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Dexter Johnson
Born:  April 27, 1918
KLCN Blytheville, AR
WJOI Florence, AL
WLAY Muscle Shoals, AL
WMSD Sheffield, AL
WSM Nashville, TN
WNRA Muscle Shoals, AL (1932)

Dexter Johnson was born in Belmont, Mississippi. It was said that he and his younger brother, Ray, were the musical talents in the family of WIlliam (Bud) Johnson. Their father owned a general store. Shortly after Dexter's birth, the family moved to a farm near Luka, Mississippi that was on a hillside overlooking the Tennessee River.

It was on that farm that Dexter and Ray began to develop their musical talents as an act and began to play local square dances and entering fiddling contests. Ray played the guiar. Dexter sang, played tenor guitar or mandolin.

When Dexter was around 14 years old (circa 1932), the brothers began their musical careers with a program on radio station WNRA in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Ray was still a bit short back then, sitting on a chair, his feet still didn't touch the ground.

The brothers gained quite a bit of popularity in the northwest Alabama area, gaining appearances on other stations in the area.

The duo broke up around 1935 when Dexter was 17, when he moved to Detroit, Michigan to entertain audiences in theaters and clubs in that area. The Curtis Agency was handling his personal appearances back then.

In 1938, Dexter returned home to marry Grace. He took a job as an auxiliary operator and assistant turbine operator a the local Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) plant. He built a home for his family in Sheffield, Alabama.

The next step in his musical journey was playing the upgright bass for a group called the "Blue Seal Pals", who were sponsored by the makers of Blue Seal Flour - the Columbia Mill and Elevator Company of Columbia, Tennessee. (You'll find some history on that group elsewhere on the site.) The Blue Seal Pals had a live broadcast over radio station WJOI in Florence that was fed to six other radio stations in Alabama on the Blue Seal Network. Their popularity grew to the point where they were doing a 6:30am "Sun-Up Serenade" show on Nashville's WSM in 1946 and 1947.

Dexter became an inspiration later in his career for what is known as the Muscle Shoals sound. His nephew is MSS rhythm guitarist Jimmy Johnson. When Dexter retired from the road and working for the TVA in 1951, he turned his garage into a recording studio and began to make his own recordings in the Muscle Shoals area.

He would do radio programs as well as demonstration records for different people. Songwriters would stop by the studio to get their songs down so they could pitch them to get them recorded. His talents were many. He was behind the glass at the studio control board. Or he could be in the studio laying down the musical backup. His clients included such folks as Sue Richards, who at one time was a backup singer for Tammy Wynette, Kenneth Lovelace, guitarist and band leader of Jerry Lee Lewis' band, Junior Thompson, Leonard Moore, Roy Cooper and Keevil Hendon.

Two well known country music female vocalists got their start at Dexter's studio - Melba Montgomery and Tanya Tucker.

Other artists that passed through his studio included Terry Thompson, a guitar wizard, Duck CHowning, Al Lester, Jesse Handley, and, James Kimbrough.

Dexter noted "Sometimes we'd have people waiting outside, a whole bunch of cars parked there, and the police would come by and wonder about all those cars. But it was just folks waiting to get their turn in."

Credits & Sources

  • Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to express its appreciation to Janet McBride for providing us with information about Dexter Johnson's career.

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