June 19 – ALBANY – Most college-age musicians travel to other countries in search of the big three: sex, drugs and to earn their stripes in rock and roll.
Joel Johnson is an anomaly, an outlier. In a roundabout way, he took the opportunity to tour Europe with a musical theater troupe as a way to find, among all things, a passion for teaching he never imagined he would have.
It was these two passions in Johnson’s life – teaching and music – that brought him, at his own expense, it should be noted, to South Africa to play music and lecture on the college campuses as part of its “2022 International Music Industry Hip-Hop and American Popular Music Academic Lecture/Performance Series.
“I wanted it to be more than music, more than teaching, more of a mission,” said Johnson, an associate professor of music industry and modern strings at Albany State University, before to go to Orlando and finally fly to South Africa. . “I was like, ‘Why not take my skills where they’ll get me?’ I could afford to travel and had made connections with teachers all over the world.
“I decided to see if I could use my networking contacts, many of which I had while traveling with (former JB – James Brown’s support group) Fred Wesley and the New JBs. I emailed and got a few bites I thought it would be a great opportunity personally but also thought such a trip could build a relationship between Albany State and institutions in Africa.”
Quite a bit of diplomacy from ASU from a guy who, until 2011, had never even heard of the Southwest Georgia institution.
“I was planning on going back to (alma mater) South Carolina State (college) to teach, but as a single dad I wanted to talk to my son and see how he felt about the move,” Johnson said. “We were in Tallahassee, Florida, (Johnson was assistant band director at Florida State University) for several years, and he said, ‘Dad, this is my senior year. Is there a place where you could work so I can finish high school with my friends? »
“I didn’t want to uproot it, so I started asking questions. A friend of mine was like, ‘Have you thought about Albany State University?’ and I said, ‘Who?’ But I popped up on campus out of the blue hoping to get 5 minutes with the dean, and ended up staying for a 45 minute chat By the time I left they had created me a job and offered me a job.
Johnson taught himself music at an early age, developing an odd ear that led his parents to buy him his first guitar, a plastic Toys R Us special he kept asking for. (“I think they gave in just to shut me up, but I loved that guitar. I still have it today, with the original strings,” Johnson said.) At 13, he was educated on the ins and outs of music by no one. other than Bill Pinkney, the last surviving member of the Drifters.
He played in every garage band and pickup band in the Orlando area, wowing his peers with his versions of Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery and George Benson acts. But, unlike most young guitarists with even a little accomplishment, Johnson never set out to make music for a living.
“In a weird way, I never thought I would be good enough to play professionally,” he said. “I never wanted to be anyone’s ‘next George Benson’. I just wanted to be my best self.”
Johnson was planning to attend Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, but a chance encounter with a jazz band from South Carolina State, where his parents met, despite neither having attended college, the led to a place where he would develop what he called a “love-hate relationship with higher education.”
“There was this constant pushing and pulling,” Johnson said. “I was learning new things – and learning what the things I was doing were called – but a lot of my teachers had an elitist attitude about music. They had never toured; they didn’t know what ‘it would take to make an album. It was more of an attitude of, ‘I’m a scholar of Beethoven, and I don’t see any significance in James Brown.'”
When Johnson graduated, he went on a tour that took him to Scotland, where he quickly learned there was no money to be made.
“I didn’t go looking for girls, and that’s what most people were there for,” he said. “I wanted to hear new music and figure out how to play it. I didn’t care about the spotlight, I wanted to get paid.”
When he had had enough of the routine, Johnson called his mother and told her he wanted to go home. She sent him enough money for a plane ticket, and when he returned he ran into an old professor who was in charge of the music program at Norfolk State in Virginia. When Johnson mentioned his interest in working on a higher degree in college, his professor called the Norfolk State Dean. Later he called Johnson and said, “Call this number.”
Johnson said he had a “completely honest” conversation with the dean who, after learning of his interest in completing an advanced degree in music, told him: “We want you.” When he admitted he didn’t even have money for the application fee, the dean told him, “Young man, all you have to do is get here.
To pay for his tuition, Johnson became a graduate teaching assistant, and one day out of the blue, an a-ha moment hit him full force.
“I had a student who was around my age who, when I talked about the reality of the music industry, was like, ‘That stuff is not in the book.'” , he said. “It took me about three weeks after realizing that I had something to offer that most teachers didn’t – an opportunity to discuss things that I really love about the music industry – that I realized, ‘It feels like home.'”
Johnson has since split his time between teaching and performing, spending a lot of time with Fred Wesley and the New JBs and with Cody Chesnutt, formerly with the Roots.
Today he visits South Africa and lectures at Rhodes University, Durban Music School, University of Kwazulu Natal and the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg.
“I’ve been doing this stuff in one form or another since 2003,” Johnson said. “I could see it becoming a program that we could do with other musicians…traveling and presenting class workshops as well as performances. Right now, I’m just going to take advantage and make the most of this opportunity.”