Wini Johnson

aka Winnie Johnson

Photo of Wini Johnson
  • Birth Name

    Winifred Claudia Johnson
  • Born

    December 3, 1917
    New Jersey
  • Died

    New York, New York
  • Orchestras

    Duke Ellington

Dancer and vocalist Wini Johnson spent only a few months on the bandstand, singing with Duke Ellington’s orchestra in 1944. Mostly forgotten today, Johnson failed to impress critics and proved a controversial choice by Ellington. She left no recording legacy. Outside of her brief band career, Johnson led a colorful life, hobnobbing with top African-American celebrities of the 1930s and 1940s.

Born in New Jersey, Johnson began dancing at an early age. In 1932, her family moved to New York, where she began to work under the name Winnie Johnson, catching the eye of famous dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who hired her to perform with him for a one-week stay at the Alhambra Theater. When Robinson told Cotton Club talent scout Elida Webb about Johnson, Webb hired her for the chorus of the Broadway revue Flying Colors, which ran from September 1932 to January 1933. After the show closed, Johnson worked in the chorus line at the Cotton Club itself.

In 1930s New York, Johnson brushed shoulders with and, according to her older brother Howard, slept with many famous celebrities of the day, including Ellington and boxer Joe Louis. Her career as a dancer and singer kept her busy, and after leaving the Cotton Club in 1935 she worked regularly, often with Howard, known professionally as Stretch, and younger brother Bobby. Performing together as the Three Johnsons, they appeared in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1936 and Ellington’s 1937 Apollo revue. While in the latter she attracted the attention of actor and comedian Stepin Fetchit, who eloped with her in October 1937. She gave birth to their son, Donald, five months later, in March 1938.[1]

After the birth of her child, Johnson’s marriage to Fetchit fell apart, and the couple had divorced by 1940.[2] Johnson then worked briefly as a dancer at the Cotton Club again before striking out to appear in several musical productions around New York and Washington, D.C. By 1941, she had begun billing herself by the shortened first name Wini, which she used when she danced in musical short films featuring Count Basie that year. In May 1942, she returned to Broadway for Harlem Cavalcade. Johnson then briefly gave up show business, moving to Chicago to pursue higher education. She reportedly worked in a lawyer’s office and a rationing board office during this period.

In late 1943, Johnson returned to show business, working as an understudy in the Fats Waller Broadway musical Early to Bed. She left the production to star in another Broadway show, South Pacific, which had no relation to the later hit musical. This version of South Pacific featured an all-black cast and opened on December 29, 1943. Largely panned, it promptly closed three days later, on New Year’s Day, and Johnson returned to Early to Bed, where she stayed until February 1944, when she left to sing for Ellington.

Johnson joined Betty Roché as one of Ellington’s two female vocalists. When Roché left in either late March or early April, Johnson remained as sole vocalist for the band. The choices that Ellington made when it came to hiring female singers were often controversial, and reviewers at the time were less than impressed with Johnson, one critic describing her as a “cute trick with a good figure but a fair voice.” She remained with Ellington’s band until either late September or early October 1944, when she was replaced by Rosita Davis and Marie Ellington. Unfortunately, her entire tenure with Ellington coincided with the American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban, which ran from August 1942 to November 1944, and she never entered the studio.

Later Years and Family

In June 1944, Johnson married actor Canada Lee. The marriage was brief, however, as in 1945 she retired from show business to marry Middleton Lambright Junior, a medical doctor. The couple settled in Cleveland, where they were socially prominent. Lambright adopted Donald, Johnson’s son with Fetchit. The couple divorced at some time in the early 1960s, and Johnson briefly married again in 1964 to Caleb Peterson in Nevada.[3] Donald made the news in April 1969 when he began shooting at cars along a Pennsylvania highway and then killed his ex-wife, who was in the same car with him, before taking his own life. Wini Johnson passed away in 1980 in a New York hospital and was buried in Cleveland.

Johnson’s family proved just as colorful as she did herself. Her brother Howard become an activist for the Communist Party and eventually its youth leader before stepping down in 1956. He then pursued a degree in higher education and became a professor of sociology and black studies. Johnson’s father, Howard Senior, known as Monk, was a professional baseball and basketball player as well as a pool shark and gambler who spent time in Sing Sing prison with Cotton Club owner Owney Madden. Monk also worked as a waiter at the Cotton Club. Johnson’s uncle, James Anderson, founded the influential black New York newspaper The Amsterdam News.


  1. During the 1930s, Stepin Fetchit was a highly successful African-American actor and a respected member of the black community. He was also one of the richest African-American men in the United States. Attitudes later changed, however, and as time went on Fetchit became reviled because he built his success and fortune on playing stereotypical black characters for comedy, in particular that of the lazy, ignorant black man. Where earlier black audiences had praised Fetchit for gaming the Hollywood system for wealth, later generations saw him as a sell-out. ↩︎

  2. The 1940 census lists Johnson as living at her parents’ home and single. Her child, Donald, isn’t part of the household and presumably lived with his father. ↩︎

  3. Johnson also may have married George Lee in 1968 in New York City. Marriage records show a Winifred Lambright marrying Lee, and New York City is where Johnson passed away in 1980. Lambright was the surname used by Johnson on her marriage certificate to Peterson in 1964. Nothing links the record with Johnson for certain, however, as there was at least one other Winifred Lambright living at that time who had a slight connection to New York. ↩︎


  1. “Wini Johnson.” Internet Broadway Database. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
  2. “Winnie Johnson.” Internet Broadway Database. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
  3. “Wini Johnson and Wini Brown.” Ellingtonweb, Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
  4. Stratemann, Klaus. Duke Ellington, Day by Day and Film by Film. JazzMedia, 1992, p. 259.
  5. Clark, Champ. Shuffling to Ignominy: The Tragedy of Stepin Fetchit. IUniverse, 2005, pps. 58, 133
  6. Johnson, Howard Eugene. A Dancer in the Revolution: Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club. Empire State Editions, 2014.
  7. Magazine section. Oakland Tribune 4 Dec. 1938.
  8. Walker, Danton. “Broadway.” San Antonio Express 23 Feb. 1938: 7.
  9. “Night Club Reviews: Famous Door, New York.” Billboard 31 Jan. 1942: 19.
  10. “Broadway Openings: South Pacific.” Billboard 8 Jan. 1944: 33.
  11. “Broadway Showlog.” Billboard 5 Feb. 1944: 31.
  12. “Broadway Showlog.” Billboard 26 Feb. 1944: 18.
  13. “Tunes Hot in Hub, But Gross Isn't.” Billboard 25 Mar. 1944: 28.
  14. “Night Club Reviews: The Hurricane, New York.” Billboard 15 Apr. 1944: 24.
  15. “Night Club Reviews: The Hurricane, New York.” Billboard 27 May 1944: 22.
  16. “Tied Notes.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1944: 10.
  17. “Duke Socko 3G, Earle, Philadelphia.” Billboard 16 Sep. 1944: 28.
  18. Feather, Leonard. “Feather's Nest.” Down Beat 14 Sep. 1961: 40.
  19. “Stretch Johnson, 85, Tap Dancer and Activist.” The New York Times 12 Jun. 2000. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
  20. “United States Census, 1920,” FamilySearch ( : Fri Dec 08 01:21:10 UTC 2023), Entry for Howard Johnson and Gertrude Johnson, 1920.
  21. “United States Census, 1940,” FamilySearch ( : Tue Nov 28 18:36:41 UTC 2023), Entry for Gertrude Johnson and Howard Johnson, 1940.
  22. “United States 1950 Census,” FamilySearch ( : Thu Oct 05 23:02:19 UTC 2023), Entry for Winifred C. Lambright and Donald M. Lambright, 14 April 1950.
  23. “Nevada Marriage Index, 1956-2005,” FamilySearch ( : 21 July 2021), Caleb J Peterson and Winifred C Lambright.
  24. “New York, New York City Marriage Licenses Index, 1950-1995,” FamilySearch ( : 16 February 2024), Winifred Lambright in entry for George Lee, 1968, Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States;Marriage, Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States, from Reclaim the Records, The NYC Marriage Index ( : 2016); citing New York City Clerk's Office.