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The Duke – Where and When

A Chronicle of Duke Ellington's
Working Life and Travels

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Wini Johnson

Young Wini Johnson publicity, with advertisement Wini Johnson was a dancer, vocalist and entertainer who joined Ellington's orchestra in Detroit in February 1944. She left the orchestra in late September or in early October 1944 when it played the Downtown Theatre in Chicago. While Ellington advertisements with her name appeared until mid-October, this was likely because advertising copy would have used information sent to the venue managers some weeks before the events.

Wini married Dr. Middleton H. ("Midi" or "Middie") Lambright Jr. in 1945 and they made their home in Cleveland, where they seem to have been socially prominent.

Wini Johnson Lambright appeared on the cover of Jet Magazine in 1952 and was mentioned in that magazine from time to time in the 1950s and early 1960s. The Lambrights were divorced, and Wini remarried a George Lee, but was separated from him in or by 1969. She died in 1980.

Ellington or his ghost writer Stanley Dance wrote about this vocalist as Wini Brown in Music is My Mistress:

Wini Brown

Wini Brown's father was one of the intellectual waiters who graduated from the old Cotton Club. He was intelligent and hip, as all of the Cotton Club waiters were in those days. He had two lovely daughters and two handsome sons, and they lived across the street from us on St. Nicholas Avenue. When Wini became a chorus girl at the Cotton Club, she was so young she had to have her mother bring her to work and come back at the end of the show to take her home. Wini first married Stepin Fetchit and then, in 1944, when we were playing in the Hurricane, she was in a Broadway show called Early to Bed. One night the entire cast came to the Hurricane for one of their celebrations, and Wini, always a put-on artist, took her turn singing. She got such a good audience reaction that, when I went over to congratulate her and gave her good wishes, I invited her to join the band. She was a beautiful chick and she copped out by saying, "You've got to be kidding! I'm not a singer, I'm a dancer."
   Nevertheless, she opened with us our first night out of town at the Downtown Theatre on State Street in Chicago. Dusty Fletcher was on the bill too, I remember. Everything was going fine until a very famous young doctor, Midi Lambright, married her and dragged her off to Cleveland.

Despite its title and several factual errors, the MIMM article is clearly about Wini Johnson. Wini Brown, about ten years younger than Wini Johnson, graduated from Englehart High School in Chicago, singing first with Eddie Mallory's orchestra under the name Annabella, then joining Lionel Hampton's band at age 18 in February 1946 as Winnie or Wini Brown, shortly after Wini Johnson left the scene. Wini Johnson Lambright appears to have lived with her son and her second husband in Cleveland during Ms Brown's career.

The Fats Waller Broadway musical "Early to Bed" played at the Broadhurst Theater from June 1943 to May 1944. Wini's visit to the Hurricane was probably during the spring or summer of 1943 since Ellington was there from April to September that year. By the time his orchestra returned to the restaurant at the end of March 1944, Wini was already with the band.

MIMM's misidentification of the singer caused some confusion in the world of Ellington research. The confusion was made worse because Wini Brown worked and recorded with then-former Ellingtonian Cootie Williams during the 1950s.

Former Ellington publicist and noted Ellington authority Patricia Willard believes the MIMM misnaming was Dance's mistake. She says Stanley tended to guess, improvise and contradict, and points out a number of errors in MIMM she attributes do him. She suggests

'With the Winis, he obviously chose to assume this was one person because of the unconventional spelling of the given name so he chose his favorite surname to go with it...'

Ms Willard says Duke told her Dance "changed and omitted a lot of what I wrote without consulting me." Writer/producer Helen Oakley Dance, Stanley's wife, told her Doubleday's final contract for the manuscript was with Stanley since Duke had missed his agreed-upon deadline, procrastinating while spending his advance. Duke told Mrs. Willard he was not offered final approval of Stanley's completed manuscript because Doubleday was eager to get the book out.

In any event, the following research will demonstrate the lady named Wini Brown in MIMM was Wini Johnson.

Who was Wini Johnson?

From her brother's autobiography (Howard Eugene Johnson: A Dancer in the Revolution: Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club By Howard Eugene Johnson) and obituary we learn:

Wini Johnson's career before Ellington

Wini Johnson's career with Ellington

Wini Johnson's life after Ellington

Who was Wini Brown?

Wini Brown is pictured on three album covers, including the album she made with Cootie Williams.

(click to enlarge)

Simply comparing pictures of Wini Johnson and Wini Brown shows they were not the same person:

(Click to enlarge)

Miss Brown was about ten years younger than Wini Johnson, born in 1927 or 1928 and graduating from Englehart High School in Chicago. Her singing career began with what seems to have been a short sojourn with the Eddie Mallory orchestra under the name Annabella. She joined Lionel Hampton's band at age 18 in February 1946 as Winnie or Wini Brown.

Winnie Brown sang with Hampton until mid-1948, leaving to marry his baritone sax player, Charlie Fowlkes. She entered into a recording contract with National in 1948, then in 1949 with Columbia Records.

A detailed biography of Wini Brown and her recording history is posted in Marv Goldberg's Yesterday's Memories Rhythm & Blues Party website. Mr. Goldberg found little information about her after 1961, but suggests she died in 1978.

Additional references :

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