Johnson was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, younger brother of the double bass player/bandleader William Manuel Johnson. He worked around Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana before moving to the western United States in the early 1910s. He played around Nevada and California, often with his brother Bill. Most prominently he played with the Original Creole Orchestra (mostly on drums). He also played clarinet in Kid Ory's band. For many years he was based in Los Angeles, where he led a band in the 1920s and later ran a bar called Dink's Place at 4429 Avalon Blvd., right next to the minor league baseball park. He was visited there im March 1946 by Bill Russell, who organised most of his piano and one man band recordings. Russell wrote in his diary that Dink had a room at the back for selling bootleg whisky, and kept a gun in a saucepan "because the police would never look there". He told Russell that he had "always lived outside the law."
He made his first recordings in 1922 on clarinet with Kid Ory's Band. He made more recordings in the 1940s and 1950s, mostly on piano, although also doing some one-man band recordings, playing all three of his instruments through over dubbing.
Johnson's piano style was influenced by Jelly Roll Morton (his brother-in-law); his clarinet playing by Larry Shields. Johnson also wrote tunes, including "The Krooked Blues" (recorded by King Oliver) and "So Different Blues".