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Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson

(1914-1941), Dancer and bandleader

Ken ('Snakehips') Johnson (Kenrick Reginald Hijmans Johnson)

Sitter in 2 portraits
Pioneering Jazz Bandleader and dancer. Born Kenrick Reginald Hijmans Johnson in British Guiana, his father was a Doctor and his mother a professional nurse. Johnson played violin as a child and had an early interest in dancing which was discouraged by his father who wanted him to enter into the medical profession. Johnson was sent to Britain aged 15 to finish his schooling. His unwavering interest in music and dance led him to drop out of further education to pursue a showbusiness career. He sought out lessons from American choreographer Buddy Bradley who had a dance school in London's West End. Johnson's flexible and fluid dancing style earned him the nickname 'Snakehips'. In 1934 he appeared in the film Oh Daddy! before setting off for a year of travelling. He visited British Guiana and Trinidad, performing with local musicians and causing a frenzy with his dance moves. He then travelled to New York where after a short stint leading the Leslie Thompson's Band, he formed his own called 'Ken Johnson and his Rhythm Swingers'. His band comprised mainly of West Indian jazz and swing musicians, and was later renamed the West Indian Dance Orchestra. The band secured a residency at London's infamous Café de Paris, playing to much critical acclaim, the first all-black British band to do so. On 8 March 1941, during the Blitz, the club was struck by a highly explosive bomb whilst the band played. Johnson, aged 26, lost his life with dozens of others whilst over 80 people were injured in the attack.

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Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson, by Roye (Horace Roye-Narbeth) - NPG x137335

Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson

by Roye (Horace Roye-Narbeth)
bromide postcard print, late 1930s
NPG x137335

Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson, by Roye (Horace Roye-Narbeth) - NPG x137336

Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson

by Roye (Horace Roye-Narbeth)
bromide postcard print, late 1930s
NPG x137336


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