Born Francis Hall Johnson but better known as just plain Hall Johnson, this important artist was equally known for his compositions, the formation of several world-famous choirs, and a series of superb publications concerning gospel and black music, in general. His first major influence in the subject of sacred choral music would have had to have been his father, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church in Athens, Georgia. Another important early musical talisman whoJohnson was fond of pointing out was his grandmother, a former slave whose interpretations of spirituals moved him deeply. But far from leaning only on oral tradition, Johnson studied at Atlanta University, Allen University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Juilliard School, and the University of Southern California.
His career as a performing musician began with a stint as violinist in the illustrious orchestra of James Reese Europe. The confident Johnson soon opened his own teaching studio, offering lessons in violin as well as other instruments he had learned how to get around on. In 1921, he was part of the orchestra for the musical entitled Shuffle Along. Soon he became fascinated with choral music, leading him back to his home ground of spirituals and the formation of the Hall Johnson Negro Choir in the fall of 1925. This group began presenting concerts and radio broadcasts in New York City, cutting their first sides for RCA Victor in 1928. Early in the following decade, the group presented one of Johnson's major works, a collection of spirituals composed for The Green Pastures, a Broadway musical. Similar shows followed on the success of this venture. Run Little Chillun scampered onto the Broadway stage in 1933, and over the next dozen years the choir made important contributions to the film version of The Green Pastures, as well as Hollywood blockbusters such as Lost Horizon, and the infamous Cabin in the Sky.
Choral groups continued to fascinate Johnson, who put together festival choirs on both coasts of the United States and wrote much music for them, as well as a series of spiritual settings for solo voice and piano that attracted performers on the level of soprano Marian Anderson. "Son of Man," described as an Easter cantata, was premiered in the spring of 1946. In 1951, the group now called the Hall Johnson Choir got the nod to represent the United States at an international festival held in Berlin, followed by several months of touring abroad. Johnson also began to write articles dealing with the history of spirituals and aspects of choir performance. He published a vital collection entitled Thirty Spirituals Arranged for Voice and Piano, in which he stressed in the preface that the attitude of the singers was one of the most important parts of this genre. He wrote: "...this music covers an amazing range of mood. Nevertheless, it is always serious music and should be performed seriously, in the spirit of its original conception."
Johnson's fluency in French and German was a great surprise even to those familiar with his talents in other areas, to the point where at least one opera coach at Juillard expressed great surprise in how thoroughly Johnson had prepared one of his students in the art of the German lieder. He received many awards during his lifetime as well as a posthumous induction into the Black Filmmaker's Hall of Fame. His death in 1970 was the result of a fire in his New York City apartment.