On April 12, 2014 the non-profit organization Friends of Maple Grove is set to honor one of music’s earliest recording stars, George Washington Johnson, by placing a plaque on his grave to honor his life and contributions in the music industry.
Johnson’s unmarked grave was discovered by noted television and radio historian, Tim Brooks, author of the book, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922. Brooks also won the Grammy award for Best Historical Album in 2007 for a double CD collection that featured songs by Johnson.
The Maple Grove Cemetery located in Kew Gardens, Queens has a 139-year-old history and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The Friends of Maple Grove have been looking into the history of the people buried there,” said Carl Ballenas, local historian and President of the Friends of Maple Grove.
“I wanted to write something about him to set the record straight,” said Brooks. Beginning his work in the late 1980’s, Brooks remembers much of the information about Johnson was false. Brooks described his research as a “treasure hunt,” with several breakthroughs along the way.
Brooks found Johnson’s obituary in a newspaper showing where he was buried. This eventually led him to Maple Grove. Finding the grave was “a moment that stuck with me,” he said.
Born a slave in Virginia in 1846, Johnson was the play friend of his master’s young son. “As a house slave he was taught to read and write as well as music,” said Ballenas, citing information from Brooks’ book.
After the Civil War Johnson ventured to New York City, where he made a living performing on ferries and street corners. He got his start recording songs with the Metropolitan Phonograph Company of New York City then later with Thomas Edison. According to Ballenas, Johnson was the first African American to record music, calling him a “trailblazer” and a “pioneer in the music Industry.”
“He opened the door for all African American from the 1890’s until today, like Michael Jackson and Beyoncé,” said Ballenas.