Robert S. Johnson

Robert (Bob) S. Johnson represented the era of The NAMM Show when simple displays were the norm, which typically included a few instruments and an order book. In the early days, exhibitors displayed their goods first in hotel rooms, over time expanding into larger ballrooms before moving to the convention centers of today. Bob proudly represented the William Lewis & Son violin company for years. He was old fashioned in his approach to making and keeping dealers as customers. If there was a problem with an order, Bob would do all he could to make sure it was corrected, often times making a personal visit to the store as a follow-up. Many salespeople learned from Bob about the craft of instrument selling, a fact for which Bob was proud.

Born in Chicago in late 1929, Bob grew up in a musical home and gravitated towards the violin at an early age. He studied long and hard and by his mid-20s was seated in the violin section of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Fabien Sevitzky. While with the symphony, Bob played countless concerts and appeared on several recordings made by the orchestra, primarily in the early 1950s. When given the opportunity to sell violins for the noted craftsmen at William Lewis & Son, Bob lept at the chance. Providing a quality instrument to match the needs and sound for each musician was important to Bob. Bob served as a sales manager for Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) when William Lewis & Son was acquired by the wholesale giant in the early 1960s. To give you an idea of his musical talents, while working as a salesman for CMI Bob picked up the saxophone, which he had occasionally played in school, and became gifted on the instrument as a hobby.

Throughout his career in the industry, Bob attended each NAMM Show, working with a genuine intent to develop strong customer relationships and he felt a sense of pride whenever he heard a musician was pleased with their new violin. At the core of Bob Johnson was a giving spirit. He was unique in many ways yet he shared one of the best qualities that many of us in the music industry possess, by showing those around him, in his own way, that he loved them. He cared about his friends and customers in the music industry with the same sincerity. He once told me that he never sold a violin that was not suited for that person, after all, “There must be a match.” Some 15 years after his NAMM Oral History interview was completed in 2005, he and I, and our wives remained close, perhaps because our spirits matched.

When Bob passed away at the age of 90 in June 2020, it felt as if we lost a vital connection to those past NAMM Shows, now carefully preserved by faded black and white photographs.

Bob often said, “Old violinists don’t die, their strings keep reverberating as long as someone remembers their sound.”

Yes indeed, my friend.

To see a segment from Bob's Oral History interview click here.

Dan Del Fiorentino
Music Historian