Jack D. Johnson, 79, the brash and colorful manager of
Charley Pride, Ronnie Milsap, T.G. Sheppard and others, died
Thursday morning in Nashville after battling congestive heart failure.
Mr. Johnson confronted segregation and presumption in helping Pride
to become the first African-American singing superstar in country music.
"What he did took a lot of courage," Milsap said. "He brought the first black
gentleman into mainstream country, and in my case he brought the first blind boy in.
Those two things may never be repeated again, and he orchestrated the whole thing."
Mr. Johnson, named for the prize fighter Jack Dempsey, was born in Knoxville, and
he spent most of his youth in East Tennessee. He graduated from the University of
Tennessee with a degree in journalism in 1958. He and his wife, Edie, moved to
Nashville in 1961, so he could pursue a career in the music business.
In 1964, Mr. Johnson founded Jack D. Johnson Talent. After hearing Pride sing, he
promised to manage the scuffling ex-ballplayer, and he pitched Pride's music to
labels and producers around Nashville to no real effect. Finally, Mr. Johnson bent
the ear of Cowboy Jack Clement, who decided to produce some records on Pride.
Milsap met Pride by chance, and Pride urged the sight-impaired piano player to
move to Nashville and to meet with Mr. Johnson. In the early 1970s, Milsap played
regular shows at a showroom on the roof of the King of the Road Motel, and Mr. Johnson
often dropped by those shows.
"He said, 'I want to manage you,' and I signed a contract," Milsap said. "Then Jack said,
'Now Ronnie, I can't make you a star. You're gonna have to do that on your own.'
I said, 'Well, why'd I just sign that contract, then?' "
Mr. Johnson meant that proper management was only one piece of the puzzle:
Milsap would, like Pride, have to deliver the goods onstage and work hard to please
the music industry. For his part, Mr. Johnson successfully convinced music business
power players that a pianist who was known for singing R&B and rock 'n' roll could
also sing country. Milsap signed with Mr. Johnson in 1973, and he soon became a major
star. In 1975, Mr. Johnson won the CMA's Producer of the Year award for his co-production
of Milsap's records.
Mr. Johnson is survived by his wife, Edie Johnson, and four children: Bill Johnson
of Nashville; Lisa Miller of Nolensville; Tregg Johnson of Gadsden, Ala.; and
Cherie Clark of Thompsons Station. He is also survived by eight grandchildren.
Visitation will be held Sunday at Hickory Chapel, 5852 Nolensville Road, from
5-8 p.m. Funeral services will be held Monday at 1 p.m. at Brentwood Baptist Chapel,
with burial to follow at Woodlawn Memorial Gardens.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Brentwood Baptist Church Missions
Fund at 7777 Concord Road, Brentwood, TN 37027.
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