One woman’s search for her father leads to gospel roots
By John Herndon, KentuckySings.com
LAWRENCEBURG, Ky. — There are times when the word “amazing” cannot begin to capture how God can work in our lives.
This story is not one to chronicle the life of someone singing about Jesus Christ, even though that has played a role. I don’t know much about Howard Johnson, who sometimes went by the name “Sherrill” and played bass guitar for The Ambassadors Quartet in Hopkinsville, Ky. He was only 58 when he died in 1994.
But I learned a little bit about Mr. Johnson as the result of a daughter’s persistence in trying to learn more about the father she never knew. It seems like something out of Cold Case — without the crime — coupled with the some results that can only be attributed to God working.
“Through all these years, the one thing I have held onto that gave me hope that I would find my family is Romans 8:28,” says Leslie Chrisman.
“And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (New International Version.)
I had met Leslie during my time as sports editor of The Anderson News. Her grandson had played football for Anderson County High School, but our contact had been casual, at best. Just a hello here and there and that’s about it. She contacted me about her story in late February concerning what she called an “amazing story about how I found out I have another family through DNA testing.” She also noted the story had ties to Southern Gospel music.
Seeing that the plan for KentuckySings.com has always been to include lesser-known names and stories as well as the big names, I figured this would be a chance to do that even though I scheduled an interview with no idea what Leslie would share.
When I arrived at her home, Leslie pulled out an Ambassadors Quartet album. The title song, “Travelling for the Lord,” had been written by, you guessed it, her father, Howard Johnson.
Admittedly, I wasn’t familiar with the group, and I figured they must have been a regional group but one that was popular enough to cut a record. The group’s fashion taste in the cover photo indicated the album was most likely from the early 1970s.
As I wondered if this was just a local or regional group that is now just known to history, Leslie began to share her story. I hope you will follow to its amazing — there’s that word again — conclusion.
“I always knew my mother’s husband was not my father,” said Leslie, a West Virginia native who has lived in Kentucky most of her adult life. “I never asked my mother who my father was out of respect for her, but I always wanted to look for my father.”
So in 2016, after years of wondering, Leslie submitted DNA tests to Ancestry.com but had no idea what she was looking for. Soon after, she saw a Facebook ad for a seminar conducted by the Kentucky Genealogical Society. There, she learned of the third-party database, GEDMatch, which is known for its use by law enforcement agencies.
She uploaded her DNA result to the GEDMatch site with no clue if anyone who could be a match would be in the database.
“The first name on the list was a Johnson and the three top matches were at the same email address,” Leslie said.
She wrestled with contacting her matches, but waited to see if any would contact her. When nothing happened, she thought, “Do I want to open this can of worms? There are pros and cons to doing this.”
But armed only with a surname and the knowledge that she had been born in West Virginia, Leslie kept researching. She found 1954 high school yearbook from the Huntington area with a photo of a boy named Howard Johnson. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness! He looks just like me!’”
Leslie confronted her mother, and while she did not immediately recognize her old boyfriend — it had been more than 60 years — she confirmed it was Leslie’s father. She also told Leslie he had left West Virginia but she had no idea where he went.
“They had dated and she got pregnant,” Leslie explained. “Mom’s brother (Leslie’s uncle) was in the navy. He took leave and came home with the intention of taking her to a home for unwed mothers and putting the baby up for adoption.”
There was one problem. Even though she was packed and ready, Leslie’s mother did not want to go. Instead, she stayed in West Virginia and raised Leslie. It was not the common path to take in the 1950s.
Leslie learned her parents had planned to get married, but eventually drifted apart. But she gave her blessing to Leslie’s search. So even though Leslie just had a feeling her father had died, she still sent an email to the address from GEDMatch. She just asked if they could talk.
When they finally connected by phone, Leslie found herself talking to her biological cousin. She said, “I am Sherrill Johnson’s daughter.”
Her cousin contacted Leslie’s aunt, who called less than an hour later. She confirmed that Leslie’s father had died, but said, “You have two brothers and one sister. I always wondered what happened to you.”
The following weekend, Leslie and her husband traveled to West Virginia, where she met some of her extended family. And she found out her siblings, who did not know about their sister, were in Hopkinsville, Ky.
The same Hopkinsville where Leslie had lived from 2010-2014.
A family funeral prompted Leslie’s sister to travel back to West Virginia and on the way back to Hopkinsville, she called Leslie, asking to finally meet. They did and planned a get together in 2017. They’ve been in contact and have had true family outings ever since.
“My father moved around but when he got to Hopkinsville, he stayed there,” Leslie says. “We don’t know how long he was in gospel music.” She has learned that he sometimes filled in with a group, “The Jubilees.”
However, Leslie was struck by the irony of her time in Hopkinsville. “I drove by the cemetery where he’s buried every day,” she says. “I didn’t know my father was there.”
Thanks to an Ebay find, Leslie does have some lasting memory, the album she showed as we started to talk. She’s had the music transferred to MP3 and played some of the vintage gospel. The influences of popular groups such as The Blackwood Brothers and The Florida Boys are obvious.
“I don’t know much about his music,” Leslie says. “Some of the family said he wasn’t one to bring attention to himself.”
But Leslie would like to know. That’s why she contacted us. There might be someone out there who remembers the Ambassadors or her father. If so, you can email KentuckySings@gmail.com and we will get you in touch with each other.
The Ambassadors Quartet
The Ambassadors pictured on the album included Johnny Harris (lead), Willard Gray (baritone), Spike Ezell (bass), Bill Fryar (tenor), Noble Sanderson (piano) and Howard Johnson (bass guitar).
The group’s agent was Bob Luttrell of World of Song Talent in Dawson Springs, Ky.