When soul singers are kings

by Jordan Green

Jeremy Johnson enthralls the crowd with a little help from bassistCedrick Gamble and backup vocalist Faithe Harrington. (photos by JesseKiser)

The musicians and female backup singers have taken positions onstage in statuesque postures as the crowd jostles at the Greene Street club on a recent Thursday morning, just after midnight. The comedian assigned to emcee the show is going a little long. Jeremy Johnson, the thirty-something former Guilford County public school teacher responsible for all this, lurks in the shadows under the archway leading to the dance floor.

The dancers stand in a huddle nearby and one of them, a shirtless young man, begins to chant, “Jeremy, bumbaye! Jeremy, bumbaye!” Of course, he’s evoking the adulatory throngs of Zairians that greeted Muhammad Ali’s welcoming parade before the boxer’s legendary 1974 bout with George Foreman that was immortalized as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” The comedian takes up the chant, “Jeremy, Jeremy,” and the dancers make their way to the floor. The rapper Mr. Rozzi takes the microphone in a Darth Vader facemask and exhorts the audience: “I want you to scream as loud as you can.” In Greensboro, North Carolina, USA in the year 2008 there is no rival to Jeremy Johnson in the realm of sexy, soulful, funky male vocalists. The showmanship, the pageantry, the attention to every visual detail and piece of stagecraft, the entourage — a family? an organization? certainly a moveable party — all reference and draw energy from the simple bundle of sinew and spirit that gives and needs in the person of Jeremy Johnson. He’s drawn on friendships, favors and trades, and paid some nominal fees where needed to pull off the event; it’s perhaps the most elaborate CD release party this hall has ever seen. When Solcetfre Project, a band that Johnson performs with periodically, feted its CD release last year, they augmented the show with dancers. There are dancers here tonight, but also a poet, a comedian, B boys, stylists, minders and gophers. The moment at hand, a celebration of Johnson’s debut CD, Open, was set somewhat arbitrarily in that it was the date promoter Joe Ferguson had available, but it drew a point on a process that had reached its inevitable conclusion. The album’s subtitle and a phrase frequently employed in conversation by Johnson, “Ten years in the making,” encompasses a time frame reaching beyond the artist’s relocation from Durham to Greensboro in 2005 to pursue his music career and his recent resignation from Guilford County Schools to take up the quest full time. Comparisons to other artists are inevitable: James Brown, whose role Johnson performs in the tribute side-project the Soul Brothers Band, though without the Godfather’s meanness; Luther Vandross, though more explosive than the reserved R&B balladeer; Stevie Wonder in his broad engagement with social concerns; and Prince, in his eccentricity and androgyny. In performance, he reaches for the high notes and wrings the last bit of emotion out of each phrase. He celebrates desire, and flirts with backup vocalists and audience members. He whirls and points. “I strive to be an honest person, I strive to be a fair person, I strive to be a fun person, and I strive to bring all those together both onstage and offstage,” he says in a back room behind the band lounge that is littered withconcrete mix and two-by-fours as one of the backup vocalists preens infront of a full-length mirror. “I think my fans have embraced that.”The band lounge itself is peopled with women in various stages ofundress, musicians, music entrepreneurs in charge of various detailssuch as marketing, talent scouting and security, dancers and vocalists;a mood of easygoing camaraderie prevails. Later, in anotherside room, Johnson sits under a crimping iron wielded by stylist QueenaMcKee, as a crowd of ebullient well-wishers gathers around. Anotherstylist Janitia Wilson, appears, and swoops down to bestow a kiss onJohnson’s cheek. “Plant it on me, mama,” the singer says, andthen gushes: “I have excellent muses.” He adds: “I’ve got some guymuses too. I don’t discriminate, as long as it’s positive.” Hedispenses these quips like tossed-off jewels. “The fresher I look thehotter my energy can be onstage,” he says. Tiffany Monta’ez, one of thedancers, appears in the doorway in a black mini-dress, and Johnsonleaps up to pose for a photo with her. “You want to put a leg up?” heasks, and she smiles compliantly as he reaches a hand under her knee.“I love Jeremy Johnson,” the singer squeals, in imitation of a girlishfan. He disappears to get dressed, and then returns unexpectedly cladonly in red shorts. Vocalist Jessica Aiken drapes herself overhis shoulder and Johnson summons the photographer again: “Put this inthe porn section for me.” He pulls on a Banana Republic shirt and bluejeans, a Macy’s vest and Italian Aldo boots. As VanessaFerguson, also a member of Solcetfre Project, and Mr. Rozzi performsolo sets upstairs, Johnson attends to dozens of details down in theband lounge. He rehearses with the four backup vocalists. “Five,six, seven — mmmmm,” he begins. “You should be on the cover of amagazine. You’re such a beauty queen and I’m just an average guy.” Hecounsels the vocalists: “I don’t care about the words you don’t know.More so just give me the right spirit. If you look concerned, you’regonna give it away. If you look like, ‘I’m sexy, you’re sexy, I want tohmmm mmm….” He confers with Yusef Courts, gesturing towards hissunglasses, and previews a part of the stage act. “Yusef, I’m going totake these off,” Johnson says. “I want them to come back.” “You looksharp,” Courts says. He asks if anyone knows if William Trice, anothervocalist in Solcetfre Project, is upstairs. “I’m going to call himonstage for my last song,” Johnson says. “He doesn’t even know it.”McKee appears with a toothbrush and tube of paste. Johnson lapses intoone of his alter egos, a fallen preacher known as Pastah Pickem Up,declaiming, “Let yo ass be patient.” “I grew up religious, soin my music you hear a lot of religion,” Johnson exclaims with amouthful of toothpaste. “I think I’ve moved beyond that to a morespiritual realm. You’ll hear me pray and you’ll hear me curse. Itspeaks of truth and honesty.” Johnson and McKee exchange ideasfor a song about lips, he rehearses with the backup vocalists some moreand then gathers the entourage together for a prayer cum-pep talk. “Ify’all are down for the ride we can really ride,” he says, and thenconcludes, “Ladies, gentleman, it’s almost our time.” Monta’ez summonsthe dancers, and Johnson and the vocalists trek upstairs in a separategroup. The singer peers into the anteroom, where brother Zaron isworking the door. Their mother, a little woman in a blue dress namedEarline, is in the audience tonight, and later Zaron will place bothhands on her shoulders and slowly walk her to the vicinity of thestage. Now, Rozzi is performing his song “I Love Miself,” and Johnsonretreats with the vocalists back into the stairwell. The girlsdance in a line in front of the mirror, and Johnson twirls before them.Ferguson appears in a yellow shirt and jeans, and executes a couplesteps in front of them, too. Then Ferguson’s mother hugs Johnson andher face lights up in a warm smile. “Hey, next time you do something, let me know,” she says. “I’ll make you some curry chicken, some ’tato salad. Something, okay?”