Gene Howard

Photo of Gene Howard
  • Birth Name

    Howard Eugene Johnston
  • Born

    July 14, 1920
    Atlanta, Georgia
  • Died

    April 28, 1993 (age 72)
    Los Angeles, California
  • Orchestras

    Bob Chester
    Francis Craig
    Stan Kenton
    Gene Krupa
    Teddy Powell

Vocalist Gene Howard sang with a variety of bands during the 1940s, never managing to find major success. He finally gave up in the late 1940s and went to work as a publicity agent until deciding to refocus his career on celebrity photography in the mid-1950s.

Born in Atlanta, Howard lost his father at an early age, and along with his mother and two older brothers he grew up in the home of his maternal grandfather in Nashville.[1] Howard took singing lessons in high school and began his career as a vocalist with popular Southern orchestra leader Francis Craig in 1939. By September 1940, he was a staff vocalist for Nashville station WSM, where he sang alongside Kitty Kallen on the nationally-broadcast Sunday Down South program with Beasley Smith’s orchestra. In January 1941, bandleader Bob Chester heard him on the radio, liked him and hired him, sight unseen, to replace the departing Bill Darnell, who had left for the army. He married Marjorie Hedrick in St. Louis in September 1942.

Howard remained with Chester’s band until early 1943. By late February of that year he had joined Gene Krupa, where he was initially billed as Bob Davis, probably to avoid confusion with having the same first name as the bandleader, but he was soon back to Gene Howard again. When Krupa was arrested in April on trumped-up marijuana charges and had to disband in June, Howard quickly found work with Teddy Powell.

In April 1944, Howard joined Stan Kenton, where over the next two years he sang alongside Anita O’Day and June Christy. Also a guitarist, he wrote all his own arrangements while with Kenton, making him the only vocalist to do so in the big band era. His time with Kenton wasn’t always pleasant however. According to Howard in a 1954 interview, after recording “How Many Hearts Have You Broken,” released on the flipside of O’Day’s “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine,” which became the band’s first commercial hit, Capitol Records passed word to Kenton that he wasn’t to use Howard on any further recordings. Whether true or not, Howard continued to sing with the band and occasionally record until late 1946, when he departed. No official reason was given for the departure, however Howard noted that it had been because Kenton was planning to shift his focus to concert jazz, and Howard did not fit into those plans. Kenton offered him the position of the band’s advanced publicity agent. He was reluctant to take the job at first, but having a family to support he accepted. For Christmas that year, Kenton bought him a new 1947 Chrysler.

Howard left Kenton’s organization in late 1948 to work as a freelance publicity agent for other artists, including Woody Herman and Freddy Martin, though he ended up back with Kenton at some point by mid-1950. As part of his publicity job, Howard took up photography and soon began to gain a reputation in that field as a celebrity photographer. Finally, in 1954, Howard decided to leave his job with Kenton and focus full-time on photography, opening a new studio in Los Angeles. Howard explained his decision:

I couldn’t do the job properly without traveling with the band, and in advance of tours, and a guy with a wife and kids just doesn’t want to be away from home that much. And in photography I’ve found something at last to help me get over the fact that I didn’t make it as a singer. Of course, I know now that I was pretty bad, but it’s not easy for a singer—or a musician—to face up to it. I took it pretty hard at the time.

Howard went on to have a successful career as a photographer. His brother, Bob Johnston, sang with Shep Fields in 1948.


  1. Some modern sources say Howard was born in Nashville, but census records show his birthplace as Georgia. A 1943 Down Beat profile gives Howard’s birthplace as Atlanta. Howard’s two older brothers were both born in Tennessee, and that’s where the family lived in 1930 and 1940. Howard’s father was born in Georgia. His mother was born in Tennessee. Down Beat also indicated that he went to high school in Atlanta, but that doesn’t seem to be true. ↩︎


  1. “Gene Howard.” IMDb Accessed 30 Jun. 2022.
  2. “Special Events.” The Daily Messenger [Canandaigua, New York] 1 Sep. 1940: 1.
  3. “Chester Hires Singer by Wire.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1942: 4.
  4. “Vaudeville Reviews: Strand, New York.” Billboard 31 Jan. 1942: 22.
  5. “Reunion.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1942: 4.
  6. “Night Club Reviews: Sherman Hotel, Panther Room, Chicago.” Billboard 23 May 1942: 12.
  7. “Who's Who in Music: Bob Chester's Band.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1942: 9.
  8. “Vaudeville Reviews: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 6 Mar. 1943: 14.
  9. “Profiling the Players: Gene Krupa and His Orchestra.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1943: 20.
  10. “Krupa Hits Philly High With $31,000.” Billboard 17 Apr. 1943: 16.
  11. “Krupa Ork Folds.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1943: 1.
  12. Advertisement. “Teddy Powell.” Tucson Daily Sun 16 Nov. 1943: 8.
  13. “Stan Kenton Adds Three.” Billboard 6 May 1944: 13.
  14. “Send Birthday Greetings To.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1944: 15.
  15. Ehrlich, Evelyn. “Kenton Almost Hit Top With First Band.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1945: 4.
  16. “On the Stand: Stan Kenton.” Billboard 9 Mar. 1946: 36.
  17. “Kenton Crew Worth A Long Trip Anytime.” Down Beat 11 Mar. 1946: 5.
  18. “Vaudeville Reviews: Million Dollar, Los Angeles.” Billboard 17 Aug. 1946: 40.
  19. “Music As Written.” Billboard 19 Oct. 1946: 32.
  20. “Music As Written.” Billboard 2 Nov. 1946: 30.
  21. “Hefti Fills In With Kenton.” Down Beat 4 Nov. 1946: 1.
  22. “June Christy Leaving Stan.” Down Beat 16 Dec. 1946: 1.
  23. “Trade Tattle: Locations.” Down Beat 16 Dec. 1946: 14.
  24. “June Christy To Stick, Jeffries Won't Join Stan.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1947: 7.
  25. “Music As Written.” Billboard 25 Jan. 1947: 30.
  26. “Lain Does More Than Just Open The Grove.” Down Beat 11 Aug. 1948: 9.
  27. Ronan, Eddie. “On the Sunset Vine.” Down Beat 6 Oct. 1948: 9.
  28. “Herd In Fold.” Down Beat 17 Nov. 1948: 18.
  29. “Music As Written.” Billboard 20 May 1950: 16.
  30. “Peggy, Dave On The Cover.” Down Beat 8 Sep. 1950: 1.
  31. Holly, Hal. “Howard Leaves Kenton, Will Focus On Photos.” Down Beat 2 Jun. 1954: 5.
  32. “United States Census, 1930,” FamilySearch ( : Thu Oct 05 18:34:59 UTC 2023), Entry for Robert E Morton and Hattie Morton, 1930.
  33. “United States Census, 1940,” FamilySearch ( : Tue Nov 28 09:54:44 UTC 2023), Entry for Hortense Johnston and Robert E Morton, 1940.
  34. “Missouri, County Marriage, Naturalization, and Court Records, 1800-1991,” FamilySearch ( : Wed Oct 18 12:42:23 UTC 2023), Entry for Gene H Johnston and Marjorie J Hedrick, 3 Sep 1942.