Gospel and blues, journalism and activism.
Our second of four Black History Month posts honors Black West Virginians whose talents have rocked us and informed us.
Singer Garnet Mimms
Born in West Virginia, Garnet Mimms grew up singing in church choirs. He graduated from Stratton High School in Beckley, then moved to Philadelphia, where he sang in the gospel groups The Evening Stars and The Harmonizing Four. After a spell in the military and minor local success with bands in Philadelphia, he moved with his group, Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters, to New York, where they found quick success in 1963 with the R&B chart-topping “Cry Baby”—a song that was later rhapsodized in liner notes by one R&B writer as “a gospelized production full of the soul-saving, fire-and-brimstone ecstasies” of the Black church. “Never had the public heard anything so intense and so emotional on Top 40 radio,” he wrote. Mimms soon launched a solo career with United Artists, then Veep Records. His songs were played by The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, and he toured with Jimi Hendrix.
Mimms later left his music career to minister, as a born again Christian, to prisoners. He released the gospel album Is Anybody Out There? in 2008, and a new collection of his early recordings, Looking for You, was released in 2015. Mimms came to be regarded as one of the important early voices of soul and was given a Pioneer Award in 1999 by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
Musician Johnnie Johnson
1924 Fairmont–2005 St.Louis, Missouri
Fairmont native Johnnie Johnson is said to have started teaching himself to play piano at the age of 4 by imitating the swing, country and western, and big band jazz music he heard on the radio, coming to craft his own style. He played with the elite all-serviceman jazz orchestra The Barracudas as a Marine during World War II and, after the war, moved to Detroit, then Chicago, sitting in with the legendary Muddy Waters and other great bluesmen. As part of a blues and jazz trio in St. Louis in the 1950s, Johnson invited an up-and-coming Chuck Berry to sit in on a New Year’s Eve performance, leading to a decades-long collaboration. Berry’s showmanship and promotion took them back to Chicago to record “Maybellene,” landing them on the Billboard charts in 1955. Playing then for Berry’s solo act, Johnson collaborated with Berry for years on songs like “Roll Over Beethoven” that are still standards today. Johnson played with many other respected artists and was a fixture in the St. Louis blues scene. Later in his career he performed often with Keith Richards and Eric Clapton and many other rock ’n’ roll greats, and he also recorded and toured as a solo performer. Although Johnson felt he never received the recognition he should have for the collaboration with Berry, Berry’s hit “Johnny B. Goode” was said to have been written as a tribute to him.
Johnson came to be known as one of the all-time greatest blues pianists. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, and, the following year, The Johnnie Johnson Blues and Jazz Society in Fairmont began staging an annual festival. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for breaking racial barriers in the military.
William Anthony “Tony” Brown
Television producer, entrepreneur, and activist Tony Brown grew up in conditions of segregation and poverty in Charleston. He excelled academically, going on to study sociology and psychology and earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Wayne State University in Detroit. He became politically active there and organized the June 1963 Walk to Freedom in Detroit with Martin Luther King, a precursor to the famous March on Washington that King participated in two months later. Brown worked in print, then broadcast journalism. In 1970, he began hosting the monthly news and talk show Black Journal; later produced weekly and titled Tony Brown’s Journal, it was the longest-running minority affairs program when it last aired on PBS in 2008.
Brown’s activism took many forms. initiated Black College Day to encourage Blacks to go to college, and he created the Council for the Economic Development of Black Americans. He also founded the School of Communications at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1971 and served as the school’s dean. You can sample excerpts of Tony Brown’s Journal @tonybrownsjournal on Facebook, or subscribe at tonybrownsjournal.com for access to an extensive archive.