Johnson Sisters

Lived in Birmingham, AL

Mary, Margaret, Ann and Judy (Ann & Judy are twins) make up the Johnson Sisters.  They traveled with Wally Fowler for a time singing and doing backup for his stage performances.  In the mid-1950's they recorded a 45-rpm record with Chet Atkins playing guitar.  Happy Hal Burns, a local TV personality, made them regular guests on his television show in Birmingham.  Around 1952 the sisters recorded their first album titled "The Johnson Sisters, Sweethearts of Gospel Music."  During the mid '60s, the sisters became a part of the syndicated TV show, The Gospel Singing Caravan.  The Sisters not only sang on the shows, they also did backup for the other regulars.  They also did studio backup, including one of Willie Nelson's recordings.

Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame





Down through the years, family harmony has always been especially charming. Groups such as the McGuire Sisters, Mills Brothers, Andrews Sisters, Ames Brothers, and the Lennon Sisters have all embraced a special blend of family harmony. The gospel music field has had its fair share of family harmony, too. None is any closer, richer, or more beautiful than the family fusion of the Johnson Sisters.

Recognized as the "Sweethearts of Gospel Music", the Johnson Sisters embraced a style unlike any other gospel groups of their day. Although their sound is uniquely their own, is akin to that of the popular McGuire Sisters. The original group consisted of Mary, Margaret, Judy and Anna Johnson, daughters of L.C. and Maedeen Johnson. Margaret was seven years younger than Mary. The youngsters in the group, Judy and Anna, are twins born about a year after Margaret. Their brother, Luther, wasn't interested in singing, although he has a very pleasing voice.

Mary, the eldest sister, was the manager, arranger, and pianist for the group. She began to teach her younger sisters to harmonize at a very young age. In order to get them all together, Mary came up with an unusual technique. She would grab her sisters one by one and assemble them on top of their old upright piano. They were too small to climb down, so the practice sessions would be held with six little feet in Mary's face!

As word spread about the talents of this Alabama family, Wally Fowler soon invited them to sing at his famous All Night Singing in Birmingham. Wally was always on the lookout for unusual talent, and this singing family of very young ladies fit his concerts perfectly.

Wally quickly brought his new discovery into the recording studio and had the Johnson Sisters cut a record with guitar whiz Chet Atkins. Thoroughly impressed with their talents, the insightful Mr. Fowler continued to use the talents of the Johnson Sisters as background vocalists on many of his own recording sessions in this era.

The sisters recorded their first album on the Sing label when the twins were at the ripe old age of nine! "The Sweethearts of Gospel Music" soon became one of the best-selling albums in the Sing catalogue. At the time, Mary was the pianist and arranger, Margaret sang the low contralto part, Judy supplied the alto, and Anna sang a beautiful soprano.

Their association with the Sing record company led to an invitation for the Johnson Sisters to join the Gospel Singing Caravan. The "Sweethearts of Gospel Music" added a new twist to the package consisting of the LeFevres: "The South's Most Versatile Singers and Musicians", the Prophets: "The Unique Sound in Gospel Music", and the Blue Ridge Quartet: "The Sweetest Singing This Side of Heaven". The Caravan became well known for their diverse, concise, and enjoyable programs both on television, on records, and on the concert stage.

Shortly before the Johnson Sisters joined the Caravan, Margaret fell in love with Larry Willis and left the group, never to return to full time singing. This left a void in the low register, so Mary left the piano bench to become a singer. Most of their live performances were with the Gospel Singing Caravan, so there was no shortage of musicians to fill the void. Kenny Gates of the Blue Ridge Quartet played the piano for them and various members of the LeFevres played other instruments during their stage appearances.

The love bug continued to wreck havoc with the sisters, and Anna secretly married Ray Reece in 1963 when she was only 17. Following her marriage, Anna left the road for a short time. An "adopted sister", Sandy Kennedy, was hired to sing in the group. She was subsequently replaced by Jan Houk. Judy Johnson soon found the love of her life and married Johnny Johnson in 1964. All of these girls were excellent singers, had similar appearances, and were quite versatile in their abilities. Being newlyweds, the twins often swapped out with Jan or Sandy on their tours. Many times, the audiences were none the wiser!

During this time, the sisters' tales of joy and woe were documented in their monthly column in SING Magazine. They were some of the first "young people" singing full time gospel music, and their lamentations about curlers, bobby pins, hair spray, broken zippers, and lost shoes were always a treat each time a new issue of SING Magazine came off the presses.

Soon, both twins returned to the road. As a rule, one of the husbands would travel with the girls during their tours. They would drive the van and help with other "masculine" duties such as loading equipment, changing flat tires, and selling records.

The Johnson Sisters continued to travel with the Caravan until one rainy night in Alabama when a near tragedy occurred. Neither Ray nor Johnny was available to make the trip, and their van had a terrible accident on a rain-slickened road in Alabama. None of the girls was seriously injured, but the fear of traveling brought an end to the career of the Johnson Sisters.

After the group retired from the road, the sisters assumed their own private lives. Mary married Bob Wise in 1967. In 1978, Judy and Anna recorded an album of secular tunes as the "Johnson Twins". The trio also did some television work with many great country artists. During this time, they also worked in the recording studio singing backup for many artists including country star Willie Nelson.

The Johnson Sisters reunited in 1996 at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion joined by pianist Harold Timmons. The girls sounded like they had been singing together all along when in fact they hadn't performed on a gospel stage for nearly thirty years.

The Johnson Sisters continued to appear at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion for several years, and even went into the studio in 1997 to record a new project on the BRG label. They updated many of their hit songs from the past. They enjoyed performing once more for their many fans, and performed on a limited basis. They also joined the cast of "America's Gospel Favorites", a television program produced by Charlie Waller.

A few years after their reuion Anna again decided to retire from the trio. Jan Houk again joined Mary and Judy, adding her wonderful voice to their harmony.

The girls no longer perform, but the memory of their lush harmony continues today. Marriage has been quite kind to all of the girls, for they are all still happily married. Sadly, Margaret passed away a few years ago after a courageous battle with cancer.

Female harmony in gospel music continues to survive today. These artists of today owe a debt of gratitude to the foresight of Wally Fowler and the progressive sounds of the Johnson Sisters for paving the way down the gospel music trail.


More info:

View Did You Think to Pray This Morning? by The Johnson Sisters









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