Johnson an unsung hero of German Band - Republic-Times | News

Johnson an unsung hero of German Band

By on July 11, 2018 at 1:45 pm

Pictured is longtime Waterloo German Band member Barbara Johnson aboard the band’s famous parade float. (submitted photo)

It has been said that behind every great man there is a great woman. 

That is certainly the case for Waterloo German Band leader  Harry Wolf, whose longtime companion Barbara Johnson has proved invaluable to the band over the years.

“It’s hard to say how Barb helps the band most,” Wolf wrote in “My Life in Stories,” his new autobiography. “She plays wonderful accordion and is great onstage – always smiling and always ready for antics. But she’s been just as helpful on the business side.” 

Johnson joined the band after receiving a letter from Wolf in November 1989 asking for an accordion player. 

He sent letters to 15 different accordionists, not knowing Johnson would impact his life for the next 29 years. 

Johnson began taking accordion lessons when she was 7 years old. She also learned the organ and piano. 

Prior to receiving Wolf’s letter, Johnson had played in another band, though earlier that year she began playing solo. 

She had never heard of Wolf or the Waterloo German Band, but she applied anyway.

“I thought it certainly wouldn’t hurt anything to check it out,” she said. “The music I was playing was more of the old standards or ballroom type music. But it was just my overall love for music that made me do it.”

After running through some songs with Wolf, Johnson decided she would join the band.

She also quickly became friends with Wolf, who she has worked beside ever since.

“We just hit it off right at the very beginning,” she said.

At the time, Johnson worked at Bank of America in downtown St. Louis and lived in Cahokia. But she soon found herself frequenting Waterloo to assist Wolf with the band.

“I was there practically every night and pretty much all of the weekend,” she remembered. “As I got more accustomed to being associated with the band, anything I could do to help with the workload, I would do.”

Seeing how often she was in Waterloo, Wolf encouraged her to move closer to town. In 2000, Wolf bought the house next to his. In 2001, Johnson moved into that house.

She rents the upstairs portion, while the downstairs levels serve as an office and storage area for the band. 

The move has proven worthwhile, as over the years she has taken on a variety of roles with the band in addition to her work as a musician. 

Johnson performs administrative and logistical tasks and helps prepare and maintain the legendary Waterloo German Band float. 

As Wolf has gotten older, he has turned over even more responsibility to her. Now she sends out contracts, notifies band members of upcoming gigs and does the payroll for the band. 

Even after 29 years and all that other work, Johnson said she still enjoys the music.

“Even to this day I enjoy doing the waltzes, polkas and German music,” she said. “It’s just happy music to me.”

Johnson said another highlight of her work with the band has been the locations she has played. 

“I’ve been honored to play venues I never would have been exposed to before,” she said. “I’ve gotten to play so many times at Grant’s Farm, the Busch Family Mansion and the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield.”

Johnson and the band have also played in Chicago, other states and even in Germany. 

Throughout all those experiences, Johnson and Wolf have developed a close relationship.

Part of the reason for that is their shared interests. They both enjoy traveling and performing in the band. They even share a favorite venue: nursing and retirement homes.

“To put a smile on a resident’s face or make them laugh for awhile, we get more enjoyment out of that than anything else,” Johnson said.

Johnson compares the relationship she has with Wolf to that of a brother and sister. 

“We’ve been very good companions,” she said. “We help take care of each other.”

In his book, which is still available for purchase at the Republic-Times office, Wolf expressed a similar sentiment. 

“I consider Barb’s interest in the band a gift from God,” he wrote. “We run the business together, decorate our backyards together and travel to foreign countries together. Barb is my best neighbor and my best friend. She’s like a dear sister to me.” 

James Moss