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Johnson, Jack 1878–1946

Jack Johnson 18781946

Boxer

Fought to Survive

Champion of the World

Exiled and a Questionable Defeat

Sources

Jack Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight boxing champion in the world in 1908, was the preeminent American sports personality of his era, a man whose success in the ring spurred a worldwide search, tinged with bigotry, for a Great White Hope to defeat him. Handsome, successful, and personable, Johnson was known as much for his exploits outside of the ring as for his boxing skills. He married three white women in a time when such interracial unions resulted in denunciations of him from the floor of the United States Congress. He made big money, spent it lavishly, and lived grandly. And in doing so he gained admirers and detractors all over the world and became, quite simply, one of the best known men of the early twentieth century.

Johnsons autobiography, Jack Johnson: In the Ring and Out, remains the key source for information about his early life. In it he writes, I am astounded when I realize that there are few men in any period of the worlds history, who have led a more varied or intense existence than I [have]. Like Muhammad AH after him, Johnson was not shy about promoting himself or his exploits. Little is known of his early family life; Johnson wrote that his three sisters and one brother had little effect on his life. His father was a janitor who was also known to have preached in local churches. He appeared to have been closest to his mother, Tiny Johnson, and talked with pride of buying her a house with some of the purses he collected in his long boxing career.

When he was only 12 years old Johnson determined to leave his hometown of Galveston, Texas, and see the world, especially New York City. But getting to the city was difficult. He jumped a freight train, but was discovered, beaten, and thrown off the car. He jumped a boat, but ended up in Key West and worked as a fisherman. Finally, he hopped another freighter, worked as a cook on board, and reached New York. From there he went to Boston, where he worked in a stable, then hightailed it back to Galveston, where he became a dockworker at the age of 13.

Fought to Survive

Of his co-workers on the Texas waterfront, Johnson wrote, To them, fighting was one of the important functions of existence. They fought upon every occasion and on any pretext. Although I was one of the youngest in this rough and aggressive group, I had to do my share

At a Glance

Born John Arthur Johnson, March 31, 1878, in Galveston, TX; died in a car accident, June 10, 1946, near Franklinton, NC; son of a school janitor and his mother, Tiny Johnson; married Mary Austin, 1898 (divorced); married Etta Terry Duryea, 1909 (died, 1912); married Lucille Cameron, 1912 (divorced, 1924); married Irene Marie Pineau, 1925.

Worked as fisherman, stable hand, and dockworker in his teens; boxer, c. 1893-26; fought in more than 125 bouts; became heavyweight champion of the world, 1908; lost heavyweight title, 1915; cabaret owner and star of theatrical productions; performed in vaudeville shows and lectured until his death.

of fighting. After a series of street fights in Galveston, Johnson went to Dallas where he started to train as a boxer. Returning to Galveston, he began fighting his first series of bouts. After whipping a man named Piersonknown throughout Galveston as the toughest man in townJohnsons reputation was firmly fixed. And he had a new nickname, one that he would carry throughout his life, Lil Arthur.

Johnson soon outgrew Galveston; he had fought every tough guy in town. So he travelled to Springfield, Illinois, and then to Chicago, fighting in hastily arranged bouts for food and lodging. He was 17 years old when he fought a man named Klondike and lost. Johnson claimed that despite the loss he decided he could make a living as a fighter. From Chicago, he went to New York by way of Pittsburgh, fighting all the while. Then it was back to Texas, across the South, and finally out to Denver where he traveled about with a group of other boxers, taking on all comers in all weight classes.

Johnson had been married to a black woman, Mary Austin, since 1898, but in Colorado their marriage broke up, sending Johnson into a state of depression. They had a brief reconciliation, but Johnson wrote in his autobiography that the troubles he had with women led me to forswear colored women and to determine that my lot henceforth would be cast only with white women. In a United States where Jim Crow was the law of the land, that decision would get him into a great deal of trouble. In fact, after Johnsons marriage to the white woman, Etta Duryea, in 1911, a Georgia Congressman, Seaborn Roddenberry, was so incensed he tried to get passed a constitutional amendment banning racial intermarriage. His bill died.

Back in Colorado, Johnson continued to fight while serving as camp cook for the traveling stable of boxers. Eventually he moved west, won the worlds light heavyweight championship from a boxer named George Gardiner and began to set his sights on the heavyweight championship of the world. That would prove to be an elusive goal. By the end of 1906, Johnson had fought in 56 official fights and lost only two. But no one would give him a shot at the title. I had demonstrated my strength, speed, and skill, but still faced many obstacles, the principle one of which was the customary prejudice because of my race, he wrote. To win the championship, he had to defeat the reigning champ, Tommy Burns, so Johnson began a two-year quest to get that match.

Champion of the World

Johnson fought in Australia and England and began to generate a worldwide following. The press began to criticize Burns for avoiding Johnson. Finally the fight was set for December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia. Thirty thousand people attended the bout; the purse was $35,000, of which only $5,000 went to Johnson. In another concession to get the bout underway, Johnson had to agree to let Burnss manager referee the fight. Even under that manifestly unfair condition Johnson won; the police stopped the fight in the 14th round and Johnson was declared champ.

A new champion had arrived and that new champion was Jack Johnson, he wrote in his autobiography. I had attained my lifes ambition. The little Galveston colored boy had defeated the worlds champion boxer, and for the first and only time in history, a black man held one of the greatest honors which exists in the field of sports and athleticsan honor for which white men had contested many times and which they held as a dear and most desirable one. To me it was not a racial triumph, but there were those who were to take this view of the situation, and almost immediately a great hue and cry went up because a colored man was holding the championship.

Thus began the era of the Great White Hope, the name given to the white man who could take the championship belt away from Johnson. Johnson wrote that he regretted the racial aspect of the search for a new contender but that he was willing to take on anyone, no matter their color. While the search went on, Johnson fought a few minor bouts and engaged in his second career: that of music hall performer. Throughout his professional life, Johnson was booked on the vaudeville and lecture circuit, singing and dancing, telling stories, and giving boxing exhibitions. He performed across the United States and in Europe.

But the life of the stage was not what the public expected of Johnson. They expected him to fight and a good number of them, especially whites upset with Johnsons rich living style and his dating of white women, expected him to be put in his place by a white fighter. The ultimate White Hope was Jim Jeffries, the retired heavyweight champ. When Jeffries retired he had anointed Burns as his replacement. With Burns thoroughly beaten by Johnson, the pressure was on Jeffries to come out of retirement and defend the title and his race. One of the prime movers behind the White Hope search was the novelist Jack London. In an Ebony magazine article about the Johnson-Jeffries bout, London is quoted as writing after the Burns fight, But one thing now remains. Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnsons face. Jeff, its up to you. The White Man must be rescued!

Finally, Jeffries agreed to come out of retirement. The fight was originally set for California, but the governor there intervened and banned the match. The match was then set for Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910. When they climbed into the ring, the 32-year-old Johnson was a trim 208 pounds, while the 35-year-old Jeffries weighed 230 pounds. At 2:45 pm the fight began in front of tens of thousands of people who had gathered under the hot sun. In the weeks preceding the fight, editorial writers had warned that a Johnson victory would give blacks the wrong ideas: that African Americans might get it into their heads to rebel against oppression with their fists like Johnson. There was fear of rioting no matter which way the fight decision went.

According to Ebony, crowds around the world gathered outside of telegraph offices to hear updates of the fight taking place in Reno. The fight itself was, by all accounts, a great one. Jeffries was known for his famous crouch, a bent-over way of boxing. But Johnson neutralized this strategy quickly and landed numerous blows to Jeffriess face. He also taunted the ex-champ, saying, Let me see what youve got, or Do something. Johnson recalled in his autobiography, I recall that occasionally I took time during the exchange of these blows to suggest to telegraph operators what to tell their newspapers. Johnson was trash talking before it became fashionable and while some saw his words as evidence that he was in total control of the match, othersmainly whitesnever forgave him for it.

In the New York Times, in an article that appeared the day after Johnson died in 1946, sports columnist Arthur Daley had little good to say about Johnson. He called Johnsons taunting of Jeffries an example of Johnsons inherent meanness, and he talked about the the stain that Lil Arthur left on boxing and on his race. It seems that few people could forgive Johnson for what he had done in Reno that hot July day in 1910, when he knocked Jeffries out in the 15th round. In doing so, Johnson collected $60,000, as well as picture rights and bonuses that brought his total take to $120,000, a good sized sum in those days.

The predictions of violence in America came true: race riots erupted in many cities. Whites and blacks engaged in shoot outs and fistfights. As for Johnson, he took to the road to fulfill theatrical contracts, and when he had made some good money doing that, he traveled to London and Paris with his wife, Etta Duryea, who he had married in 1909. Johnsons vanity is evident when he describes his London trip, which occurred during the coronation of King George V: Despite the fact that the King and his coronation were the center of attention, when my car traveled along London streets and it was announced that I was in sight, the attention of the crowds was turned upon me, and as long as I was in view the coronation ceremonies were forgotten while crowds milled and struggled for a glance at me.

When Johnson returned to the U.S., he opened a cabaret in Chicago. All races were welcome in his club. After nearly one year in Chicago, in September of 1912, Johnsons wife Etta committed suicide by shooting herself in the head. It was a great blow to the champ and his interest in boxing and business waned.

Exiled and a Questionable Defeat

Two months later Johnson would face an even greater personal challenge. He was arrested for violating the Mann Act, the statute prohibiting the transportation of women across state lines for unlawful purposes. The woman in question was Belle Schreiber, an old acquaintance of Johnsons. The problem with the charge is that Johnson and Schreiber were an item before the Mann Act became law in June of 1910. It was a rank frame up, Johnson recalled in his memoirs. The charges were based upon a law that was not in effect at the time Belle and I had been together and legally was not operative against me.

That did not stop the courts from finding Johnson guilty in May of 1913, nor did it keep the judge from imposing a sentence of one year and one day in prison and a fine of $1,000. In the meantime, Johnson had married Lucille Cameron, his 18-year-old white secretary. When the verdict was handed down, Johnson arranged for himself and his wife to travel to Canada and from there to Paris. For the next seven years, Johnson was an exile from the United States, living in Europe, Mexico, and South America. His lifestyle overseas was lavish, and his exploits, including bullfighting, racing cars, performing on stage, and boxing, continued to receive worldwide attention. While in exile, his mother died, an event which saddened him very much.

On April 5, 1915, Johnson fought Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. Willard won the bout, and the championship from Johnson, but Johnson would always claim that he threw the fight. He said that he was promised that he could return to the United States and avoid his year-and-a-day jail term if he would give up the championship to Willard, the latest in a line of White Hopes. Whether or not Johnson did indeed throw the fight has been a point of contention for many boxing observers because the fight ended by a knockout in the 26th round. I could have disposed of him long before the final round, Johnson wrote of Willard. John Lardner in Newsweek recalled that Willard described his victory by saying, I hit him [Johnson] a good upper-cut. But Lardner goes on to write, Very few people outside of Willard believe this, and maybe Jess doesnt either.

Whether fixed or fair, the bout cost Johnson the championship and did not end his exile. He wandered the globe for five more years before giving himself up to U.S. authorities in 1920. He served eight months in Leavenworth prison and became the physical director of the inmates, supervising track meets, baseball games, and fight training. While behind bars he continued to track his business interests, and he used the time to think long and hard about the prison experience. Johnson came to believe that prison was good for the hardened criminal. But for the man who erred slightly in life, prison does nothing more than to arouse bitterness, Johnson felt. In any event, when he was released from Leavenworth, Johnson was met at the prison gates by a marching band and a horde of friends.

By 1921, Johnson had ended his exile, paid his debt to society, and began a new series of theatrical engagements. In 1924 he and his third wife were divorced and Johnson returned to boxing. He soon won a unanimous decision over a fighter named Homer Smith of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Two years later, at age 48, he beat a 24-year-old boxer named Pat Lester in Mexico.

In the years before his death, Johnson had lectured at Huberts Museum on Forty Second Street in New York. It was a seedy job that his friends and observers said allowed the great ex-champ to earn bread and beer money. His last years were made enjoyable by his marriage to Irene Pineau in 1925. Johnson called her his true love.

In his autobiography, Johnson wrote, I have always been an ardent motorist. He had cars when people were still riding bicycles and horses. Following his release from prison, the only run-ins with the law Johnson had came when he was behind the wheel of a car driving too fast. Five times cars rolled on top of Johnson and five times he survived. The sixth time he was not so lucky. According to the New York Times report of his death, Johnson was driving on Highway 1 near Raleigh, North Carolina, on June 10, 1946, when he lost control of his car, which hit a light pole and overturned. He died three hours later.

The Times called Johnson, One of the craftiest boxers known to the ring, recognized by many as one of the five outstanding heavyweight champions of all time. Johnson, who was cocky, confident, and talented, would not have disagreed. But as John Lardner wrote in Newsweek after Johnson died, the champs interest in how he would be remembered ranged beyond boxing. Whatever you write about me, Lardner remembered Johnson telling him, Just please remember that Im a man and a good one.

Sources

Books

Johnson, Jack, Jack Johnson: In the Ring and Out, Proteus Publishing, 1977.

Periodicals

Ebony, April 1994, pp. 86-98.

Newsweek, June 24, 1946, p. 90.

New York Times, June 11, 1946, p. 1; June 12, 1946, p. 20.

John LoDico

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Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson (1878?-1946) became the first black heavyweight champion after winning the crown from Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia on December 26, 1908. As a result of this victory, he became the center of a bitter racial controversy with the American public clamoring for the former white champion, Jim Jeffries, to come out of retirement and recapture the crown.

Jack Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight boxing champion in the world in 1908, was the preeminent American sports personality of his era, a man whose success in the ring spurred a worldwide search, tinged with bigotry, for a "Great White Hope" to defeat him. Handsome, successful, and personable, Johnson was known as much for his exploits outside of the ring as for his boxing skills. He married three white women in a time when such interracial unions resulted in denunciations of him from the floor of the United States Congress. He made big money, spent it lavishly, and lived grandly. And in doing so he gained admirers and detractors all over the world and became, quite simply, one of the best known men of the early twentieth century.

Johnson's autobiography, Jack Johnson, In the Ring and Out, remains the key source for information about his early life. In it he writes, "I am astounded when I realize that there are few men in any period of the world's history, who have led a more varied or intense existence than I." Like Muhammad Ali after him, Johnson was not shy about promoting himself or his exploits. Little is known of his early family life; Johnson writes that his three sisters and one brother had little effect on his life. His father was a janitor who was also known to have preached in local churches. He appears to have been closest to his mother, Tiny Johnson, and talks with pride of buying her a house with some of the purses he collected in his long boxing career.

When he was only 12 years old Johnson determined to leave his hometown of Galveston, Texas, and see the world, especially New York City. But getting to the city was difficult. He jumped a freight train, but was discovered, beaten, and thrown off. He jumped a boat, but ended up in Key West and worked as a fisherman. Finally, he hopped a freighter, worked as a cook on board, and reached New York. From there he went to Boston, where he worked in a stable, then hightailed it back to Galveston, where he became a dockworker at the age of 13.

Fought to Survive

Of his co-workers on the Texas waterfront, Johnson wrote, "To them, fighting was one of the important functions of existence. They fought upon every occasion and on any pretext…. Although I was one of the youngest in this rough and aggressive group, I had to do my share of fighting." After a series of street fights in Galveston, Johnson went to Dallas where he started to train as a boxer. Returning to Galveston, he began fighting his first series of bouts. After whipping a man named Pierson—known throughout Galveston as the toughest man in town—Johnson's reputation was firmly fixed. And he had a new nickname, one that he would carry throughout his life, "Lil' Arthur."

Johnson soon outgrew Galveston; he had fought every tough guy in town. So he travelled to Springfield, Illinois, and then to Chicago, fighting in hastily arranged bouts for food and lodging. He was 17 years old when he fought a man named "Klondike" and lost. Johnson claimed that the loss marked the time when he decided he could make a living as a fighter. From Chicago, he went to New York by way of Pittsburgh, fighting all the while. Then it was back to Texas, across the South, and finally out to Denver where he traveled about with a group of other boxers, taking on all comers in all weight classes.

Johnson had been married to a black woman, Mary Austin, since 1898, but in Colorado their marriage broke up, sending Johnson into a state of depression. They had a brief reconciliation, but Johnson writes in his autobiography that the troubles he had with women "led me to forswear colored women and to determine that my lot henceforth would be cast only with white women." In a United States where Jim Crow was the law of the land, that decision would get him into a great deal of trouble. In fact, after Johnson's marriage to the white woman, Etta Duryea, in 1911, a Georgia Congressman, Seaborn Roddenberry, was so incensed he tried to get passed a constitutional amendment banning racial intermarriage. His bill died.

Back in Colorado, Johnson continued to fight while serving as camp cook for the traveling stable of boxers. Eventually he moved west, won the world's light heavyweight championship from a boxer named George Gardiner and began to set his sights on the heavyweight championship of the world. That would prove to be an elusive goal. By the end of 1906, Johnson had fought in 56 official fights and lost only two. But no one would give him a shot at the title. "I had demonstrated my strength, speed and skill, but still faced many obstacles, the principle one of which was the customary prejudice because of my race," he wrote. To win the championship, he had to defeat the reigning champ, Tommy Burns, so Johnson began a two-year quest to get that match.

Champion of the World

Johnson fought in Australia and England and began to generate a worldwide following. The press began to criticize Burns for avoiding Johnson. Finally the fight was set for December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia. Thirty thousand people attended the bout; the purse was $35,000, of which only $5,000 went to Johnson. In another concession to get the bout underway, Johnson had to agree to let Burns's manager referee the fight. Even under that manifestly unfair condition Johnson won; the police stopped the fight in the 14th round and Johnson was declared champ.

"A new champion had arrived and that new champion was Jack Johnson," he wrote in his autobiography. "I had attained my life's ambition. The little Galveston colored boy had defeated the world's champion boxer and, for the first and only time in history, a black man held one of the greatest honors which exists in the field of sports and athletics—an honor for which white men had contested many times and which they held as a dear and most desirable one… . To me it was not a racial triumph, but there were those who were to take this view of the situation, and almost immediately a great hue and cry went up because a colored man was holding the championship."

Thus began the era of the "Great White Hope," the name given to the white man who could take the championship belt away from Johnson. Johnson wrote that he "regretted" the racial aspect of the search for a new contender but that he was willing to take on anyone, no matter their color. While the search went on, Johnson fought a few minor bouts and engaged in his second career: that of music hall performer. Throughout his professional life, Johnson was booked on the vaudeville and lecture circuit, singing and dancing, telling stories and giving boxing exhibitions. He performed across the United States and in Europe.

But the life of the stage was not what the public expected of Johnson. They expected him to fight and a good number of them, especially whites upset with Johnson's rich living style and his dating of white women, expected him to be "put in his place" by a white fighter. The ultimate White Hope was Jim Jeffries, the retired heavyweight champ. When Jeffries retired he had anointed Burns as his replacement. With Burns thoroughly beaten by Johnson, the pressure was on Jeffries to come out of retirement and defend the title, and his race. One of the prime movers behind the White Hope search was the novelist Jack London. In an Ebony magazine article about the Johnson-Jeffries bout, London is quoted as writing after the Burns fight, "But one thing now remains. Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his Alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson's face. Jeff, it's up to you. The White Man must be rescued!"

Finally, Jeffries agreed to come out of retirement. The fight was originally set for California, but the governor there intervened and banned the match. The match was then set for Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910. When they climbed into the ring, the 32-year-old Johnson was a trim 208 pounds, while the 35-year-old Jeffries weighed 230 pounds. At 2:45 pm the fight began in front of tens of thousands of people who had gathered under the hot sun. In the weeks preceding the fight, editorial writers had warned that a Johnson victory would give blacks the wrong ideas: that African Americans might get it into their heads to rebel against oppression with their fists like Johnson. There was fear of rioting no matter which way the fight decision went.

According to Ebony, crowds around the world gathered outside of telegraph offices to hear updates of the fight taking place in Reno. The fight itself was, by all accounts, a great one. Jeffries was known for his famous crouch, a bent-over way of boxing. But Johnson neutralized this strategy quickly and landed numerous blows to Jeffries' face. He also taunted the ex-champ, saying, "Let me see what you've got," or "Do something." Johnson recalled in his autobiography, "I recall that occasionally I took time during the exchange of these blows to suggest to telegraph operators what to tell their newspapers." Johnson was "trash talking" before it became fashionable and while some saw his words as evidence that he was in total control of the match, others—mainly whites—never forgave him for it.

In the New York Times, in an article that appeared the day after Johnson died in 1946, sports columnist Arthur Daley had little good to say about Johnson. He called Johnson's taunting of Jeffries an example of Johnson's "inherent meanness" and he talked about the "the stain that Lil' Arthur left on boxing and on his race." It seems that few people could forgive Johnson for what he had done in Reno that hot July day in 1910, when he knocked Jeffries out in the 15th round. In doing so, Johnson collected $60,000, as well as picture rights and bonuses that brought his total take to $120,000, a good sized sum in those days.

The predictions of violence in America came true: race riots erupted in many cities. Whites and blacks engaged in shoot outs and fistfights. As for Johnson, he took to the road to fulfill theatrical contracts, and when he had made some good money doing that, he traveled to London and Paris with his wife, Etta Duryea, who he had married in 1909. Johnson's vanity is evident when he describes his London trip, which occurred during the coronation of King George V: "Despite the fact that the King and his coronation were the center of attention, when my car traveled along London streets and it was announced that I was in sight, the attention of the crowds was turned upon me, and as long as I was in view the coronation ceremonies were forgotten while crowds milled and struggled for a glance at me."

When Johnson returned to the states, he opened a cabaret in Chicago. All races were welcome in his club. After about a year in Chicago, in September of 1912, Johnson's wife Etta committed suicide by shooting herself in the head. It was a great blow to the champ and his interest in boxing and business waned.

Exiled and a Questionable Defeat

Two months later Johnson would face an even greater personal challenge. He was arrested for violating the Mann Act, the statute prohibiting the transportation of women across state lines for unlawful purposes. The woman in question was Belle Schreiber, an old acquaintance of Johnson's. The problem with the charge is that Johnson and Schreiber were an item before the Mann Act became law in June of 1910. "It was a rank frame up," Johnson recalled in his memoirs. "The charges were based upon a law that was not in effect at the time Belle and I had been together, and legally was not operative against me."

That did not stop the courts from finding Johnson guilty in May of 1913, nor did it keep the judge from imposing a sentence of one year and one day in prison, and a fine of $1,000. In the meantime, Johnson had married Lucille Cameron, his 18-year-old white secretary. When the verdict was handed down, Johnson arranged for he and his wife to travel to Canada and, from there, to Paris. For the next seven years, Johnson was an exile from the United States, living in Europe, Mexico, and South America. His lifestyle overseas was lavish, and his exploits, including bullfighting, racing cars, performing on stage, and boxing, continued to receive worldwide attention. While in exile, his mother died, an event which saddened him very much.

On April 5, 1915, Johnson fought Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. Willard won the bout, and the championship from Johnson, but Johnson would always claim that he threw the fight. He said that he was promised that he could return to the United States and avoid his year-and-a-day jail term if he would give up the championship to Willard, the latest in a line of White Hopes. Whether Johnson did indeed throw the fight, or whether he just got beat, has been a point of contention for many boxing observers since the fight ended by a knockout in the 26th round. "I could have disposed of him long before the final round," Johnson wrote of Willard. John Lardner in Newsweek recalled that Willard described his victory by saying, "I hit him [Johnson] a good uppercut." But Lardner goes on to write, "Very few people outside of Willard believe this, and may be Jess doesn't either."

Whether fixed or fair, the bout cost Johnson the championship and did not end his exile. He wandered the globe for five more years before giving himself up to U.S. authorities in 1920. He served eight months in Leavenworth prison and became the physical director of the inmates, supervising track meets, baseball games, and fight training. While behind bars he continued to track his business interests and he used the time to think long and hard about the prison experience. Johnson came to believe that prison was good for the hardened criminal. But for the man who erred slightly in life, prison does nothing more than to arouse bitterness, Johnson felt. In any event, when he was released from Leavenworth, Johnson was met at the prison gates by a marching band and a horde of friends.

By 1921, Johnson had ended his exile, paid his debt to society, and began a new series of theatrical engagements. In 1924 he and his third wife were divorced and Johnson returned to boxing. He soon won a unanimous decision over a fighter named Homer Smith of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Two years later, at age 48, he beat a 24-year-old boxer named Pat Lester in Mexico.

In his autobiography, Johnson wrote, "I have always been an ardent motorist." He had cars when people were still riding bicycles and horses. Following his release from prison, the only run-ins with the law Johnson had came when he was behind the wheel of a car driving too fast. Five times cars rolled on top of Johnson and five times he survived. The sixth time he was not so lucky. According to the New York Times report of his death, Johnson was driving on Highway 1 near Raleigh, North Carolina, on June 10, 1946, when he lost control of his car, which hit a light pole and overturned. He died three hours later.

In the years before his death, Johnson had lectured at Hubert's Museum on Forty Second Street in New York. It was a seedy job that his friends and observers said allowed the great ex-champ to earn "bread and beer money." His last years were made enjoyable by his marriage to Irene Pineau in 1925. Johnson called her his true love.

The Times called Johnson, "One of the craftiest boxers known to the ring, recognized by many as one of the five outstanding heavyweight champions of all time." Johnson, who was cocky, confident, and talented, would not have disagreed. But as John Lardner wrote in Newsweek after Johnson died, the champ's interest in how he would be remembered ranged beyond boxing. "Whatever you write about me," Lardner remembered Johnson telling him, "Just please remember that I'm a man, and a good one."

Further Reading

Johnson, Jack, Jack Johnson, In the Ring and Out, Proteus Publishing, 1977.

Ebony, April 1994, pp. 86-98.

Newsweek, June 24, 1946, p. 90.

New York Times, June 11, 1946, p. 1; June 12, 1946, p. 20. □

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Johnson, Jack

Jack Johnson

Singer, songwriter, guitarist

Jack Johnson was flying low under the radar and surprised many, especially himself, when his 2001 debut CD, Brushfire Fairytales, reached platinum sales in 2003. Prior to releasing his breakthrough album, Johnson had gained recognition as a professional surfer and as a filmmaker of such acclaimed surfer documentaries as Thicker Than Water and The September Sessions. Frequently compared to the mellow 1970s vibe of singer/songwriter James Taylor, Johnson relied on pairing his simple acoustic guitar with blues and reggae-inspired rhythms to create simple, honest songs that charmed audiences and critics.

Johnson was born on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, the third son of legendary surfer Jeff Johnson. Growing up on the North Shore close to Hawaii's world-renowned Pipeline, Johnson began surfing when he was four years old. By the time he was 16, he had a Quicksilver sponsorship and traveled the professional surfer's circuit, making friends with world-class surfers. When Johnson was 17 he had a near-fatal wipeout, knocking out several teeth, breaking his nose, and requiring over 100 stitches on his face. The severity of the fall and the subsequent recovery time allowed Johnson to focus on music. He had begun playing guitar at age 14. Johnson told Roger Catlin in the Hartford Courant, "I spent a month or two playing guitar instead of surfing. That's when I got into playing music and writing songs. And I realized there was something else I loved."

Moved to California

At the same time, Johnson had grown a bit disenchanted with the commercial aspect of the pro circuit, and at age 18 he decided to move to California and attend the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), where he majored in math. At UCSB he met Kim, a fellow math student whom he later married. During his second year he switched majors, opting to pursue a degree in film. He had been influenced by his father, who was attuned to the spiritual side of surfing, and Johnson's surfing documentaries Thicker Than Water (1999) and The September Sessions (2000) attracted a keen following. Rather than show the extreme side of surfing as many contemporary surf movies have done, Johnson's films, which featured his professional surfer friends Kelly Slater and Rob Machado, among others, recalled the beauty and spirituality of the classic 1966 film Endless Summer. Alison Berkley maintained in the San Diego Union, "His films … are anomalies among the shallow, action-oriented videos that play on TV sets in the background of surf shops and sports bars. Like his music, his films are more communicative than loud, more aesthetic than flashy."

Although Johnson had been playing music since he was 14—he had played in a punk band in high school as well as in a college band—he had never sung for an audience. He did share his music with friends in a laid-back singalong atmosphere, but he never imagined his songs would reach a larger audience. He commented to Josh Tyrangiel in Time, "Because of where I grew up, music for me has always been just some guys sitting around, not really on a stage or anything, but just playing down at the corner of the yard at a luau or barbecue."

Music on the Surfing Circuit

Eventually, Johnson made a four-track home recording of some of the songs he had been playing for friends. He passed copies of the recording along to surfer friends Machado, Timmy Curan, and Dan Malloy, who in turn burned copies to pass along to others as they traveled the surf circuit. Johnson was also encouraged to add his instrumental songs to the soundtrack of The September Sessions. Through grassroots networking, Johnson's music became well known in the surfing world. Johnson remarked on the Web site RollingStone.com, "People would tell me, ‘I like your record a lot,’ but I didn't have a record out." At one point, Johnson actually overheard one of his songs blasting from a car radio, and was surprised that there were others outside his immediate circle of friends who were listening to his music.

In the late 1990s Johnson met neo-blues singer Garrett Dutton of G. Love and Special Sauce. Dutton, an amateur surfer, had heard Johnson's songs, and the two ended up recording a version of Johnson's single "Rodeo Clowns," which Dutton included on G. Love's album Philadelphonic in 1999. "Rodeo Clowns" became the only hit on that album, primarily reaching the college radio audience. At about the same time, Johnson made a demo tape of his songs and hooked up with J. P. Plunier, folk-pop star Ben Harper's manager and producer. With Plunier's help, Johnson teamed with drummer Adam Topol and bassist Merlo Podlewski to record the songs on Brushfire Fairytales. Harper also joined in the jam session, playing slide guitar on the folk-blues song "Flake." Plunier and Andy Factor, a former Virgin Records executive, liked Johnson's music well enough to start their own label, Enjoy Records, to distribute Brushfire Fairytales.

Initially both Johnson and Plunier thought the CD would sell almost exclusively at surfer shops. The CD's first run of 5,000 copies sold out quickly, however, and one year later sales had reached 130,000. Major record labels expressed keen interest in signing Johnson, but this mellow surfer, while content to accept opportunities, was never willing to give up surfing and filmmaking for the demands of record companies. He rejected offers from major labels that expected him to give up surfing and filmmaking, but by 2002 Universal Records had picked up Brushfire for distribution. Johnson agreed to the deal, telling Steve Hochman in the Los Angeles Times, "I voiced my opinion that there may be a point where everyone's saying that it's a perfect time for me to do something to promote the record and I may say that it's a perfect time to chill out. I'll only do this as long as it's fun."

For the Record …

Born in 1975 in Oahu, Hawaii; son of Jeff (a surf legend) and Patti Johnson; married Kim Johnson (a high school math teacher); two children. Education: Attended University of California, Santa Barbara.

Filmed surf documentary Thicker Than Water, with Chris Malloy and Emmett Malloy, 1999; recorded his song "Rodeo Clowns" with Garrett Dutton of G. Love and Special Sauce, appeared on G. Love's album Philadelphonic, 1999; filmed surf documentary The September Sessions, 2000; released Brushfire Fairytales on indie label Enjoy Records, 2001; toured with Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, 2001; released soundtrack of The September Sessions, 2002; toured with Ben Harper, 2003; released CD On and On, 2003; appeared on numerous television shows, including Saturday Night Live, Austin City Limits, Late Night with David Letterman, and The Tonight Show starring Jay Leno, 2002-2008; released album In Between Dreams, 2005; provided songs for film soundtrack Curious George, 2005; released Sleep Through the Static, 2008.

Awards: Surfer magazine, Video of the Year, for Thicker Than Water, 2000; ESPN Film Festival, Adobe Highlight Award for The September Sessions, 2000.

Addresses: Record company—Brushfire Records, Web site: http://www.brushfirerecords.com. Web site—JackJohnson Official Web site: http://www.jackjohnsonmusic.com.

An Alternative Sound

Despite limited air play and no real marketing push for his album, Johnson experienced a slow and steady rise with the growing popularity of Brushfire. Gradually his songs "Flake" and "Bubble Toes" emerged as favorites on alternative radio stations. Many listeners and critics found his laid-back persona a welcome departure from the highly stylized pop acts that most record labels promoted. Harper, with whom Johnson toured during 2001, summarized Johnson's appeal to Steve Appleford in Rolling Stone: "[Brushfire Fairytales is] the most refreshing music I've heard in a long time, and refreshing is not a word I frequently use to describe music." In the Chicago Tribune, Allison Stewart praised Brushfire as "perfectly characteristic of its maker, amiable and uncomplicated and strangely delicate. It demonstrates perfectly both Johnson's knack for storytelling and his gift for laconic, largely acoustic folk-blues."

Johnson enjoyed the success of Brushfire, which by October of 2002 had gone gold and had stayed on the Billboard Top 200 album list for 36 weeks. He returned to Hawaii to record songs in his brother's garage for his next CD. By April of 2003, Brushfire had sold 1.5 million copies in the United States and had lasted 59 weeks on the Billboard 200. That same month, Johnson and Harper announced they would co-headline a tour during the summer of 2003. Johnson's second CD, On and On, was released in May of 2003, opening on the Billboard 200 at number three and selling 132,000 copies during its first week of release.

Like Johnson's first album, On and On conveyed a simple approach of vocals accompanied by acoustic guitar, bass, and drums. Critics noted a stepped-up focus on political and social concerns in songs addressing war, materialism, and the environment. This time out, however, Johnson was less universally embraced by the critics. Reviewing On and On for RollingStone.com, Barry Walters considered Johnson's music formulaic and asserted, "[This] Hawaiian surfer's croon evokes the mellow-yellow moan of Donovan but without the weirdness that made that psychedelic folkie compelling." Jon Bream in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, while noting Johnson's "fetchingly innocent, almost beatific manner," commented that Johnson "comes across like Raffi for 20-somethings." Christina Cox of the Sarasota Herald Tribune called On and On "a similar-sounding batch of insipid blues geared for broad appeal."

Despite hints of cynicism in critical reviews, On and On scored a hit with his fans and with many critics who admired his artistic integrity. MacKenzie Wilson maintained in All Music Guide that "People are listening to Johnson's musical commentary because he's on their level. He's not a philosophical preacher." She continued, "On and On keeps things simple in sound and time. … There are 17 solid tracks, [and] each one is a spiritual groove rooted in funk and blues. In dire times, Johnson is sunny and sunny always feels good."

International Appeal

For a performer whose appeal is based on how laid back he is, Johnson constantly works when he isn't surfing. The singer-songwriter has toured the world repeatedly and made appearances on such television programs as Austin City Limits, Late Night with David Letterman, The Tonight Show starring Jay Leno, and Saturday Night Live. Devoted environmentalist, Johnson and his wife, Kim, founded the Kokua Hawaii foundation to help support environmental education. His Universal-associated Brushfire Records label, formerly The Moonshine Conspiracy Records, has cultivated the talents of such like-minded artists as Mason Jennings, Neil Halstead, and Ray Barbee.

By 2005 Johnson was an established star with an international following. After scaling the charts with In Between Dreams, the low-key entrepreneur released the twin set DVD Jack Johnson and Friends: A Weekend at the Greek and Jack Johnson: Live in Japan to strong sales.

Johnson's most surprising professional opportunity came when he was chosen to supply songs for the movie version of H.A. and Margret Rey's Curious George. The resulting album, Curious George: Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies, shot straight to number one on Billboard's album sales charts. Further, the single "Upside Down" became a staple of many different radio formats. "There are definitely straightforward kid songs on the soundtrack, like ‘The Sharing Song’ and the ‘Three R’s," Johnson told Rolling Stone in 2005. "Then there are just some relationship songs that sound like a song that would be on a normal record of mine."

A dependable record seller, Johnson scored his second number one album with 2008's Sleep Through Static. More electric than his previous outings, the disc pushes forward his ideas of handmade music by passionate, yet lighthearted musicians. Speaking with Rolling Stone in 2008, he explained why his blend of folk and pop seems to come so easily to him. "A lot of artists fall into a thing where they're constantly trying to create art. But I think you can forget to take things in.You've got to fill up the mind. When I get home from a tour, I put away the guitar and surf a lot. It's not like some torturous process that I go through."

Selected discography

(Contributor) Loose Change (soundtrack), Surf Dog, 2000.

(Contributor) Out Cold (soundtrack), RCA, 2001.

Brushfire Fairytales, Enjoy, 2001; reissued, Universal, 2002.

(Contributor) The September Sessions (soundtrack), Universal/Moonshine Conspiracy, 2002.

On and On, Universal/Moonshine Conspiracy, 2003.

Thicker Than Water: Original Soundtrack, Brushfire, 2003.

In Between Dreams, Brushfire, 2005.

Curious George: Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies, Brushfire, 2006.

Sleep Through the Static, Brushfire, 2008.

Sources

Periodicals

Billboard, December 8, 2001, p. 13; April 5, 2003, p. 14.

Chicago Tribune, May 7, 2002, p. 3.

Entertainment Weekly, May 9, 2003, p. 74.

Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), February 8, 2001, p. A5.

Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2002, p. F1; August 6, 2003, p. E4.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), May 15, 2003, p. 3E; June 26, 2003, p. 6B.

Oakland Tribune (Oakland, CA), August 17, 2003, p. 1.

Rolling Stone, May 23, 2002, p. 45.

San Diego Union-Tribune (San Diego, CA), March 15, 2001; April 25, 2002; April 29, 2002, p. D1.

Sarasota Herald Tribune (Sarasota, FL), September 7, 2003, p. G3.

Sports Illustrated, May 27, 2002, p. A16.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), June 8, 2003, p. 1F.

Time, September 17, 2001, p. 100.

Online

"Jack Johnson," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 14, 2008).

"Jack Johnson Drops DVDs," RollingStone.com,http://www.rollingstone.com/articles/story/8857407/jack_john, (November 22, 2005).

"Jack Johnson - The Dude Abides" RollingStone.com,http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/18684236/cover_story_jack_johnson_the_ dude_abides (March 9, 2008).

"Jack Johnson," Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com (June 14, 2008).

"Jack Johnson," MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/bands/az/johnson_jack/artist.jhtml (September 29, 2003).

Jack Johnson Official Web site, http://www.jackjohnsonmusic.com (September 29, 2003).

"Jack Johnson," RollingStone.com,http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/default.asp?oid=2044017 (September 29, 2003).

"Walk Tall and Act Natural," Outside Magazine,http://www.outside.away.com/oustide/culture/200803/jack-johnson-1.html (June 14, 2008).

—Elizabeth Henry and Ken Burke

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Johnson, Jack

Jack Johnson



Singer, songwriter, guitarist




Jack Johnson slipped into the music scene by flying low under the radar and surprised many, especially himself, when his 2001 debut CD Brushfire Fairytales reached platinum sales in 2003. Prior to releasing this breakthrough album, Johnson had gained recognition as a professional surfer and filmmaker of such acclaimed surfer documentaries as Thicker Than Water and The September Sessions. Frequently compared to the mellow 1970s vibe of singer/songwriter James Taylor, Johnson relies on pairing his simple acoustic guitar with blues and reggae-inspired rhythms to create honest songs that charm audiences and critics.

Johnson was born on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, the third son of legendary surfer Jeff Johnson. Growing up on the North Shore close to Hawaii's world-renowned Pipeline, Johnson began surfing when he was four years old. By the time he was 16, he had a Quicksilver sponsorship and traveled the professional surfer's circuit, making friends with world-class surfers. When Johnson was 17, he had a near-fatal wipeout, knocking out several teeth, breaking his nose, and requiring over 100 stitches on his face. The severity of the fall and the subsequent recovery time allowed Johnson to focus on music. He had begun playing guitar at age 14. Johnson told Roger Catlin in the Hartford Courant, "I spent a month or two playing guitar instead of surfing. That's when I got into playing music and writing songs. And I realized there was something else I loved."

At the same time, Johnson had grown a bit disen-chanted with the commercial aspect of the pro circuit, and so, at 18, he decided to move to California and attend the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), where he majored in math. At UCSB he met Kim, a fellow math student whom he later married. During his second year, he switched majors, opting to pursue a degree in film. Having been influenced by his father, who was attuned to the spiritual side of surfing, Johnson's surf documentaries Thicker Than Water, 1999, and The September Sessions, 2000, attracted a keen following. Rather than show the extreme side of surfing as many contemporary surf movies have done, Johnson's films, which feature his professional surfer friends Kelly Slater and Rob Machado, among others, recall the beauty and spirituality of the classic film Endless Summer. Alison Berkley maintained in the San Diego Union, "His films are anomalies among the shallow, action-oriented videos that play on TV sets in the background of surf shops and sports bars. Like his music, his films are more communicative than loud, more aesthetic than flashy."

Although Johnson had been playing music since he was 14he had played in a punk band in high school as well as in a college bandhe had never sung for an audience. He did share his music with friends at barbecues and while filming on the road in a laid-back singalong atmosphere, but he never imagined his songs would reach a larger audience. He commented to Josh Tyrangiel in Time magazine, "Because of where I grew up, music for me has always been just some guys sitting around, not really on a stage or anything, but just playing down at the corner of the yard at a luau or barbecue. It's not very flashy."


Eventually, Johnson made a four-track home recording of some of the songs he had been playing for friends. He passed copies of the recording along to surfer friends Machado, Timmy Curan, and Dan Malloy, who in turn burned copies to pass along to others as they traveled the surf circuit from Tahiti to Australia to Southern California, from the south of France to South Africa to Japan. Johnson was also encouraged to add his instrumental songs to the soundtrack of The September Sessions. Through grassroots networking, Johnson's music became well known among the surf world. Johnson remarked to writer Toure for RollingStone.com that "People would tell me, 'I like your record a lot,' but I didn't have a record out." At one point, Johnson actually overheard one of his songs blasting from a car radio, and he didn't even realize it was his song at first because he was so surprised that there were others outside his immediate circle of friends who were listening to his music.

In the late 1990s Johnson met neo-blues singer Garrett Dutton of G. Love and Special Sauce. Dutton, an amateur surfer, had heard Johnson's songs and the two ended up recording a version of Johnson's single "Rodeo Clowns," which Dutton included on G. Love's album Philadelphonic in 1999. "Rodeo Clowns" became the only hit on that album, primarily reaching the college radio audience. At about the same time, Johnson made a demo tape of his songs and hooked up with J. P. Plunier, folk-pop star Ben Harper's manager and producer. With Plunier's help, Johnson teamed with drummer Adam Topol and bassist Merlo Podlewski to record the songs on Brushfire Fairytales in just seven days. Harper also joined in the jam session, playing slide guitar on the folk-blues song "Flake." Plunier and Andy Factor, former Virgin Records executive, liked Johnson's music well enough to start their own label, Enjoy Records, to distribute Brushfire Fairytales.


Initially both Johnson and Plunier thought the CD would sell almost exclusively at surf shops. The CD's first run of 5,000 copies sold out quickly, however, and one year later sales had reached 130,000. Major record labels expressed keen interest in signing Johnson, but this mellow surfer, while content to accept opportunities, was never willing to give up surfing and filmmaking for the demands of record companies. He rejected offers from major labels that expected him to give up surfing and filmmaking, but by 2002 Universal Records had picked up Brushfire for distribution. Johnson agreed to the deal, telling Steve Hochman in the Los Angeles Times, "I voiced my opinion that there may be a point where everyone's saying that it's a perfect time for me to do something to promote the record and I may say that it's a perfect time to chill out. I'll only do this as long as it's fun."

For the Record . . .

Born in 1975 in Oahu, Hawaii; son of Jeff (a surf legend) and Patti Johnson; married Kim Johnson (a high school math teacher). Education: Attended University of California, Santa Barbara.


Filmed surf documentary Thicker Than Water with Chris Malloy and Emmett Malloy, 1999; recorded his song "Rodeo Clowns" with Garrett Dutton of G. Love and Special Sauce, appears on G. Love's album Philadelphonic, 1999; filmed surf documentary The September Sessions, 2000; released Brushfire Fairytales on indie label Enjoy Records, 2001; toured with Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, 2001; Universal Records picked up distribution of Brushfire Fairytales, released soundtrack of The September Sessions, 2002; toured as co-headlining act with Ben Harper, 2003; released CD On and On, 2003.


Awards: Surfer magazine, Video of the Year for Thicker Than Water, 2000; ESPN Film Festival, Adobe Highlight Award for The September Sessions, 2000.



Addresses: Record company Moonshine Conspiracy Records, 2020 Union St., San Francisco, CA 94123. Website Jack Johnson Official Website: http://www.jackjohnsonmusic.com.


Despite limited air play and no real marketing push for his album, Johnson experienced a slow and steady rise with the growing popularity of Brushfire. Gradually his songs "Flake" and "Bubble Toes" emerged as favorites on alternative radio stations. Many listeners and critics found his laid-back persona a welcome departure from the highly stylized pop acts that most record labels promoted. Harper, with whom Johnson toured during 2001, summarized Johnson's appeal to Steve Apple-ford in Rolling Stone: "[Brushfire Fairytale is] the most refreshing music I've heard in a long time, and refreshing is not a word I frequently use to describe music. It's his soulfulness. It's not overstated, it's not understated. It's completely natural." In the Chicago Tribune Allison Stewart praised Brushfire as "perfectly characteristic of its maker, amiable and uncomplicated and strangely delicate. It demonstrates perfectly both Johnson's knack for storytelling and his gift for laconic, largely acoustic folk-blues."

While Johnson still enjoyed the success of Brushfire, which by October of 2002 had gone gold and had made the Billboard Top 200 album list for 36 weeks, he returned to Hawaii to record songs in his brother's garage for his next CD. By April of 2003, Brushfire had sold 1.5 million copies in the United States and had lasted 59 weeks on the Billboard 200. That same month, Johnson and Harper announced they would co-headline a tour during the summer of 2003. Johnson's second CD, On and On, was released in May of 2003, opening on the Billboard 200 at number three and selling 132,000 copies during its first week of release.

Like his first album, On and On conveys a simple approach of vocals accompanied by acoustic guitar, bass, and drums. Critics noted a stepped-up focus on political and social concerns in songs addressing war, materialism, and the environment. This time out, however, Johnson was less universally embraced by the critics. Reviewing On and On for RollingStone.com, Barry Walters considered Johnson's music formulaic and asserted, "[This] Hawaiian surfer's croon evokes the mellow-yellow moan of Donovan but without the weirdness that made that psychedelic folkie compelling." Jon Bream in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, while noting Johnson's "fetchingly innocent, almost beatific manner, offering gently sing-songy tunes on acoustic guitar" opined that Johnson "comes across like Raffi for 20-somethings." Christina Cox minced no words in the Sarasota Herald Tribune review of On and On: "[Pro-surfer] turned sensitive singer-songwriter dude Jack Johnson returns with On and On, a similar-sounding batch of insipid blues geared for broad appeal."

Despite hints of cynicism in critical reviews, On and On scored a hit with his fans and most critics who admired his artistic integrity. MacKenzie Wilson maintained in All Music Guide that "People are listing to Johnson's musical commentary because he's on their level. He's not a philosophical preacher." She continued, "On and On keeps things simple in sound and time. There are 17 solid tracks, [and] each one is a spiritual groove rooted in funk and blues. In dire times, Johnson is sunny and sunny always feels good."

Selected discography

(Contributor) Loose Change (soundtrack), Surf Dog, 2000.

(Contributor) Out Cold (soundtrack), RCA, 2001.

Brushfire Fairytales, Enjoy, 2001; reissued, Universal, 2002.

(Contributor) The September Sessions (soundtrack), Universal/Moonshine Conspiracy, 2002.

On and On, Universal/Moonshine Conspiracy, 2003.



Sources

Periodicals


Billboard, December 8, 2001, p. 13; April 5, 2003, p. 14.

Chicago Tribune, May 7, 2002, p. 3.

Entertainment Weekly, May 9, 2003, p. 74.

Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), February 8, 2001, p. A5.

Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2002, p. F1; August 6, 2003, p. E4.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), May 15, 2003, p. 3E; June 26, 2003, p. 6B.

Oakland Tribune (Oakland, CA), August 17, 2003, p. 1.

Rolling Stone, May 23, 2002, p. 45.

San Diego Union-Tribune (San Diego, CA), March 15, 2001; April 25, 2002; April 29, 2002, p. D1.

Sarasota Herald Tribune (Sarasota, FL), September 7, 2003, p. G3.

Sports Illustrated, May 27, 2002, p. A16.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), June 8, 2003, p. 1F.

Time, September 17, 2001, p. 100.

Online


"Jack Johnson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 29, 2003).

"Jack Johnson," MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/bands/az/johnson_jack/artist.jhtml (September 29, 2003).

"Jack Johnson," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/default.asp?oid=2044017 (September 29, 2003).

Jack Johnson Official Website, http://www.jackjohnsonmusic.com (September 29, 2003).

Elizabeth Henry

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Johnson, Jack

Jack Johnson

1878-1946

American boxer

Jack Johnson was the first African American to hold the title of world heavyweight champion, a distinction he earned by defeating Tommy Burns in a 1908 fight. During an era of blatant racism, Johnson was a flamboyant character who provoked a worldwide search for the "Great White Hope" who could defeat him. Johnson, both as a brilliant fighter and as a man who lived lavishly, was one of the most well-known sports figures of his day. Boxing historian Nat Fleischer wrote in 1949, "after years devoted to the study of heavyweight fighters,

I have no hesitation in naming Jack Johnson as the greatest of them all."

Early Training

Johnson was born into a large, poor family in Galveston, Texas. His father was a former slave from Tennessee, and worked as a janitor and porter. Johnson left school after the fifth grade and began working odd jobs. He worked on the docks as a longshoreman, and got some of his first experience as a fighter in that rough atmosphere. Johnson also worked in a carriage shop, where his bossan ex-prize fightertaught him to box. Even though boxing was still illegal in most of the country, Johnson began traveling around the United States, fighting in exhibition bouts for food or lodging. He also participated in the "Battle Royals," competitions staged for white audiences in which several black youthssome blindfolded or nakedfought until only one was left standing.

Success in the Ring

Between 1902 and 1908, Johnson fought fifty-seven official fights, predominantly against other black boxers. Johnson, whose fighting style was fast and nimble, with a strong defense and tremendous power in both fists, won fifty-four of those fights. He was also known for his flamboyant personal style: Johnson joked with the crowd, taunted his opponents, and would defiantly flash his "golden smile" (several teeth had been replaced with gold). In 1902, Johnson defeated the former world light-heavyweight champion George Gardiner. He went on to defeat Denver Ed Martin in 1903, becoming the unofficial black world heavyweight champion. White boxers, including world heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries, refused to fight Johnson because of his race.

On December 26, 1908, Johnson finally was allowed his chance to fight the world heavyweight champion. The 6-foot, 200 pound Johnson faced 5 foot 7, 175 pound Tommy Burns, a white Canadian fighter, in a match in Sydney, Australia. Even though Johnson was forced to agree to allow Burns's manager to referee the match, he won easily in the fourteenth round when police stopped the match. Although he was the undisputed winner of the bout, Johnson received just $5,000 of the $40,000 purse and some boxing experts refused to acknowledge him as world champion because of his race.

Chronology

1878 Born March 31 in Galveston, Texas
1897 First professional fight
1898 Marries Mary Austin
1902 Defeats George Gardiner, former light-heavyweight world champion
1903 Defeats Denver Ed Martin, becoming unofficial black world heavyweight champion
1903 First wife dies
1908 Defeats Tommy Burns, becoming world heavyweight champion and sparking controversy because of his race
1910 Defeats Jim Jeffries, retired world heavyweight champion, and defends his title; race riots break out, and the public cries out for the "Great White Hope"
1911 Marries Etta (Terry) Duryea, a white divorcee from Brooklyn, provoking public outrage
1912 Second wife commits suicide
1912 Marries Lucile Frances Cameron, his white bookkeeper at the cabaret
1913 Convicted of violating the Mann Act, sentenced to one year and one day in prison
1913 Flees to Europe
1915 Loses title to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba; insists fight was fixed
1920 Returns to United States and serves prison term
1924 Divorces third wife
1925 Marries Marie Pineau, a white divorcee
1946 Dies in car crash in North Carolina

Johnson was disliked and ridiculed not just for being black, but also for his unabashed flamboyance. When he wasn't boxing, Johnson performed in a vaudeville act, singing, dancing, playing the fiddle, and giving speeches. He had tastes for fast cars, stylish clothes, and loose women. His brashness outside the ring (and the outrage that a black man held the world title) led critics to call for another fight, this time with Jeffries, who had retired as the undefeated champion. Novelist Jack London wrote in the New York Herald, "Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson's face. Jeff it's up to you. The White Man must be rescued."

Jeffries finally agreed to fight Johnson on July 4, 1910. The match was held in front of a crowd of 16,000 in Reno, Nevada, and was billed as "The Hope of the White Race vs. The Deliverer of the Negroes." Johnson entered the ring in an ivory satin robe, gold chains, and a turquoise feathered scarf. His confidence was warranted: he won the fight in a knockout in the fifteenth round. Johnson's victory sparked race riots around the country, and eleven people died in the violence. There followed a nationwide call for competitions to find the "Great White Hope" who could stop the champion Johnson.

Controversial Figure

Johnson's flamboyance was not only a problem for him in the ring. Not only did he openly enjoy his winnings by opening the cabaret Café de Champion in Chicago, he dared to publicly court white women. Johnsonwho married three white women over his lifetimewas denounced on the floor of the United States Senate, and some states passed legislation outlawing interracial marriage based on his case. Reformers during the "white slavery" hysteria managed to have Johnson's liquor license revoked, and also had him charged under the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting women across state lines "for immoral purposes." Johnson had moved across state lines both with his wives and with white prostitutes, but before the Mann Act was enacted. Nevertheless, an all-white jury found him guilty of the offense in May 1913, and he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

Rather than serve his prison sentence, Johnson escaped to Europe with his then-current wife, Lucile. He boxed in exhibition matches and performed in vaudeville acts there and in Latin America for two years. In 1915, Johnson agreed to fight the "white hope" Jess Willard for the title. The bout was held in Havana, Cuba, since Johnson could not return to the United States. The boxers fought under a blazing sun for 26 rounds, until Willard knocked Johnson out. Johnson claimed afterward that he had thrown the fight in return for a pledge of amnesty from the United States, but none was forthcoming. He fled back to Europe and lived mostly in Spain, performing in exhibition fights and wrestling matches, acting in a film, and performing as a matador.

In 1920, Johnson returned to the United States and served his prison term in Leavenworth. He worked some odd jobs and spent most of the rest of his life working as a lecturer at Hubert's Museum, a sideshow and penny arcade, on 42nd Street in New York. On June 10, 1946, Johnson was speeding through Franklin, North Carolina, toward the Joe Louis -Billy Conn rematch when his car hit a light pole. He died hours later in a Raleigh hospital.

Legacy as a Boxer

Johnson was among the first boxers to be inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, and he was included in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. In his obituary, the New York Times called Johnson "one of the craftiest boxers known to the ring, recognized by many as one of the five outstanding heavyweight champions of all time."

Jack Johnson's life was fictionalized by Howard Sackler in the play The Great White Hope, performed on Broadway in 1967. The play starred James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, and helped launch their careers. The work focuses on the romance between a black boxer and his white lover, and on his prosecution under the Mann Act. Sackler's play won the Tony Award, the New York Drama Critics' Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. The Great White Hope was released as a film in 1970 starring the Broadway leads.

Johnson was a flamboyant and widely-despised figure, but also a tremendously talented boxer. He was the first African American athlete to raise such controversy and enjoy such success, and his story haunted the careers of later African American boxers like Joe Louis. Throughout his career, Louis worked to prove his modesty and his moral character; he was always combating the public's memories of Johnson's white wives, flashy suits, and golden smile. Louis, often called "a credit to his race," became the second black world heavyweight champion in 1937.

Later world champion Muhammad Ali was tremendously influenced not only by Johnson's boxing technique, but also by his relentless self-promotion and "trash talk." Ali would watch tapes of Johnson's bouts before his own fights, and was inspired by the African American boxing pioneer. Johnson's flamboyance presaged the later antics not just of Ali, but also of star athletes like Dennis Rodman . The controversy Johnson stirred up in the American public reflected the racism of the time, and gave other black sports heroes an idea of what they, too, would face.

SELECTED WRITINGS BY JOHNSON:

Jack Johnson In the Ring and Out. National Sports Publishing, 1927.

Awards and Accomplishments

1902-08 Wins 54 of 57 fights
1903 Becomes unofficial black world heavyweight champion
1908 Becomes world heavyweight champion
1910 Defends title against Jim Jeffries
1954 Included in Boxing Hall of Fame
1990 Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame

Jack Johnson Is a Dandy: An Autobiography. Chelsea House, 1969.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Books

Batchelor, Denzil. Jack Johnson and His Times. London: Phoenix Sports Books, 1956.

Farr, Finis. Black Champion: The Life and Times of Jack Johnson. New York: Scribner, 1964.

Hietala, Thomas R. Fight of the Century: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and the Struggle for Racial Equality. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002.

Johnson, Jack. Jack Johnson In the Ring and Out. Chicago: National Sports Publishing, 1927.

Johnson, Jack. Jack Johnson is a Dandy: An Autobiography. New York: Chelsea House, 1969.

Periodicals

Ebony (April 1994): 86-98.

Foglio, James. "The First Black Heavyweight Champion." American History (August 2002): 18-19.

Obituary. New York Times (June 11, 1946): 1.

"The Original Natural." Newsweek (October 25, 1999): 49.

Sketch by Christine M. Kelley

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Johnson, Jack

Jack Johnson (John Arthur Johnson), 1878–1946, American boxer, b. Galveston, Tex., the son of two ex-slaves. Emerging from the battle royals (dehumanizing fights between blacks for the amusement of white patrons) of his youth, he defeated Tommy Burns in 1908 to become the world's first African-American heavyweight champion. After an interracial marriage and his defeat of several white hopefuls, Johnson was convicted in 1913 under contrived circumstances for violation of a federal law. He fled to Europe and remained a champion in exile until he lost in a 1915 bout in Cuba, knocked out in the 26th round by Jess Willard. Upon his return to the United States in 1920, he served a year in prison.

See biographies by R. Roberts (1985) and G. C. Ward (2004).

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Johnson, Jack

Johnson, Jack ( John Arthur) (1878–1946) US boxer. He was the first African-American to win the world heavyweight title, defeating Tommy Burns (1908). He lost the title to Jess Willard in 1915.

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