Editor’s note: Greater Union Life Center in DeLand is sponsoring Black History Month 2021 banners honoring 16 individuals who have made a positive impact on the city of DeLand, and Volusia County. The banners have been installed along Woodland Boulevard in Downtown DeLand, and The Beacon is compiling profiles of the individuals.
Ray and Willie Mae Johnson, longtime DeLandites, made their imprint on the community as philanthropists, community leaders, musicians — and the parents of six musically inclined sons.
Willie Mae, a former member of the Euclid High School Tiger Band, is a retired educator and longtime member of Greater Union First Baptist Church. She attended college at age 30, after her sons were through school, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in science and later certifications for special-education teaching.
Both Johnsons were musically inclined. Ray Johnson Sr. often played locally, including with hometown friend Noble “Thin Man” Watts, for whom DeLand’s annual Jazz Fest is named. Ray Johnson Sr. passed away in 2000.
“I grew up in a house of music, and my husband grew up in a house of music,” Willie Mae Johnson told The Beacon. “My husband and I, our philosophy in life was this: If anything ever happened to us, we did not want our sons to be separated. Who in their right mind would take six boys and raise them? So our idea was to make them very good musicians. And at any time if anything happened to us, they would be able to earn their keep.”
All six are talented musicians.
Their father was offered positions in traveling big bands, with well-known talents like Ray Charles and Lionel Hampton, Willie Mae recalled.
“I’m going to stay here and raise my sons,” Willie Mae remembers him saying. “They would try to offer him a lot of money. And he’d say, no, you don’t have enough money to make me leave my sons. That made him a special kind of father.”
Their sons did travel across the United States for music, as the Johnson Brothers.
Son Larry Johnson went by the stage name Maurice Starr, and is particularly famous as a music producer, musician and songwriter. Starr discovered the blockbuster boy band New Edition, and later created the even more successful New Kids on the Block.
The Johnsons’ two-and-half-story brick home — boasting 15 bedrooms and six bathrooms — is a familiar sight on the corner of Orange and Voorhis avenues in DeLand.
The $600,000 mansion — the most expensive in West Volusia at the time of its construction in 1991, according to news reports — was designed by Willie Mae.
The mansion was a culmination of lifetimes of hard work — in news articles, the Johnsons recalled how their sons would do odd jobs for money to buy instruments, including as news carriers for the DeLand Sun News.
“In Downtown DeLand, there was a music store — and I can’t remember the man’s name at the moment — but he was very good to the Black people,” Willie Mae said.
The music shop rented instruments, she said, and the owner would apply the rental fees toward purchase of the instrument. Ultimately, all six boys would acquire instruments this way — trumpets, drums, a flute and a banjo — to outfit their band.
“I had a good life, and my husband had a good life — we had a good life together, because I love music and he did, too,” Willie Mae said.
Faith in a higher power guided the couple.
“The Scripture tells us that before each of us is born, our steps are ordered by God. And I believe that. I believe that everybody’s really where they are supposed to be, and that God put my husband and I together,” Willie Mae said. “God wanted a Johnson Brothers band in DeLand. Everything — even as to the poster, of being honored — everything is all predestined by God.”
Willie Mae, at age 90, still lives in the mansion in DeLand.
“When someone asks me how I’m doing — ‘How you doing, Mrs. Johnson?’ — I always say, ‘I’m fine. I’m making plans for my 100th birthday,’” she said.