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    ‘I tried to capture the spirit of Army Aviation, but instead it captured me’: Fort Novosel honors "Above the Best" songwriter

    USAACE honors Jo Johnston

    Photo By Kelly Morris | Family members of the late Jo Kirkland Johnston, who composed the Aviation branch...... read more read more



    Story by Kelly Morris    

    U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence

    FORT NOVOSEL, Ala. — The U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence honored the late Jo Kirkland Johnston, who wrote the lyrics and music of the Army Aviation branch song, “Above the Best,” by dedicating a new exhibit at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum at Fort Novosel, Ala., May 16, 2024.

    The new exhibit includes original sheet music for the “Above the Best” song and Johnston’s notes, the original studio recording of the song, along with a newspaper clipping and photographs.

    Ceremony host Maj. Gen. Michael C. McCurry, U.S. Army Aviation branch chief, welcomed attendees, including Johnston’s family members.

    “It is especially appropriate that we are here to celebrate Mrs. Johnston, because less than three hours ago, right here, we held a flight school graduation in this exact spot, and as those brand new silver wing wearers left to join their tactical aviation units, the last thing they did was sing her song,” McCurry said.

    Jo Kirkland Johnston was a native of Ozark, graduated from Bob Jones University in South Carolina, and studied piano at Birmingham Southern College where she was graduated with honors for her musical excellence, McCurry said.

    Among her more than 100 compositions were the songs for two other military branches: “Essayons” that was written for the Army Corps of Engineers; and “Dragon Soldiers,” written for the Army Chemical Corps.

    She collaborated on multiple musicals with her daughter Linda Thompson, founded a publishing company, served as president for a recording company, and saw her work make it to the Billboard Top 100, he explained. She is featured among other local talent in a Dale County music and theater themed mural, commissioned by the Ozark Mural Program.

    Though there were previous attempts at Aviation songs going back to World War II, none were officially adopted, McCurry said.

    “With the establishment of Army Aviation as a separate branch of the combat arms in 1983, the search for a branch song began in earnest,” McCurry said.

    In 1987, Judy Parker, wife of retired Lt. Gen. Ellis D. Parker, who served as the Aviation branch chief at the time, mentioned to others at a social function about her desire to find an official branch song. Upon hearing this, Florence Matthews, a longtime friend of Johnston, reached out to her, “and the rest is history,” McCurry said.

    Parker had said the song “should serve to instill pride, dedication, loyalty and a sense of history in those affiliated with the branch, including their families,” McCurry explained. “Mrs. Johnston was able to combine the history, the tradition, and convey the sacred trust of the aviation branch in the lyrics and the music which captured the essence of Army aviation and aviators.”

    Johnston later wrote in a letter to Parker, “I tried to capture the spirit of Army aviation, but instead it captured me.”

    McCurry said Johnston, who passed away last year, “lives on in the hearts and minds of every qualified and aspiring Army aviator. Every time we sing her song we know she is listening and watching, and keeping us Above the Best.”

    Johnston’s four children, David Johnston, Carole Johnston, Linda Thompson and Laura Etheredge, joined McCurry for the official unveiling of the exhibit honoring their mother.

    Bob Mitchell, U.S. Army Aviation Museum director, said the “Above the Best” song exhibit will be located be near the stage. The song plays at least three times per week in the Museum at graduation ceremonies for flight school and Advanced Individual Training, as well as other events.

    Mitchell noted that because Johnston was originally from the local area, it makes the exhibit even more special.

    “Many thanks to the family for providing details about her work and her life,” Mitchell said.

    McCurry presented a certificate of appreciation to the family to show gratitude for the “exceptional support to Soldiers and families in the U.S. Army Aviation community.”

    David Johnston, speaking on behalf of the family, said his late mother would have loved the opportunity to celebrate Army Aviation.

    “This is a wonderful day, a blessed day to honor our mother Jo Kirkland Johnston, in such an impressive setting as the Army Aviation Museum,” he said.

    He thanked Aviation leaders and the Museum, and commended his sisters for their efforts to ensure their parents, who were married nearly 75 years, had a high quality of life.

    During World War II, his mother’s family provided housing for Camp Rucker Soldiers in an apartment above a separate garage, he said.

    At a young age Johnston showed great talent as a pianist, earning a music scholarship. She had perfect pitch; upon hearing a song she could recognize the key. She also had an ear for music.

    “She could hear a song, and she could sit down and play it without any sheet music — and I mean really play it, embellish on it, and keep rolling. She was incredible. It was innate with her,” he said.

    In the 1960s she began writing her own music, and her first song made the Billboard Top 100, he added.

    Other songs were recorded, including by the Anita Kerr Singers, he said.

    In 1970, after experiencing the loss of her oldest son, who was a talented guitarist, she stopped writing for a while, he explained.

    In 1987, she accepted the task to compose the Aviation branch song. While conducting research she spent time among leaders, Soldiers, and historians to learn more about the essence of Army aviation and its people.

    “I can tell you she loved every minute of this great adventure,” he said. “She even got to ride on one of the helicopters, she told us. She loved that.”

    Army Aviation’s spirit not only captured her, “it captured all of us,” David said.

    The song was played publicly for the first time at the Independence Day celebration at then-Fort Rucker in 1987, and formally recognized as the official Aviation branch song on July 29 that same year.

    Of the many awards she received in her lifetime, the Army awards meant the most to her, David said. She received the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Award, the Commander’s Award for Public Service, and she was inducted into the Honorable Order of St. Michael (Silver Award).

    “Hearing the words of the song being sung by the men and women at Fort Novosel always thrilled her. Knowing that everyone that serves in Army Aviation learns and sings the song truly humbled her,” he said.

    “If our mother, Jo Johnston was physically present with us today, she would tell each of you that it is the men and women of Army Aviation that are truly ‘above the best’, and not her. Our mother loved our country, and she especially appreciated the men and women in uniform and their commitment to protect all of us and our freedom,” he said.

    David said the family was grateful to see his mother honored for “her God-given, amazing talents as a pianist and songwriter.” He thanked her, and their late father, Dr. Furnie Johnston, for the Christian love they instilled in their children and grandchildren.

    “Mother, we miss you and we love you so much. Thank you for all the music you brought into our lives and others throughout so many years, … and we especially thank you, Army Aviation, for this very special dedication to our beloved mother,” he said.

    To close the ceremony, the “Above the Best” song played over the speakers, and the lyrics were displayed on screen, as the crowd sang along.



    Date Taken: 05.17.2024
    Date Posted: 05.17.2024 18:24
    Story ID: 471583

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