Francis Hall Johnson was born on March 12, 1888, in Athens, Georgia. He was the fourth of six children of Alice Virginia Sansom and William Decker Johnson, a bishop in AME Church. Johnson was tutored on piano by his older sister as a little boy. Johnson taught himself how to play the violin after hearing the instrument at a recital given by Joseph Henry Douglass. Johnson attended the private all-black Knox Institute and earned a degree from Allen University. Johnson also attended Atlanta University, the Juilliard School, Hahn School of Music, and the University of Pennsylvania
Early Music Career
Johnson debuted as a professional violinist in a concert in New York in 1910. Johnson went on to play the violin and viola professionally. Johnson played in the orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, an orchestra led by James Reese Europe, and the New York Syncopated Orchestra conducted by Will Marion Cook in 1918
Negro Spiritual Career
As time went on, Johnson became more interested in choral music. He formed a choir of eight voices, originally named the Harlem Jubilee Singers, debuting in New York City in 1926. By 1928 the expanded twenty-member ensemble was renamed the Hall Johnson Negro Choir. The group first performed professionally at the Pythian Temple in 1928. Johnson and his choir became renowned through their participation in the 1930 Broadway production of Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures.
Johnson went on to arrange music for and conduct his choir in more than thirty feature-length Hollywood films. In addition, Johnson wrote Run, Little Chillun that premiered on Broadway in 1933. In 1937, the Hall Johnson Choir was featured in the soundtracks of the Frank Capra film Lost, Horizon, Walt Disney’s Snow White, and the Seven Dwarfs. In addition, he published many articles and a collection entitled Thirty Spirituals Arranged for Voice and Piano.
End of Music Career
Johnson wrote the Easter cantata Son of Man that premiered at New York’s City Center in 1946. In 1951, the United States Department of State selected the Hall Johnson Choir to represent the United States at the International Festival of Fine Arts held in Berlin, Germany.
Johnson was fluent in German and French. Johnson coached Marian Anderson, Robert McFerrin, and Shirley Verrett. Unfortunately, Johnson passed away during a fire at his New York apartment on April 30, 1970.
Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame (1975)
Philadelphia Academy of Music recognized Johnson with an honorary doctorate (1934)
A photograph taken by Sidney Cowell was included in the National Portrait Gallery of the United States (1960)
The Athens Cultural Affaires Commission included Hall Johnson in the first ten inductees of the Athens Music Walk of Fame. (2020)