Born in 1936 in New Orleans Johnson was raised in Tremé, where he attended Craig School and Clark High School. He played trombone before switching to drums at age 12. Around age 17 he began playing in local dance clubs.
Johnson served as the drummer for Fats Domino in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1961, Johnson and Wardell Quezergue worked together on the session for Earl King's proto-funk classic, "Trick Bag", produced by Dave Bartholomew. Soon after, Johnson went with Quezergue and childhood friend Joe Jones, and several other New Orleans artists (including Johnny Adams and Earl King) to audition for Motown in Detroit, where they recorded numerous demo sessions. Earl King once remarked that at least part of the reason why they got in the door was Motown's fascination with Smokey Johnson, who could do more on a trap set by himself than any two of the label's session drummers. Although Motown ended up not signing any of the New Orleans artists, Johnson offered to remain on staff while the other New Orleans artists were dispatched. Johnson remained in Detroit for several months before deciding to return home; but his influence on the Motown sound was profound, as the other drummers studied his techniques, incorporating them into countless hit sessions.
In 1963 and 1964, Dave Bartholomew enlisted Johnson for his last two Imperial big band albums, giving Johnson the spotlight on the tune, "Portrait Of A Drummer", from New Orleans House Party. In 1964, about a year after Nola Records was formed in New Orleans, Quezergue, a partner in the label as well as principal producer/arranger, invited Johnson to be the drummer for label's house band. After a few months, Johnson and Quezergue wound up writing and recording what has become a New Orleans Mardi Gras standard called "It Ain't My Fault". Deftly arranged, "It Ain't My Fault" is a fascinating early example of both Johnson and Quezergue incorporating Second Line syncopation into pop music. The arranger's device of starting off with just the drummer's relaxed but intricate percussive work (plus somebody hitting what sounds like a glass bottle) quickly pulls the listener into the song, even before the simple musical hook, played by just the guitar and piano. George Davis runs the guitar riffs on the first side with that recognizable style made famous several years later on Robert Parker's "Barefootin'".
While the lighthearted, hard to resist "It Ain't My Fault" was enjoyed locally in New Orleans, it did not have a national impact at the time; however, it set the stage for many more uniquely funked up grooves to follow, and over time has become a Mardi Gras favorite and a part of the brass band repertoire. "It Ain't My Fault", which sometimes is called "No, It Ain't My Fault" was recorded by groups such as the Olympia Brass Band (formerly Dejean's Olympia Brass Band) (seven times), the Rebirth Brass Band, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Charmaine Neville, Milton Batiste, Shane Theriot (guitarist for the Neville Brothers), the Young Olympians, the Ambrosia Brass Band, David Roe, Cole Prior Stevens and the Zydeco All-Stars.
Johnson stopped playing drums after suffering a stroke in 1993. He was forced to leave his home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. Before his death he was a resident of Musicians' Village in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
In 1998, Vyshon Miller p/k/a Silkk the Shocker, the brother of Percy "Master P" Miller recorded a rap version of the song "It Ain't My Fault", which was released on the album Charge it 2 da Game. Based on the success of his version, in 1999, Silkk the Shocker recorded yet another rap version of the song, this time featuring the rap artist Mystikal (Michael Tyler), which appeared on the album Made Mann. These versions of the song showed up on more than 40 different albums, prompting Johnson and Quezergue to hire Packard Phillips of the law firm Eveline, Davis and Phillips to sue Silkk the Shocker and his record label, No Limit. At the same time, Johnson and Quezergue sued Joe Jones, who claimed that Johnson assigned the song to Jones, as well as Aaron Fuchs' Tuff City Records, which claimed that both Johnson and Quezergue assigned the song to Tuff City. Tuff City responded to the lawsuit by hiring its own intellectual property attorney, Oren Warshavsky. Despite the fact that Johnson did not have a written agreement with Tuff City, Warshavsky successfully convinced the court that Johnson and Quezergue assigned the song to Tuff City, and then convinced the Court to dismiss the claims by Johnson and Quezergue against Tuff City. Thereafter, Warshavsky also had the Court dismiss the claims against Silkk the Shocker. Finally, then working on behalf of Tuff City, Wardell Quezergue and Johnson, Warshavsky was able to attain summary judgment against Joe Jones and his publishing company Melder Music on the issue of copyright infringement, including an award of attorney fees.
Johnson died on October 6, 2015, after a long illness.