SARATOGA SPRINGS — In 1821, renowned composer, musician, show man and bandleader Francis Johnson was hired to come to Saratoga and entertainer summer visitors at Congress Hall.
The Philadelphia-born fiddle player had adapted his musical skills to the newly designed keyed bugle which earned him high prominence on the early 19th century concert circuit, providing him bookings all across North America as well as overseas.
Born a free black man, Johnson led his band in Saratoga Springs for more than 20 years - between 1821 and 1843 - missing only the 1840 season. He played to overflow crowds that invited extended bookings.
"The groves and spacious halls of Saratoga resounded with the notes of this enchanting bugle and violin," reads one anonymously penned local review of the era, praising Johnson and his band's performance of "music from all the recent operas, together with waltzes, gallopades, marches and quicksteps."
Johnson performed twice a day in Congress Park and alternated evenings at Congress Hall and the United States Hotel. His compositions included pieces titled in honor of the region - "Saratoga," "Congress Hall," and "Ballston," among them.
He entertained families with cheerful marches, livened up parties with cotillions - brisk, lively dance tunes, enjoyed by audiences that included James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren.
For his band, Johnson hired what was regarded as some of the best black musicians of the early 19th century, and shortly before his death in 1844, he staged what are believed to be some of the first integrated concerts in America.
The bandleader was recognized in Saratoga Springs on July 20, 1978 – which was declared Frank Johnson Day, in a proclamation issued by the city of Saratoga Springs and signed by Mayor Raymond Watkin.