Famous Musician Will Get Plaque At Maple Grove

BY LUIS GRONDA
Staff Writer

A famous African-American musician who lived in Queens will no longer have an unmarked grave after this weekend.

Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens will honor George Washington Johnson this Saturday with a plaque at his gravesite, finally acknowledging the musician with a tombstone at his burial site.

Johnson was a pioneer in the music industry during his prime, from 1891 until the early 1900s. He was the first African-American recording star of the phonograph. Music lovers would pay 20 cents to hear a two-minute recording of the whistling that he became known for.

His most popular song, “The Laughing Song,” was recently selected by the Library of Congress as one of 25 recordings to be preserved for posterity and placed in the National Registry of Recording Sounds.

Carl Ballenas, who heads the Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery organization, said they are honoring him now because this year marks the 100th anniversary of Johnson’s death. He passed away in Queens on January 23, 1914. His exact date of birth is unknown but it is believed to be in October of 1846.

Ballenas said it was a shock to many that his grave was unmarked, even though he was such an accomplished musician.

“The cemetery wanted to honor him so that the public knew what his contributions were to the music world,” he said.

The students from the honor society of the Immaculate Conception School wrote the text that will go on Johnson’s grave.

The Grammy Foundation’s MusicCares program footed the bill for the plaque and the ceremony, paying a total of $3,000.

The event will take place on April 12 at 2 p.m. at the cemetery. It will feature some special guests, including Tim Brooks, who wrote a biography about Johnson’s life.

Maple Grove Cemetery is located at 127-15 Kew Gardens Road in Kew Gardens. For more information on the ceremony, contact Maple Grove at (347) 878-6614.

Reach Luis Gronda at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 127, lgronda@queenstribune.com, or @luisgronda.