The late Maxine Johnson was known, according to her older brother Wilfred, “among certain people.” Those people included Diana Ross and Louis Jordan and Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald — all of whom knew Johnson as a kind and joyful person as well as someone who could sing the heck out of a song.
Johnson, who died earlier this month at 78, was a local superstar back when Phoenix boasted only four television stations. She was a native Phoenician.
“Maxine was born right over there by Eastlake Park,” her brother says. “Fifteenth Street between Washington and Jefferson in, let’s see, 1943 or so.”
Johnson’s music career was practically an inevitability, claims Wilfred, who made a name for himself as a member of vocal group The Versatiles.
“I have to put that on my mom, Jessie Mae Johnson. She was a pianist at First Baptist Church downtown. The Suns stadium is on that direct spot now, but back in the '40s, there was a church there, and the people in the choir would come over our house to practice. Maxine would stand there next to the piano and sing along. She was always in the right key, and my mom took notice.”
By the age of 5, Maxine was singing solo during church services. Not long after, she began winning local talent contests, including one at the downtown Fox Theater. A talent scout with the Lew King Rangers, a local children’s TV show that launched the career of Wayne Newton, took notice and signed Johnson in 1948.
“Back then she was a bigger star than Wayne Newton,” Wilfred remembers, “and I’m not saying that because I’m her brother.”
Maxine’s years with Lew King were a mixed blessing. An exclusive contract with King kept Maxine from pursuing other opportunities, Wilfred feels. “She was likable and good-looking, and she would have ended up with hit records and in Hollywood,” he believes. “She went out there for a screen test, I believe, but Lew King wouldn’t let her out of that contract.”
Although she stepped away from the limelight as a young woman, marrying and raising a family, Johnson never stopped singing. “She always sang, wherever she was, whatever she was doing,” Wilfred remembers. “Then when the kids was grown, she started back at different clubs with her daughter, Laydee Jai, in a jazz combo.” Johnson and her daughter performed together for more than a decade, and in 2006, she resumed a solo career, mostly in jazz clubs where she could sing what she liked to call “good old down-home blues, jazz, and straight-up funk.”
Johnson retired in 2011 following a stroke that made it impossible to perform. She’ll live on, according to local music maven John Dixon, in her recordings, several of which Dixon included on blues compilations in the 1990s.
“She had such a beautiful voice, man,” Dixon says. “She would cover songs that other people made famous, but she had this very distinct sound. She made those songs her own.”