When Archie Brownlee, the legendary founding leader of The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, died of pneumonia while on tour in New Orleans in 1960, the group that had formed in the mid-1930s was coming off of more than a decade of its greatest fame. Their performances were sought after – packing auditoriums with 40,000 people at a time – and their albums were the top sellers in gospel. They were one of the first gospel groups to make it in the top 10 of Billboard’s R&B chart.
Brownlee’s absence was initially addressed by recruiting Roscoe Robinson, a celebrated baritone/tenor. But Robinson wasn’t able to fill Brownlee’s big shoes. And that was never clearer than when Big Henry Johnson was asked to lead the Five Blind Boys, quickly stealing the spotlight and eventually sending Robinson on his way.
Johnson wasn’t blind, but like Brownlee, he had a distinct and devastating scream that stayed with people. It wasn’t just a powerful voice; it was one with a mind-blowing five-octave range. He could easily jump from tenor to contra-tenor to baritone. I’ve only experienced it through some old TV concerts of Johnson and the Blind Boys on YouTube (below), but it just never gets old – I listen to it all the time.
Gospel critics and historians will tell you that Brownlee was better than Johnson and I don’t have any place to argue with that. Brownlee’s old albums are amazing. But, I think there’s something so interesting and somewhat of a bummer about Johnson’s story. Mainly – most people don’t know his name, but he should have been widely known as one of the last legends of gospel music’s golden age.
There’s very little info on Johnson on the web. There’s passing mention of him on the Blind Boys’ Wikipedia page, a few YouTube videos and one telling article (only in PDF format) by veteran producer and archivist Opal Nations, which was written shortly after Johnson’s death in 1999. Even then, Nations wrote the story because he too felt like Johnson was overlooked.
Johnson was the son of a Baptist preacher in Orange, TX, a town near Beaumont on the Louisiana border. He sang in church and was involved in his high school glee club. After high school, he became superintendent of the Sunday school at his father’s church and began singing on the local radio station with his uncle’s group, the Southern Selahs. After a few years with the Selahs, he struck out on his own but entered military service soon after.
After years in the service, Johnson had stints with groups like Richmond’s Harmonizing Four and LA’s Sensational Wonders, but he couldn’t quite make it work with any of them.
In 1964, Johnson got the call to join the Blind Boys of Mississippi. (Sidenote: the main reason why the Blind Boys of Mississippi might not sound all that familiar is because the spotlight shifted to their friendly rivals and tour mates, the Blind Boys of Alabama, when the Alabama group’s longer living members scored recent Grammy wins for their collaborations with other artists.)
It was with the Blind Boys that Johnson recorded his scream for the first time. As Nations notes in his story, “Big Henry screamed with his voice, not his throat.” His secret to protecting his voice was to take quiet fishing trips during the day.
“I never run myself ragged,” Johnson told Nations.
Nations said that Big Henry was also able to “sing in high tenor and edge it with a squeal simultaneous, a trick only a few could master.”
With multiple two-sided recordings released to critical acclaim, Johnson was then solidified in The Blind Boys with a full album released in 1965, titled Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee. Soon the group was again sought after, even performing on TV in the US and headlining a European tour.
But eventually, Johnson and the Blind Boys started to rub each other the wrong way. Johnson was dominating the spotlight. And Johnson could be overbearing off-stage. When the other guys wanted to use the car to chase women and he wanted to go fishing, all hell would break loose.
Johnson’s arrogance got the best of him and he left the Blind Boys. It wasn’t a departure that either party was happy with, but both knew it was likely the only way. Nations notes that with their last performance together, Johnson devastated the audience with a rendition of his strongest song, “Leave You In the Hands Of The Lord.” “Sisters by the armful were carried out by attendants,” he said in his story.
“He never quite fit The Blind Boys of Mississippi because he was not enough of an “ensemble player,” Nations told me in an email. “He sang too well and shouted too loud and could have sung opera if he had put his mind to it.”
Afterward, Johnson declined offers to lead other major gospel groups, including The Blind Boys of Alabama, and built his own group called the Starlight Quintet. The group recorded and lasted for a few years, but broke up in 1969. Johnson got married in 1970 and stopped performing. He reemerged later in life with a group in LA called the Harps of Joy, but they never broke out.
Given how the music business works, Johnson’s story definitely isn’t all that unusual. But after taking most of the year off from writing for a variety of reasons, no other voice I’ve heard (new or old) during this time has moved me to get back on the wagon like his.
Seeing the amazement on the faces of female group on stage next to him as he belted out “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” (below), there’s no question that he was something remarkable. His story is worth sharing even all these years after his death.