Johnson claimed to have started "slapping" the strings of his bass (a more vigorous technique than the classical pizzicato), after he accidentally broke his bow on the road with his band in northern Louisiana in the early 1910s. Other New Orleans string bass players picked up this style, and spread it across the country with the spread of New Orleans Jazz.
Johnson was founder and manager of the first jazz bands to leave New Orleans and tour widely in the 1910s, The Original Creole Orchestra.
In Chicago in the early 1920s he assembled King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, considered perhaps the best of the early ensemble style jazz bands. He taught younger Chicago musicians (like Milt Hinton) his "slap" style of string bass playing. He made many fine recordings in Chicago in the late 1920s.
Johnson continued to play with various jazz bands and orchestras into the early 1950s, sometimes working under other names. He was also involved in the import/export business along the USA-Mexico border.
Johnson's brother Dink Johnson was also a noted musician and his sister Anita Gonzales was a wife of Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton.
Bill Johnson died in San Antonio, Texas.