Don Robey had the muscle and the money, but Evelyn Johnson was the brains and the backbone behind the Duke/ Peacock music business empire of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Ten years before Berry Gordy started Motown, Houston had the hottest black music label in the country, and Johnson ran day-to-day operations. She was also in charge at the Buffalo Booking Agency, which handled B.B. King and many others. Musicians nicknamed Johnson “Mother Superior,” as she ruled her fiefdom at 2809 Erastus St. in the Fifth Ward with personality for more than 25 years.
Johnson passed away in 2005 at age 85. She was never married and had no biological children, but the feisty and funny Louisiana native raised a whole bunch of blues musicians and gospel singers. She taught Bobby “Blue” Bland how to read and was always just a phone call away from any artist in need.
A former taxi fleet owner and numbers runner, Robey was reportedly mob-connected and dealt with adversarial situations accordingly. Many is the story of Robey using a gun as a negotiating tool (as when he allegedly stole “Treat Her Right” by Roy Head from producer Huey Meaux), but Johnson balanced it out with her matronly wisdom and care. They were quite a team, from 1947, when Johnson was initially hired to work at Robey’s record store on Lyons Avenue, until 1973 when Robey sold off the company to ABC/Dunhill.
They hit it harder at Peacock, boasting top gospel shouters Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales, in addition to the Dixie Hummingbirds, Pilgrim Jubilee Singers and Mighty Clouds of Joy. Robey brought the bass drum to gospel and sold more than half a million copies of “Let’s Talk About Jesus” by Austin’s Bells of Joy in 1951.
When Robey acquired Memphis label Duke and its roster of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnny Ace, Junior Parker, Roscoe Gordon, Memphis Slim and more in 1952, Houston built a pipeline to Memphis to become THE hub of gritty black music. The Duke/Peacock sound was what you got when Memphis singers were backed by Texas session players (Pete Mayes, Grady Gaines, Clarence Holliman, Calvin Owens, etc.), though the label’s first big smash, “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton in 1953, was recorded in California with Johnny Otis’ band.
Motown’s philosophy was to sell black music to both black and white kids, but Duke/Peacock was going right for the African-American club market. As Stax/Volt would later define Memphis grit, Duke/Peacock was raw, black Southern music for an audience more into expressing themselves than fitting in.
Since the acts weren’t going to be getting any record royalties, just a brand new Cadillac if they were selling well, Johnson put them out on the road to make money. Her Buffalo Booking carved out the Southwest extension of, not only the Chitlin Circuit, but the Gospel Highway.
Evelyn Johnson 1972 photo by Bob Simmons.
Duke’s biggest hit was released posthumously. “Pledging My Love” shot to No. 1 on the R&B charts, just weeks after singer Johnny Ace accidentally killed himself by pulling the trigger on a pistol he thought was unloaded, backstage at Houston’s City Auditorium on Christmas Day 1954. Big Mama Thornton, the opener of the “Negro Christmas Dance,” was a witness to the tragedy, telling police “his kinky hair shot straight out” when the gun fired into his temple.
Considering the scope of her influence, it’s interesting to note that Evelyn Johnson, born in 1920 in Thibodeaux, La., had no intention of pursuing a music business career while attending the Houston College for Negroes (later Texas Southern University). Johnson set out for work in the medical field, getting a job as an X-ray tech at Houston Memorial after graduation in the ‘40s. But after she got sick and blamed exposure to radiation, Johnson was put on leave and never went back. She took business courses and found herself keeping books at Robey’s Bronze Peacock, as well as running the register at the record shop.
Johnson quickly became the person Robey could count on, so as he was coming home from a night of gambling in the back rooms at the Peacock, Johnson was getting up and going to work. There have been rumors that the pair had a romantic relationship and even lived together between Robey’s marriages, but the only two people who know for sure are gone. Robey died of a heart attack in 1975 at age 71.
We do know they had a magical working relationship. After Gatemouth’s first singles stiffed on Aladdin, which was all about Amos Milburn and Charles Brown at the time, Robey told Johnson they could do a better job putting the records out themselves. “How do you start a record label?” Johnson asked Robey, to which he reportedly shot back, “Hell if I know! That’s for you to find out.”
Johnson called the Library of Congress, who didn’t put out records, but referred Johnson to companies who did. She called them all and got an education in contracts, copyrights, royalties, publishing and even record-pressing. “Maybe people were just more inclined to help a woman?,” she told Houston writer Roger Wood, who described her as “Robey’s discreet and proficient enabler.” Being one of the few women in the music business was sometimes an asset.
The first African American record mogul, Robey distrusted other businesses and kept as much as possible in-house, so Johnson was a irreplaceable go-between. Robey required all his studio drummers to follow the beat of a red light in the studio that simulated the rhythm of a human heart. That’s what Evelyn Johnson did on the business side.