Herbert William (Herbie, Herb) Johnson was born November 3, 1902 in Hartford, Connecticut. His mother, Parmelia (1888-1962), was a Québécoise from St. Hyacinthe, and his father, Thomas Matthew Johnson, was an Afro-American. Thomas Johnson worked as a landscape gardener, and sang bass in a quartet and played drums in an 8-piece orchestra that rehearsed in the Johnson home.
Herb Johnson married Ethel Carroll in 1923; they had two children, William and Eugene. They separated in 1927. He and his common-law wife Helen (they were together ca. 1938 to ca. 1967) had a child, Coleman. From ca. 1968 Herb Johnson was with Laura Roger, whom he married in 1972. In 1993 Herb Johnson, by then a widower, moved from his residence in Rosemere, Quebec to a care facility. He died in 199? .
Herb Johnson played in bands as a child, and became a professional musician in his teens. At that time his main interest was drumming. He began his professional career in dance bands in Hartford during the 1920s. At this time he began to play the baritone saxophone, then switched to tenor saxophone, which would be his main instrument, although he also played clarinet. He moved to New York in 1928 and worked in bands led by such musicians as Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Carter, Noble Sissle, and Kaiser Marshall.
As the Depression and Prohibition affected employment for musicians in New York City, he went on the road and performed in Albany and other cities in New York State. In 1935 he was recruited by Jimmy Jones to play in his Harlem Dukes of Rhythm Orchestra in Montreal. Herb Johnson took up residence in Montreal and stayed in the area for the rest of his life. He played with various bands and led bands that played in Café St. Michel, Rockhead's Paradise, Roseland, and Chinese Paradise Grill, among others. He toured in Quebec, Ontario, and New York.
From 1946 to 1949 he played tenor saxophone with the Louis (or Louie) Metcalf International Band at the Café St. Michel. The Louis Metcalf International Band introduced the then-revolutionary emerging bebop style of music to the Montreal nightclub scene in 1946. Herb Johnson brought valuable arranging skills to the Metcalf band, and between 1946 and 1949 he arranged many of the band's songs in the complex bebop style.
In 1950 Herb Johnson recorded Wilk's Bop with Wilkie Wilkinson and His Boptet. It was the first bebop recording in Canada.
In the 1940s he wrote a regular column on the Montreal music scene for The Music Dial, a Black-owned and operated monthly magazine published in New York which covered music, theatre, and the arts.
A musicians' union member since 1922, in Montreal in the late 1930s Herb Johnson was vice-president of the Canadian Coloured Clef Club, the local association of Black musicians. It was absorbed in the period 1939-1943 by the Musicians' Guild of Montreal, which was Local 406 [Montreal] of the American Federation of Musicians; Herb Johnson was apparently the Guild's first black member. He worked with the Guild's Brotherhood Committee, which provided assistance for musicians with medical and other problems, and he worked with the union's Election Committee.
He led the founding of the Senior Musicians Association of the Guild in Montreal in the mid-1970s, and served as its senior director. In 1976 he founded the Senior Musicians Orchestra. It was active, under his administrative and artistic leadership, until at least 1987. Herb Johnson was active in securing grants and engagements for the Senior Musicians Orchestra and he actively promoted it.