Singer Fred Johnson has traveled the world entertaining people in Japan, Europe, Palestine, Pakistan, Malaysia and around the U.S., but since 1977 he’s called St. Petersburg home. From 2009-2017, he was based in New York while working for a charity that promoted worldwide peace and concord, but he regularly made the “long commute” to Tampa Bay to spend time with his large family.
Since returning for good three years ago, Johnson has worked as an artist in residence and community engagement specialist at the Straz Center. Until COVID-19 shut everything down, he gigged sporadically, often in a duo with bassist Michael Ross. Not long ago, he was named interim executive director for SPIFFS, the St. Petersburg International Folk Fair Society.
Johnson is commonly known as a jazz singer, which is very true. He possesses a robust, elastic voice that can caress a standard ballad, pour liquid soul into an R&B classic like “What’s Going On,” launch into daring flights of improvisational vocalese, and swing like hell. And at age 70, his instrument has withstood the wear and tear of age. He can still hold a high note like a doe-eyed “American Idol” contestant.
Yes, Fred Johnson is a jazz singer, but his contribution to the Bay area culture cuts a far broader swath than that. Over the years, he’s been and remains an educator, mentor, social justice activist, peace advocate, arts advocate, healer and community organizer, not to mention an all-around gentleman.
Here’s a long-ago story about Fred Johnson: His close friend, a chiropractor, severely injured her back and had to be bedridden for an extended period. Fred would show up at her house unannounced, stand outside her bedroom window and sing. Johnson has led classes that can best be recalled as chant therapy. People lie on mats and follow his lead through a series of long vocal tones, each choosing their own personal sound. It’s a concept he developed, and it makes for some wild harmonies and some chilled-out folks.
In the 1980s and early ‘90s, Tampa Bay had a bustling jazz scene, with a large network of clubs and a roll-call of talented musicians. Johnson had a lot to do with it. “When Fred got here, no disrespect to the musicians who were already here, but there really was no jazz scene to speak of, for young musicians at least,” Ross says. “The scene started to multiply and he really raised the bar for the quality of the music.”
In the first half of the ‘80s, the Fred Johnson Band played a downtown St. Pete club called B.B. Joe’s. The lineup included drummer John Jenkins and bassist Mark Neuenschwander, who still live in the Bay area, keyboardist Kamau Kenyatta and, somewhat later, saxophonist Mike Scaglione, both of whom left for bigger markets and substantial careers. So did Johnson, professionally at least. He’s performed at big festivals and toured overseas, including a stint as a featured vocalist with Chick Corea’s band for a trek through Japan. He’s been a regular performer at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday.
Johnson stands about 5-foot-6 and has a stocky build, a good portion of which is probably taken up by lungs. He has an infectious smile, a shiny bald head (for decades) and, lately, a bushy white goatee. He cuts a compelling figure on stage and off.
“There’s no question that Fred has left a major mprint on the life and culture of Tampa Bay,” Ross says. “I’ve spent a lot of time with him. He has a winning personality, which really serves him well in all the things he does. He’s just an impressive guy.”
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