J is for Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson

As usual, I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for round 19 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if I miss out some of the alphabet.

Ken Snakehips JohnsonOne of the earliest black stars of popular entertainment in the UK was Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson whose career ended prematurely in tragic circumstances.

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.

Bandleader Snakehips Johnson on BBC TelevisionAnd 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.

Ken Snakehips JohnsonThe 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.

Johnson at the BBCThey 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 Café de Paris

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.

For further information, see Johnson’s Wikipedia page, Swingtime, Carnage at the Café de Paris, AllMusic, West End at War and Champagne and chandeliers: The story of the Café de Paris by Charles Graves.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

8 comments… Add yours
  • rhymeswithplague 14th September 2016

    A truly gruesome end to what might have been a superstar showbiz career. Thank you for the research into this fascinating individual.

  • Lee 14th September 2016

    A tragic ending to what would’ve been a wonderful career…one that would’ve given so many people much pleasure.

    An interesting post…thank you. 🙂

  • Melody Steenkamp 14th September 2016

    I can’t remember when or where but I know of him… and its wonderful you’ve dedicated this post to him! Thank you! Although his story was so sad you’ve done me great pleasure with this.

    Have a nice ABC-day / – week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (ABC-team)

  • Roger Green 14th September 2016

    My goodness, a dreadful ending to a promising life.
    I love the musicians from this period, so stylized.

  • ann 14th September 2016

    He did have hips like a snake–the video was great. How sad his life was taken so tragically.

  • Wil 14th September 2016

    Your post is a great tribute to this talented scientist.

  • Su-sieee! Mac 15th September 2016

    Ken Johnson would’ve given Fred Astaire a run for his money. Johnson was an amazing dancer.

  • Yorkshire Pudding 15th September 2016

    Another fascinating story. I wonder where on earth you find these tales.

    By the way, I have thought of a nickname for you, a kind of tangential tribute to Ken Johnson… Ian “Sore Hips” Rhodes… later to become “Replacement Hips”.


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