide following thanks to his broadcasts on BBC radio and were resident at the Café de Paris in London’s West End.
The club was small and deep underground, seemingly a long way from the wartime air-raids that raged above, described by its proprietor as the ‘safest and gayest in town’. Sadly, this proved to be untrue.
On 8th March 1941, two bombs landed above and travelled down the ventilation shaft, exploding in front of the stage, killing Johnson instantly.
His head was blown from his body, while the blast burst lungs and maimed the revellers, killing at least 34 guests, staff and band members. Johnson was just 26 years old and we can only speculate on where his career might have taken him.
He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes placed at his old school together with a panel dedicated to his memory.