Johnson was born in Biloxi, Mississippi. He was the younger brother of double bassist William Manuel "Bill" Johnson. He worked around Mississippi and New Orleans before moving to the western United States in the early 1910s. He played around Nevada and California, often with his brother Bill. He played with the Original Creole Orchestra, mostly on drums.
Johnson 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) and his clarinet playing by Larry Shields. Johnson wrote tunes, including "The Krooked Blues" (recorded by King Oliver) and "So Different Blues".
- Allmusic biography
- Singleton, Joan (2011). Keep It Real: The Life Story of James "Jimmy" Palao "The King of Jazz". iUniverse. ISBN 978-1462007219. Retrieved 6 July 2017.
- Karst, James (March 12, 2017). "The story behind the story of the first (commercial) jazz record". nola.com. Retrieved 6 July 2017.
- Levin, Floyd (November 30, 2000). Classic Jazz: A Personal View of the Music and the Musicians. University of California Press. p. 38. ISBN 0520213602.