Albany State professor takes 'musical mission' to South Africa

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Jun. 19—ALBANY — Most college-age musicians go 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 used an opportunity to tour Europe with a musical theater troupe as a means of finding, of all things, a passion for teaching he never dreamed he had.

It's those two passions in Johnson's life — teaching and music — that led him, on his own dime, it should be noted, to South Africa to play music and present lectures at college campuses as part of his "2022 International Music Industry Hip-Hop and American Popular Music Academic Lecture/Performance Series."

"I wanted this to be more than music, more than teaching, more of a mission," Johnson, who is an associate professor of Music Industry and Modern Strings at Albany State University, said before heading to Orlando and eventually his flight to South Africa. "I said to myself, 'Why not take my skills where they'll have me?' I could afford the opportunity to travel, and I had made connections with professors around the world.

"I decided to see if I could make use of my networking contacts, many of which I made while traveling with (former JB — James Brown's backing band) Fred Wesley and the New JBs. I sent out some emails and got some bites. I thought that it would be a great opportunity personally, but I also thought such a trip might create a relationship between Albany State and institutions in Africa."

Not bad diplomacy on behalf of ASU from a guy who, until 2011, had never even heard of the southwest Georgia institution.

"I was planning to head back to (alma mater) South Carolina State (University) to teach, but as a single father, I wanted to talk with my son and see how he felt about the move," Johnson said. "We'd been in Tallahassee, Fla., (Johnson was assistant band director at Florida State University) for several years, and he said, 'Dad, this is my senior year. Is there any place you could work so that I can finish high school with my friends?'

"I didn't want to uproot him, so I started asking around. One of my friends said, 'Have you thought of Albany State University?' and I said, 'Who?' But I rode up to the campus unannounced hoping to get 5 minutes with the dean, and ended up staying for a 45-minute conversation. By the time I left, they'd created a position for me and offered me a job."

Johnson taught himself music at an early age, developing an uncanny ear that led his parents to buy him his first guitar, a plastic Toys R Us special that he begged for incessantly. ("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.) By 13 he was being schooled on the ins and outs of music by none other than Bill Pinkney, the last surviving member of the Drifters.

He played in every garage band and pickup group in the Orlando area, wowing his peers with his versions of Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery and George Benson numbers. But, unlike most young guitarists with even a bit of accomplishment, Johnson never set his sights on making music for a living.

"In a weird kind of way, I never thought I'd 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 me."

Johnson planned to attend Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, but a chance meeting with a jazz band from South Carolina State, where his parents met, although neither attended college, led him to a place where he'd develop what he called a "love-hate relationship with higher education."

"There was this constant push and pull," Johnson said. "I was learning new things — and learning what the things I'd been doing were actually called — but many of my teachers had an elitist attitude about music. They'd never toured; they didn't know what it would take to make an album. It was more an attitude of 'I'm a Beethoven scholar, and I see no significance of James Brown.'"

When Johnson graduated, he went on a tour that landed him in Scotland, where he quickly learned that there was no money to be made.

"I didn't go to pick up girls, and that was what most of the 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 tired of the routine, Johnson called his mother and told her he wanted to come 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 an interest in working on an advance degree at the college, his professor placed a call to the Norfolk State dean. Later, he called Johnson and said, "Call this number."

Johnson said he had what was a "completely honest" conversation with the dean who, after learning his interest in finishing an advanced music degree, told him, "We want you." When he admitted he had no money even for the application fee, the dean told him, "Young man, all you need 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-on.

"I had a student who was about my age, who, when I talked about the reality of the music business, said, 'This stuff is not in the book,'" he said. "It took me about three weeks after realizing that I had something to offer that most professors didn't — an opportunity to discuss things that I truly love about the music business — that it dawned on me: 'This feels like home.'"

Johnson has since split his time between teaching and performing, spending considerable time with Fred Wesley and the New JBs and with Cody Chesnutt, formerly with the Roots.

Now, he's visiting South Africa and has lectures lined up at Rhodes University, Durban Music School, the University of Kwazulu Natal and the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg.

"I've been doing this kind of thing in some form or another since 2003," Johnson said. "I could see it becoming a program we could do with other musicians ... travel and present class workshops as well as performances. Right now, I'll just enjoy and make the most of this opportunity."