Johnston, James (1903–91), tenor, was born 13 August 1903 at 74 York Road, Belfast, where his father owned a butcher's shop. He was the third child and the first son among seven children of Thomas Johnston and his wife Margaret (née Chapman). The children all attended Duncairn Gardens methodist church school, and James sang in the choir of Jennymount methodist church. At the age of 14 he won the first of many feis competitions as a baritone. It was the adjudicator at Ballymena feis in 1921 who denied him the prize in the baritone class, declaring that he was a tenor, and a baritonal foundation remained a feature of the timbre of James Johnston's voice as an established tenor. The adjudicator also said he deserved to be sent to Italy to train; but when someone offered, his father put his foot down – ‘no son of mine is going on the stage, it's a sure way to hell’ (interview with Roy Johnston, Radio Ulster, 1984). He followed his father's trade and opened a butcher's shop of his own, and in the years between the two world wars became a well known and popular singer in Ireland, both in concerts and in oratorio. Largely self-taught in the beginning, he had the benefit in the 1930s of the advice of John Vine, who worked on refinements but left the natural voice alone. Shortly after the second world war began and established soloists from Britain became unavailable, Col. Liam O'Kelly heard him sing in Edward German's ‘Merrie England’ in Derry and offered him the tenor lead in a proposed ‘Faust’ with the Dublin Operatic Society. Opera was new to him, but on the advice of John Vine he agreed, stipulating ‘Rigoletto’ (the only opera he had seen), and it was as the duke in ‘Rigoletto’ that he made his operatic debut in the Gaiety in Dublin in November 1940 at the age of 37; the conductor was Edward Godfrey Brown (qv), who had encouraged him as an oratorio singer in Belfast. Five months later he returned to Dublin to sing the title role for O'Kelly in ‘Faust’. On the foundation of the Dublin Grand Opera Society, he was offered the role of Alfredo in ‘La Traviata’ on its opening night in May 1941. He had taken to opera, and opera audiences to him; by the end of 1944 he had more than sixty successful performances in several roles behind him, sung in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, and Limerick. Also, on 13 April 1942, on the 200th anniversary of the first performance of Handel's ‘Messiah’ in Dublin, he had sung the tenor solos with Malcolm Sargent as conductor.
In the winter of 1944–5 Tyrone Guthrie (qv) recruited him to sing professionally at Sadlers Wells in London. He made his debut as Rodolfo in ‘La Bohème’ (January 1946), and over succeeding seasons extended his repertoire as a leading tenor, notably in the first British performances of Verdi's ‘Simon Boccanegra’ (1948). In 1949, after a performance of ‘La Traviata’ with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at Covent Garden, he was offered a place in the company there. His first appearance at Covent Garden was in the first performance of a new opera by Arthur Bliss, ‘The Olympians’, with libretto by J. B. Priestley. His capacity for hard work stood him in good stead: he became well known as a leading tenor at Covent Garden and also in the provincial towns on tour; he appeared frequently as a guest at Sadlers Wells; and on his frequent visits to Belfast and Dublin he continued to sing not only in opera but at concerts large and small and in oratorio, held in as great affection as ever and with a new respect.
In 1958, at the height of his powers at Covent Garden, and for no other reason than that he himself reckoned the time had come, he tendered his resignation, sang at Covent Garden for the last time in July in ‘Carmen’, and came home to Belfast and his three butchers' shops. It was the characteristic action of a self-critical artist. He left golden opinions behind him. According to Harold Rosenthal, ‘he sang Italian roles with a ringing tone and an intensity rare among British singers’ (New Grove (1980 ed.), ix, 685). Another authority said he was a tenor ‘to whom post-war British opera owed a great deal’ (Lord Harewood in Alan Blyth, Opera on record (1979–84), i, 255). On his native ground he remained in constant demand and for many years sang in concerts, his name on the programme guaranteeing a full house. He died at home at Mountpleasant Avenue, Jordanstown, Co. Antrim, on 16 October 1991, survived by his wife Margaret, his two sons, and his daughter.
With so great a natural talent, an early period of training in Italy could not have failed to give him the cachet and metropolitan patronage to confirm him in the opera houses of Europe and America as a genuine tenore robusto. His entry on the operatic scene, when it came, showed a capacity to cope with its demands at the highest level, but it came too late. Like his elder contemporary and friend John McCormack (qv) he had the common touch and was remembered with affection into the twenty-first century. And as with McCormack, the unforgiving microphone, whether in broadcasting studio or commercial recording, has failed to expose any faults in his technique.