Johnson was born in slavery on a plantation in Virginia. About 1889 Johnson was whistling on the Staten Island Ferry in New York City when he was heard by someone connected with the infant recording industry (one story says that it was Thomas A. Edison himself). Johnson was invited to record record his loud raggy whistling on wax phonograph cylinders for a fee of twenty cents per 2 minute performance. The recording went well, and in 1890 Johnson began recording regularly for various companies in the New York and New Jersey area.
Johnson sang as well as whistled, and also was able to give a boisterous laugh in musical pitch. From this he developed the two performances that made him famous, "The Whistling Coon" and "The Laughing Coon". "Coon" was slang for an African-American at the time. While on occasion he recorded other material, including whistling the song "Listen to the Mockingbird" and some short minstrel show performances done with other performers, it was these two songs that Johnson would perform and record over and over for years.
In the earliest days of the recording industry, every record was a "master". A strong voiced singer could make a maxium of 5 records at once, as 5 machines with their recording horns pointed towards the singer's mouth were started at the same time. By 1894, Johnson was reported to have sold over 25,000 records recorded this way! He would sometimes sing the same song over and over again in the recording studio fifty or more times a day.
Johnson also made appearances on Vaudeville. His repertory on stage was pretty much limited to his two famous songs, but this was sufficent to get him bookings on bills.
Johnson was hired as a valet by Len Spencer, a Vaudeville star of the era. Spencer and Johnson made a few recordings together.
Johnson made his first disc records in 1895 for Berliner Gramophone. In addition to Berliner, Edison Records, and Columbia, and somewhat later the Victor Talking Machine Company, Johnson recorded for numerous other small cylinder and disc companies through the 1890s and up to about 1910.
Rumors have alleged that the first Black recording star died either in a racism motivated lynching, or alternatively that he was hung after he committed murder. Neither story is true. George W. Johnson died apparently of natural causes, while in the employ of Len Spencer as doorman for the Lyceum Theater in Manhattan.