Virgil Johnson (singer)
|Birth name||Virgil Lewis Johnson|
December 29, 1935|
Cameron, Milam County, Texas, United States
|Died||February 24, 2013
Lubbock, Lubbock County, United States
Retired educator in Lubbock, Texas
|Years active||1959 – 2008|
|Associated acts||The Velvets|
Virgil Lewis Johnson (December 29, 1935 – February 24, 2013) was an African American deejay, formerly at radio station KDAV in Lubbock. He was the lead singer of The Velvets, a 1950s and 1960s vocal quintet from Odessa, also in West Texas. They are best remembered for their 1961 hit "Tonight (Could Be the Night)", which peaked at No. 26 on the Billboard pop charts. The song refers to a young woman waiting to fall in love or perhaps for her intended to propose marriage and present her with a ring of commitment. The Velvets can be heard chanting "doo-wop" as a refrain in a song. Doo wop is considered to have originated in 1955 with The Turbans' "When You Dance". However, the Velvets were a special type of doo-wop group because their sound was highly polished, and the backing usually included stringed instruments.
KDAV calls itself the Buddy Holly Station, and Johnson during his tenure there was known as "V.J. the D.J." Prior to his retirement from KDAV, Johnson broadcast on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. KDAV is heard through the Internet. The station plays primarily rock and roll songs from the 1950s, the 1960s, and – recently – the first half of the 1970s.
Life and career
Johnson was born in Cameron, the seat of Milam County in east central Texas. The family relocated to Lubbock, and Johnson graduated there from the historically black Dunbar High School, an institution known for its outstanding academics and reputation within the community. Later he would be principal of his alma mater and obtained a graduate degree from Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He was teaching eighth-grade English at Blackshear Junior High School in Odessa, the seat of Ector County, in 1959, when he recruited four of his students to form a singing group. They were Mark Prince (bass), Clarence Rigsby (tenor), Robert Thursby (first tenor), and William Solomon (baritone). The quintet performed at school dances, with then 24-year-old Johnson as lead tenor singer.
In 1960, the singers impressed the native Texan Roy Orbison, who heard them while he was visiting Odessa. Orbison recommended the five to Fred Foster, the owner of Monument Records in Nashville, Tennessee, who had produced Orbison's hit "Only the Lonely". Foster originated the name "The Velvets featuring Virgil Johnson" to distinguish the five from an earlier group called simply "The Velvets". The group recorded "That Lucky Old Sun"/"Time And Again" and "Tonight (Could Be The Night)"/"Spring Fever". Orbison wrote the two B-sides, but "Tonight" was the work of Johnson. Their accompaniment came from Boots Randolph and Floyd Cramer.
After the success of "Tonight", the group's next release was "Lana"/"Laugh", both written by Orbison and Joe Melson. Johnson said that it had been a mistake to produce the two songs together. "Laugh" stalled at No. 90, but "Lana" (thereafter recorded by Orbison himself) was No. 1 in Japan. Until 1966, Monument continued to record nine singles by the Velvets.
Johnson said that the group had no further hits, and did not tour the country because the music market was divided into white and black segments in the early 1960s. The Velvets were black but sounded white and were popular with whites but not their fellow African Americans, who preferred explicit R&B sounds. West Texas had few blacks in residence at the time, and the quintet did not have overt black-sounding dialect. Johnson explained the dichotomy this way: "You got to realize, in the early sixties there were two music markets in the U.S. You had a black market, and you had a white market. We were extremely popular with whites, but we were never extremely popular with blacks. We were black and we didn't sound like it. People didn't know we were a black group. We couldn't tour, and that really hurt us."
Johnson resumed teaching. He retired from his job as principal of Lubbock's historically black Dunbar High School (1985–1993) and as principal of Dunbar-Struggs Middle School (1968–1984). In 1993, Dunbar became Magnet Junior High School Science Academy. In Lubbock, Johnson was a deejay on Radio KSEL before he switched to KDAV after his retirement from education. Clarence Rigsby, meanwhile, died in a car crash in 1978.
In 1994, Johnson was inducted into the Buddy Holly West Texas Walk of Fame, renamed in 2006 as the West Texas Hall of Fame, located at Seventh Street and Avenue Q in Lubbock.
Over the weekend of March 15, 2008, Johnson and another KDAV deejay, Bud Andrews, were featured on Bob Phillips' Texas Country Reporter syndicated television program. In 2008, he was listed among the "100 Most Influential People" from Lubbock, as part of the city centennial observation.
- William Kerns (25 February 2013). "Lubbock crooner, educator Johnson passes away Sunday". Lubbockonline.com.
- "The Doo-Wop Society of Southern California: Origin of Doo-Wop". Electricearl.com. 2002-07-14. Retrieved 2013-02-26.
- [dead link]
- "Virgil Johnson (The Velvets)". Rockabillyeurope.com. 1935-12-29. Retrieved 2013-02-26.
- "Home". Kdav.Com. Retrieved 2013-02-26.
- [dead link]
- "R&B, Soul & Doo-Wop - The Valentines -> The Volumes". Rootsandrhythm.com. Retrieved 2013-02-26.
- "TCR Episode Guide". Texascountryreporter.com. Retrieved 2013-02-26.
- "The city's most influential people, March 9, 2008". Lubbockonline.com. Retrieved September 3, 2011.