Charles D. Johnson: Good work is the key to good fortune
By: Jon Epstein
As a boy just beginning elementary school in Ferrum, Virginia, Charles “Chuck” D. Johnson displayed such an intense interest in music that his father, a well-known bluegrass musician in the Northern Piedmont, taught him a few chords on the guitar. By the age of 10, Johnson had all but mastered the guitar and moved on to banjo, taking up the claw hammer “Three Finger” technique and joined his father playing music and dance halls that still anchor the rural communities all over the Piedmont region of North Carolina and Virginia. By the time he had reached his late teens, Johnson had all but outgrown the insular community in Ferrum and moved to Roanoke where he quickly began to play guitar in many rock and top 40 bands before forming the band Bananas at Large, which built up a substantial following.
In the mid-1990s Johnson moved to Winston-Salem to become the assistant director of performance facilities at the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts and quickly became one of the Triad’s most sought-after guitarists. Before long, he found himself in the popular band Headbangers Ball playing, as the band name would suggest, covers of ‘80s metal tunes. It was during his tenure with Headbangers Ball that Johnson met guitarist Troy Winemiller, bassist Steve Layne and drummer Bill Schlueter and the idea for an original hard rock project, and TK-421 was born.
From the very beginning, TK-421 was fighting an uphill battle. The Piedmont music community is one that is musically conservative and heavily oriented toward tradition. Anything that strays too far from the status quo is considered suspicious at best. The continued popularity of “Beach Music” (which in every other part of the country is referred to as rhythm and blues or “Motown”) and Americana speaks volumes regarding this phenomenon. The members of TK-421 were quite aware of this but felt strongly enough about the potential of their original music to bite the bullet and record their first EP “Hollow.” Encouraged by the attention garnered by “Hollow,” TK-421 began work on their first full-length CD “Disengaged” which has been called “by far the best hard rock album ever produced in the Piedmont” by Rocklist. “Disengaged” remains TK-421’s masterpiece.
In addition to his work with TK-421, Johnson joined Triad rhythm and blues favorite Charles Green’s band on the strength of an impromptu, and now legendary, rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and Hall and Oats “Sarah Smile.” It was from Green, Johnson said, that he learned the importance of serving the song, the centrality of a groove, and the “less is often more” philosophy that informs all great rhythm and blues. Green’s importance to Johnson’s musical growth is second only to that of his father, a feeling that is expressed in sublime fashion in the song “Smile Down” on TK-421’s latest release “Thick as Thieves” in 2016.
In 2007, Johnson returned to Piedmont after several years living in Louisville, Kentucky, and commuting to gigs in Piedmont with the intention of returning to his position at the School of the Arts. Almost immediately upon his return, he received a phone call from his friend Jon Perdue to ask him if he would be willing to talk with the Grammy nominee jazz artist Najee about auditioning for a slot in his touring band as a guitarist. Never being one to turn down an opportunity, Johnson arranged to have a phone conversation with Najee, and was asked to fly to Baltimore the following week for an audition and to provide the saxophonist with examples of his work, including the TK-421 album “Disengaged.” Within several days he received a call from Najee’s management who offered him the position with his “audition” becoming his first rehearsal with the band. He has held down that role ever since.
Despite having moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in order to be closer to his wife’s family in 2015, Johnson has maintained an active presence in the Triad music community. TK-421 remains an active concern and performs several times a year around the Piedmont, in 2016 he collaborated with local hard rock band HayMarket Riot on the bands covers EP, performs solo acoustic gigs several times a year, and was introduced through a mutual friend to Greensboro jazz giants Neill Clegg Jr. and Dave Fox and became a regular guest artist at the O’Henry Hotel Jazz Series which is coordinated by Clegg’s wife Victoria. His next performance at the O’Henry will be held this Friday, May 25th, beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the Hotel Lobby.
Dr. Jon Epstein is a writer, artist, and musician living in Winston-Salem.