Ken "Snakehips" Johnson

Kenrick Reginald Hijmans Johnson[1] (10 September 1914 – 8 March 1941), known as Ken "Snakehips" Johnson, was a jazz band leader and dancer. He was a leading figure in black British music of the 1930s.[2]


Originally from British Guiana, Johnson at the age of 15 was sent by his parents to the United Kingdom, where he attended Sir William Borlase's Grammar School, Marlow, Buckinghamshire.[3]

Having gained an interest in dance, he sought lessons from American choreographer Buddy Bradley.[2] It was in dance work that Johnson earned his nickname, "Snakehips", from his "fluid and flexible style".[3]

He visited New York in 1934 and was inspired to become a bandleader.[2] In 1936 Johnson was invited to lead Leslie Thompson's band,[4] before going on to start his own, called "Ken Johnson and his Rhythm Swingers" (later renamed "The West Indian Orchestra"), which played jazz and swing music and was composed largely of musicians from the West Indies.[2] After the beginning of World War II, the 12-piece secured a residency at the fashionable London nightclub Café de Paris, a byword for sophistication. The band were also able to record here for broadcast on BBC radio, gaining them a much larger audience; they also made an early television appearance.[2] Critics acknowledged them as the first British band really to ‘swing’ and Johnson declared his wish to emulate Americans such as Count Basie. “I determined to play swing at the Café or die!” he told a Melody Maker reporter in 1939.

It was at the underground Café de Paris on 8 March 1941, during The Blitz, that a 50 kg high-explosive bomb came through the roof straight onto the dance floor soon after the start of a performance.[5] Time magazine reported that the orchestra was playing Oh, Johnny, Oh Johnny, How You Can Love! when the club was hit.[6][7]

Around 80 people were injured and at least 34 killed,[7] including 26-year-old Johnson, who was decapitated.[8] His saxophonist, Dave "Baba" Williams, was also killed.[9]

After Johnson's cremation at Golders Green Crematorium,[10] his ashes were placed at his old school, Sir William Borlase's Grammar School, where they reside in the school chapel, together with a panel dedicated to him.[11]

In 2019 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a documentary in which guitarist Joe Deniz described how he survived the tragedy at the Cafe de Paris.[12] Professor Catherine Tackley, head of music at the University of Liverpool, also noted that the Johnson musicians who survived were soon absorbed into London's white dance bands, creating a remarkable number of racially integrated bands, unlike the prewar years. DNB notes that Johnson's significance in maintaining the first established black British band was social as much as musical. “His musicians had an important influence on British jazz that continued beyond his death, [while] Johnson’s achievements provided a template for other black musicians to follow.”[1]


  1. Wilmer, Val (2006-05-25). "Johnson, Kenrick Reginald Hijmans". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 2019-04-03.
  2. Swinging into the Blitz: A Culture Show Special, BBC Two, 16 February 2013.
  3. The Ken SnakeHips Johnson Story at
  4. John Cowley, "London is the Place: Caribbean Music in the Context of Empire 1900-60", in Paul Oliver (ed.), Black Music In Britain: Essays on the Afro Asian Contribution to Popular Music, Milton Keynes, Open University Press, 1990, pp. 57-76.
  5. Andrew Janes, "The bombing of the Café de Paris", Records and research, 8 March 2013, The National Archives.
  6. "The Cafe de Paris, the Trial of Elvira Barney and the death of Snakehips Johnson", Another Nickel In The Machine.
  7. Ken "Snakehips" Johnson at West End at War. Retrieved 11 January 2010.
  8. CWGC Casualty Record.
  9. Richards, Elizabeth (2019-01-25). "Black History Month - Black British Swing: Caribbean Contribution to British Jazz in the 1930s and 1940s". blackhistorymonth. Retrieved 2019-04-03.
  10. Ken Snakehips Johnson, Find-a-grave entry.
  11. "Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson Dance band leader was a pupil here 1929-1931", Open Plaque.
  12. "Black Music in Europe: A Hidden History". BBC Radio4. 2019-04-03. Retrieved 2019-04-03.
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