Bandleader Ken "Snakehips" Johnson was the premier star of Britain's black swing movement of the World War II era. Born Kenrick Reginald Hymans Johnson in Georgetown, British Guiana, on September 10, 1914, he attended Queens College until the age of 15, when his wealthy parents sent him to study at the William Borlase School in Buckinghamshire. There his interest in music blossomed, and in addition to his longstanding passion for piano and violin, Johnson began to study dance, seeking out the American choreographer Buddy Bradley (the coach behind Fred Astaire, Ruby Keeler, and Eleanor Powell) for instruction -- his fluid, sinuous dance style and lithe six-foot, four-inch frame were to thank for the "Snakehips" nickname.
In 1934 Johnson and Bradley traveled to the U.S., where the former appeared in the film Oh Daddy. More significant was his first trip to Harlem, where he first experienced the music of Fletcher Henderson and Cab Calloway. Upon returning to Britain in 1935, Johnson joined Leslie Thompson's Emperors of Jazz as a "dummy conductor," singing and dancing while Thompson directed his bandmembers. An extended headlining stay at London's Old Florida Club made Johnson a star, and in mid-1936 he signed with agent Ralph Deane to form his own orchestra, the Rhythm Swingers. Featuring gifted West Indian-born players like guitarist Joe Deniz, bassist Abe Clare, trombonist Freddie Greensdale, saxophonist Carl Barriteau, and trumpeter Leslie "Jiver" Hutchinson, the Rhythm Swingers quickly emerged as the most popular swing band in Britain, drawing bigger crowds than any of their white contemporaries.
In 1940, Johnson renamed the group the West Indian Orchestra to coincide with its residency at the West End nightclub Café du Paris, and with this incarnation of the lineup cut the BBC Radio sessions that comprise the bulk of his recorded legacy. On March 8, 1941, the Café du Paris was bombed during a German air raid -- over 30 people died, among them Johnson, whose band took the stage just minutes prior to the club's destruction. He was just 26 years old. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi