Partner Gerald Hamilton
91 Kinnerton St, Belgravia, London SW1X 8ED, UK
Little Basing, Vicarage Dr, Bray, Maidenhead SL6 2AE, UK
Café de Paris, 3-4 Coventry St, London W1D 6BL, UK
Sir William Borlase's Grammar School Chapel Marlow, Wycombe District, Buckinghamshire, England
Kenrick Reginald Hijmans Johnson (10 September 1914 – 8 March 1941), known as Ken "Snakehips" Johnson, was a swing band leader and dancer. He was a leading figure in black British music of the 1930s and early 1940s before his death while performing at the Café de Paris, London, in the Blitz during the Second World War.
Born in British Guiana (now Guyana), from 1929 to 1931 Ken was a pupil at Sir William Borlase's Grammar School in Marlow, Buckinghamshire. He did well at his studies and played the violin in the school chapel. He also played for the school cricket and football teams, with his full height of six foot four inches making him an ideal choice for goalkeeper. After leaving school he was supposed to study medicine but in 1934, aged just 20, he visited Harlem in New York, where he saw the jazz giants Cab Calloway and Fletcher Henderson. This was a key element in Ken wanting to form his own swing band, even though his knowledge of music was extremely limited. In 1936, in Britain, his dream came true when he collaborated with the successful Jamaican trumpeter Leslie Thompson. Together they launched a new swing band, the Emperors of Jazz. These were the players who started to change British music by putting American-style swing into it for the first time. However, though Ken could dance, he had limited musical expertise. A colleague once commented: 'He couldn't tell a B flat from a pig's foot!' Leslie Thompson later described Ken as a charming and vivacious young man. The band enjoyed residencies at several popular nightclubs: the Old Florida Club (1936-8), Willerby's (1939) and the Café de Paris (1939-41), situated at Coventry and Wardour Streets, just off Leicester Square.
The Café de Paris had opened its doors in 1924, and was the top nightspot in London. It featured an oval mirrored room and a spacious dance floor, and attracted members of the royal family and aristocracy, as well as eminent political figures and stars of the silver screen. In 1937 Leslie quit the band and Ken took over the leadership, and the band was renamed Ken Johnson and his West Indian Dance Orchestra. Offstage, Ken was the lover of Gerald Hamilton, a memoirist and critic who served prison sentences for bankruptcy, theft, gross indecency and being a threat to national security. He was immortalised in Christopher Isherwood's novel Mr Norris Changes Trains. Gerald was 20 years older than Ken and, while the younger man: was never more at home than when sitting in on some all-night jam session, which Gerald would have abominated because of the smoke and the noise, Ken, like many others, was amused by Gerald's Edwardian airs and malicious anecdotes, while Gerald, for his part, undertook to educate Ken's palate in the mysteries of wine. The couple met in 1940 and made a home for themselves at 91 Kinnerton Street in Belgravia. They were neighbours of Gerald's friend, the film director Brian Desmond Hurst. During the London Blitz, the couple acquired a Thames-side cottage called 'Little Basing' in Vicarage Road, Bray in Berkshire, where Ken indulged his passion for sailing. After appearing at the Café de Paris, Ken would drive to the cottage, arriving in the early hours of the morning, but still have the energy to be up and about in the morning and out sailing on the Thames until late afternoon, until it was time to return to London's West End and the club. These were happy times for Ken and Gerald. In the first year of the war, Ken reached the peak of his popularity.
The Café de Paris, situated underground, directly beneath the Rialto Cinema on Coventry Street, was thought to be impregnable. It was advertised by its owner, Martin Poulsen, as 'the safest and gayest restaurant in town - even in air raids. Twenty feet below ground.' Poulsen deluded the public into thinking there were four solid storeys of masonry above. Said Charles Graves in his history of the Café de Paris: 'all that pro-tected the Café from a direct hit were the glass roof of the Rialto Cinema and the ceiling of the Café de Paris itself. At 9.30 p.m. on Saturday 8 March 1941, Ken was having drinks with some friends at the Embassy Club before his show at the Café, which was not far away. It was one of the worst nights of the Blitz and an air raid was raging. No taxi was available. His friends begged him to stay, but Ken was determined to arrive on time for his appearance. He ran all the way from the Embassy Club to the Café de Paris, through the blackout, and the falling bombs. He arrived at 9.45 p.m. but five minutes later two high-explosive bombs crashed onto the dance floor, and one exploded in front of the bandstand. Reports of the numbers of dead and injured have varied, but most reports agree that over 30 people lost their lives that night at the Café de Paris, including its owner, Martin Poulsen. Ken was discovered without a mark on his body, his red carnation still in the button-hole of his tailcoat.
After Johnson was killed, Hamilton never travelled without a framed photograph of him, always referring to him as "My Husband". Ken was survived by his mother in British Guiana. Following his funeral, she gave consent for his ashes to remain in Britain Arrangements for Ken's final resting place were made by his friend Ivor Cummings, who contacted the headmaster of Ken's former school, Sir William Borlase's, and requested permission for the ashes to be buried in the school's chapel. On 8 March 1942, one year after he was killed, Ken's ashes were interred during a memorial service at the chapel and the order of service included the following hymns: 'City of God', 'Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow', 'What Sweet of Life Endureth' and `Praiqn My Soul the King of Heaven'
The music publication Melody Maker published coverage on Johnson and his band for three weeks after his death, while the BBC waited until September 1941 to broadcast a memorial to him on the Radio Rhythm Club programme; it drew a 15.3 per cent listenership, which was high for a late-night broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme. That October Melody Maker arranged a jam session at HMV Recording Studios, Abbey Road. Many of Johnson's former colleagues played—Deniz and Bromley still showing the leg injuries they sustained—and they played several songs together, with other musicians filling in the gaps in the group. The BBC also broadcast two further programmes in February 1942, once when Perowne played Johnson's records, and once when the band reunited under Barriteau for a one-off performance.
My published books:
BACK TO HOME PAGE