Soul reviver uses restraint to build tension
On this day that the Lord has made Jeremy Johnson has booked a tight schedule. He tells me over the phone that he’s driving around town in a borrowed car looking for an apartment. He’ll meet me for an interview at Montego Bay at 8:30, or maybe 8:45 p.m. After that the singer plans to rehearse with the band before the nightspot fills and he performs as a featured artist at the monthly showcase hosted by Donalja James and Keith Robinson.
He shows up a little after 9 looking resplendent in a crimson suit jacket, black shirt unbuttoned to the chest, costume jewelry and pointy-toed imitation Italian shoes. The man glides across the floor, his compact and diminutive frame poised in regal carriage and his head crowned with a pronounced but neatly coiffed afro. He smiles widely and graciously extends his hand to the hosts before pulling Robinson aside.
“I’ve got to pull an all-nighter because I got to prepare for class tomorrow,” he says. “After my set I’ll probably stay for about thirty minutes and then quietly slip away.”
Robinson nods. Johnson’s juggling act is not uncommon among the artists and promoters who make things happen in the twilit back stretches of Greensboro’s hip hop, R&B and spoken-word scene. He teaches language arts to sixth graders at Lincoln Academy. His second job of writing songs, rehearsing, recording and marketing his music is just as much of a commitment.
Today marks a moment of departure for the 31-year-old singer; he’s bought a car and rented an apartment, having lived in Greensboro for a year after moving from Durham with the intention of getting out of the classroom to pursue music full time. His younger brother Zaron, a chemistry major at UNCG, urged him to take the plunge and the two have been sharing a one-bedroom apartment to cut costs.
As Johnson describes the details of his personal transition the publisher and publicist for a Research Triangle Park-based music and culture magazine enter the room and singer leaps out of his chair to embrace them.
“I’m so excited to see the beautiful queens,” he says as the women retreat to a table of their own.
“I’m grateful to obtain an apartment after living with my brother for a year,” Johnson continues. “I will be able to experience true bachelorhood.”
Which begins to explain the conundrum of Jeremy Johnson, a late-era soul reviver whose impeccable style, smooth charm, and interactions with both sexes extend beyond courtesy to attentive care. His playboyish outward appearance belies an inner spirituality and groundedness. Like the English pop singer Morrissey who made a fetish of his celibacy, Johnson conveys a sexuality that is all the more intense for its restraint and self-denial.
The way he grimaces as he leans into the microphone, wipes the sweat from his forehead with a backhand sweep that flutters down towards his hips and sets off a swivel of the torso, and above all the velvety shimmer of his voice that convulses in emotion and then stops in an instant – it all suggests the unresolved tension between romantic commitment and sexual profligacy that bedeviled Al Green before he gave it all to God.
But Jeremy Johnson’s dynamic is more complex. At the same time, the man is all candor and transparency when he explains the romantic philosophy behind his songs.
“‘Is It Over?’ encourages people to look at relationships before we get into them, to ask ourselves if we have what it takes to make it work and sustain it,” he says. “‘Where?’ is the ladies’ favorite. It asks, ‘Where is that person for me,’ whether it’s a guy looking for a girl, a guy looking for a guy, or a girl looking for a girl. From what I understand, all the females will be lining up asking me to marry them at the end of the night.”
Johnson laughs, as if to acknowledge the preposterousness of the prediction, the irony of the distance between idealized art and commonplace reality.
“I feel a little hypocritical singing it,” he adds. “I’m not looking for someone right now. I think that was written for all the brothers who are out there looking. They can pay me back when they get married.”
As James and Robinson hype the crowd and begin to bring up a succession of poets and crooners for the open mic portion of the show, Johnson slips out the door with two of his backup singers. They’ve rehearsed with the journeyman band – keyboardist Ripley, drummer Mike Mooring, bass player Matty T – who sometimes back singer Ricco Barrino. Mr. Rozzi, an artist in his own right who has recently joined Johnson’s management team, is set to performs his duties as hype man for Johnson’s set.
Johnson and the two singers, one a large man with shoulder-length dreadlocks named William Trice and the other a slender woman named Vanessa Ferguson whose glasses give her a studious look, confer over the timing and arrangement of the vocals. Then they join hands there on the sidewalk outside Montego Bay and close their eyes.
“I really pray for humility,” Johnson intones. “It’s so easy to think the energy is from me, but it’s really from you, Lord. Thank you for these brothers who are backing me tonight. Thank you for my management team, thank you for this article that’s being written about me. Give us energy, give us creativity, give us love’….”
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