Slipcue E-Zine: Obituary Listings

STRETCH JOHNSON, 85, Tap Dancer and Activist
By Douglas Martin, courtesy of The New York Times

June 12, 2000 - Howard E. Johnson, who danced with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Cotton Club and the Apollo, was a fiercely committed Communist for 16 years and went on to become an educator and a social activist, died May 28 at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. He was 85.

Towering in height and, until his later years, pencil thin, Mr. Johnson was known far and wide as Stretch.

He had moved to Harlem last summer from Houston -- one of many stops in his glorious tap dance of a life.

From the Harlem Renaissance in the 20's to fighting McCarthyism in the 50's to teaching the history of jazz in the 90's, Mr. Johnson did a little bit of everything, almost always with a wry smile and not a little swagger.

"His life was like a work of fiction," said Jean Bach, a radio producer who was one of his oldest friends, because "it's so crazy."

Howard Eugene Johnson was born on Jan. 30, 1915, in Orange, N.J., and was delighted as a boy to find out that his parents had never married. "It did not throw me," he said in an almost-completed autobiography. "In fact, it added to my romantic notions about being a deviant, an outcast, a revolutionary, unbounded by the prescriptions of a bourgeois, decadent and corrupt society."

Though he once said his family was so far in the gutter that they could only dream of climbing up to the street, much less the curb, he took considerable pride in his father's stardom for the black baseball teams of the Negro Leagues. He also loved to watch his father play high-stakes pool, or deal cards with a cheat's finesse. Mr. Johnson missed the old man on the several occasions when his father was away in prison for various crimes.

But he modeled himself after his uncle, James Anderson, the founder of The Amsterdam News, which remains the city's most influential black newspaper. Mr. Anderson condemned lynching and characterized African-Americans as a developing nation as early as 1915. "I was never ashamed of being black," Mr. Johnson said in his autobiography. "Frustration, anger, rage were more often the feelings."

In 1932, the Johnson family moved to Harlem. Mr. Johnson's sister, Winnie, quickly became one of the featured dancers at the Cotton Club, a famed Harlem nightclub of the 1920's and 30's, where she was touted by such columnists as Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell as the most beautiful woman in Harlem.

When Duke Ellington decided he wanted to add a male chorus line, she volunteered her brother despite his concern that he had two left feet.

"I was never able to get the small-muscle dexterity that close tapping required, so I compensated with exaggerated movement," Mr. Johnson wrote.

Soon, the two recruited a third sibling, Bobby, and performed an act called the Three Johnsons; it was featured in "New Faces of 1936" and the "Duke Ellington Revue of 1937" at the Apollo Theater. Stretch Johnson also acted in a Harlem production of the Clifford Odets play "Waiting for Lefty."

A member of the N.A.A.C.P. since he was 15, in 1940, after the Cotton Club's decision to get rid of the boys' chorus line, he joined the Young Communist League of Harlem, prompted in part by the lynching of blacks in the South. He completely accepted the league's ideology: when he entered the Harlem party headquarters, he remembered, he thought of the picture of Stalin as "a brilliant gray eagle."

He fought many battles, including one to force Major League Baseball to accept a black player, passing out petitions in front of Yankee Stadium. Eventually, he started attending Communist meetings in Mexico, Cuba and other foreign countries.

His life was defined by struggle, and even his decision to marry a white woman and fellow Communist, Martha Sherman, was challenged -- not least by other party members. He dismissed their objections, and later wrote, "I was not going to decide whom I would marry on the basis of prejudices which reflected the past which we were dedicated to the overthrowing."

The couple had three daughters, all of whom survive him, as does Ms. Sherman, from whom he was divorced. The daughters are Wini Johnson and Lisa Johnson, both of Manhattan, and Wendy, Johnson of Paris. He is also survived by two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

During World War II, Mr. Johnson served with the Army's Buffalo Soldiers, a segregated unit, winning two Purple Hearts. A leg injury he received was so severe that he did not dance again for 25 years. After the war, he organized black veterans to fight for benefits they were being denied in some Southern states. He stuck with the Communist Party through Stalin's alliance with Hitler, until the Soviet premier, Nikita S. Khrushchev, divulged the extent of the evil Stalin did. Mr. Johnson said the revelation hit "like a ton of bricks."

Unlike many former Communists, he had no regrets about his long allegiance to the party. After he left it, his life took a series of quirky turns. Central to the story was his recognition that he was an alcoholic, a problem he first addressed episodically, and, finally, with membership in Alcoholics Anonymous.

He went on to become a printer, and worked at The New York Times, among other places. He earned a general equivalency high school diploma, then a degree from Columbia University's College of General Studies, and taught black studies at the Fieldston School in the Bronx. He administered the Upward Bound program, which provided federal money for programs to steer disadvantaged youths to college for a participating institution, the Ethical Culture Society. He later taught sociology at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

He also served as chairman of the Strand Community Organization to Rehabilitate the Environment, which raised $3 million for low-income housing in Ulster County, where he lived while teaching in New Paltz.

His companion in his later years was Ann Anthony, whom he met in 1962 in an art appreciation course at Columbia.

Mainly to be near family, the two lived in a number of places, leaving a wake of activism wherever they went. In Hawaii, Mr. Johnson founded an African-American newspaper and led the fight to make the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a holiday; the law passed in 1989. In the Virgin Islands, he set up a social services network. In Galveston, Tex., he helped set up a community center in an impoverished neighborhood.

He called his religious beliefs "cosmist," which he defined as believing in God's love permeating the whole universe.

"Many people said the party wrecked their lives," Ms. Bach said of other American Communists. "Stretch said, 'I had a ball.' "

Jerome Smith, of K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Dies at 47
Courtesy of The New York Times

August 10, 2000 - Jerome Smith, the original guitarist for the disco party kings K. C. and the Sunshine Band, died on Friday after a construction accident, The Associated Press reported. He was 47 and lived in Miami.

His body was crushed in the accident, which took place at the construction site where he worked in West Palm Beach, the news agency said.

Mr. Smith's suave sound became familiar to disco fans before he joined K. C. and the Sunshine Band, when he played the signature riff on George McRae's "Rock Your Baby." He was soon invited by the production team of Harry Wayne Casey (also known as K. C.) and Richard Finch to join the Sunshine Band.

His guitar, altered in the studio to sound like a synthesizer, provided the hook for "Get Down Tonight," the band's breakthrough hit. Before he left the group in 1979, it had five No. 1 songs, including "That's the Way (I Like It)," "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty" and "I'm Your Boogie Man."

Mr. Smith had other musical successes, playing on 10 albums by the disco burlesque artist Blowfly and touring in America with the Australian group the Divinyls.

In the 1990's he contributed to the soundrack of the television show "Melrose Place." He was reportedly hoping to rejoin K. C. and the Sunshine Band at the time of his death.

C.D. ATKINS, 86, Inventor of Orange Juice Process
By Eric V. Copage, Courtesy of The New York Times

June 8, 2000 - C. D. Atkins, an inventor of frozen concentrated orange juice, which revolutionized the Florida citrus industry, died last Saturday at his home in Winter Haven, Florida. He was 86.

Mr. Atkins, Edwin L. Moore and L. G. MacDowell, who died in July 1986, were the research team that the Florida Citrus Commission asked in the 1940's to improve the quality of processed orange products. The purpose was to provide better juice for the armed forces and make more efficient use of Florida's orange crop. The work was done at a laboratory provided by the United States Department of Agriculture in Lakeland, Fla., and began in 1942.

The concentration process, which involves heating the juice so that the water evaporates, was already well known.

But the three invented the process in which the flavor of orange juice could be retained by adding a bit of fresh juice to the concentrate and then freezing it. Called the cutback process, it led to the expansion of the Florida citrus economy as well as surrounding industries for transporting and warehousing the juice.

The cutback process also created a more nutritious product by restoring some of the Vitamin C that was lost in heating.

Cedric Donald Atkins was born on Sept. 7, 1913, in Winter Haven. He was the only child of James H. Atkins, a railroad telegraph operator, and his wife, Christina, an elementary-school teacher. The Atkinses had inherited a couple of hundred acres of land in 1887, and they planted orange groves, from which they earned a second income, according to Mr. Atkins's son, Robert.

C. D. Atkins attended the University of Florida for three years, planning to be a doctor.

But when his parents ran out of money, he transferred to Florida Southern College near his parents' home in Lakeland, where he could help finance his tuition by teaching chemistry, biology and physics at the college.

He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1937.

After college, he taught high school and coached football in the Florida towns of Plant City, Fort Meade and Winter Haven.

In 1942, he became a research scientist with the federal Department of Agriculture.

Mr. Atkins had seven patents in all, including one for a sports drink containing orange juice, a pulp-free syrup for carbonated beverages and a process for extracting the aroma from fresh juice, then adding it to concentrate, which enhances its flavor.

The process for frozen orange juice was patented in 1946 under an agreement in which the patent belonged to the federal government.

"He never mentioned regretting it," Mr. Atkins's son said.

"He always had enough money to be comfortable."

Mr. Atkins is survived by his wife, the former Martha Kathryn Marsh; a daughter, Barbara Atkins Smith, and his son, Robert, both of Winter Haven; nine grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

Here's the next set of groovy obits for your reading pleasure...

  • Werner Klemperer, akaCol. Klink, Dies at 80
  • John Worsley, A Real-Life Col. Hogan
  • Harold Rhodes, Inventor Of The Electric Piano


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