Johnny King Meets Tiny Desk
Johnny King is already clapping when he approaches the mic for “Still In Love.” He smiles, looks back at his wife Karen, then out beyond the stage, where we can’t see. He rocks back on one foot and approaches the mic anew. Purple and blue light soaks the band and the backup singers, and spills out onto the stage.
I remember when we first met/Sporting alligator shoes/You wore your blue dress that day, he sings, chin vibrating with the words. Everything is smooth and silky.
Sippin’ a soda at the end of the bar/Dag you looked good/I really wanted to talk to you.
The song is his first-ever submission to National Public Radio’s (NPR) Tiny Desk Contest after years of considering throwing his hat in the ring. As the 2018 contest draws to a close this month, he’s waiting eagerly for the results—not specifically to hear his name announced as the winner, but to see if the video puts him in touch with new musicians.
“My wife kicked me in the behind about promoting my album,” he said in a recent interview with The Arts Paper, held at The Arts Council’s offices on Audubon Street. “The Tiny Desk Contest was something that she thought … you can gain listenership of people who are discovering music. I want the video to put me in touch with new music lovers, or a new audience."
Born in the Bronx and raised in Philadelphia, 51-year-old King has been making music for his entire life, and playing the drums seriously since he was 10. As a kid and young adult, he spent afternoons listening to his older sister, Evelyn Champagne King, who was discovered in Philadelphia, and later played on New Haven's own WYBC. As an adult, he expanded that sibling relationship, writing, producing, and shooting a music video for her song "Dance All Nite." He also moved to New Haven, making it his home on 2008.
But for years—he pinpoints it to 1989, when he built a studio in his home to enable daily composition, jamming, and revision—he has wanted to perform more of his own work.
That's only worked once in his life, when he was young and touring constantly to make a living as an artist. But took a backseat two decades ago, after he and his ex-wife began their family—five kids, and ten grandkids—and touring “just didn’t make any sense” anymore.
Now, he's trying to get back to something closer to those days. During the day, he works as a film grip in and around New York City, where the hours can be grueling and labor-intensive. While he still tours with Earl Young and the Trammps and has hopped on tracks by his sister, he doesn’t always have the time or resources left over to do his own work.
“It’s not my music, and it’s not my own brand,” he said. “I have an outlet, but it’s not the music that I’ve written.”
Enter his choice to submit to the Tiny Desk Concerts with an rhythm and blues flavor he considered unique. The artist started his love affair with NPR years ago, when he heard the radio host Diane Rehm on the radio for the first time. Due to spasmodic dysphonia, Rehm has a signature voice—methodical and low, sometimes even gravelly. When it came booming from King’s speaker during a ride home, he was captivated.
“It was so unlike anything,” he said of her voice and accompanying interview style. “For me, it sort of harkened to a time when there was more serious journalism. Just because she sounded like an elder states person … that heightened my sense of faith in the reporting.”
From Rehm’s interviews, he discovered radio shows like All Songs Considered, which launched in 2000, and then the show’s Tiny Desk Concerts, which began 10 years ago in 2008. As he continued to write and produce his own music at home, he tuned into those programs to learn about new and often obscure artists, from states as far away as California.
He felt a kinship with them, he said—people he did not know through anything except their work, who seemed like they were just trying to make it. People who were just like him.
“NPR’s listenership is more like me—somebody who will buy an album, or buy a record than to try to rip it off,” he said. “So it made sense. ”
So earlier this year—and with a fair amount of prodding from his wife—he decided to make the jump from listener to contestant. Shrugging off the homespun, even twee quality of some of the other submissions, he rented out the theater at RVP studios in West Haven and organized his band, choosing “Still In Love” after he realized that his first choice, a song called “Throwback,” wasn’t right for the contest, because there was video of it circulating around the internet.
The track is near to his heart. King had composed the bulk of it while on the phone with his friend Odell, and could see the video unfolding in his head: brass, strings, vocals slathered smoothly on top of each other, groove-worthy as listeners picked it up for the first time.
King said that he partly chose his aesthetic to counter what he sees in a number of the videos up on the site—songs that are so focused on a grassroots appeal that they look precious and fabricated.
He’s not counting on reading his name as this year’s winner. For him, that's not entirely the point. Instead, it fits into a larger picture of what King imagines for his music.
“I would love to win,” he said. “But to be honest, I don’t think that I have a snowball’s chance in Hades. When you're a little guy like me, you count views, as one at a time. Not thousands at a time. It's pretty exciting ... it at least tells me I have some platform to get music out, to people who want to hear it. I want real R&B to have a voice again, and to be okay to be sung in its actual home, which is the United States."
"I like to think that any one of my songs can be broken down to an acoustic instrument and then appreciated," he added. "Because I appreciate all the bells and whistles, but I hope that listeners will discover a fresh twist on some old R&B. I hope that they’ll get that you’re never too old to follow your dream.”
To find out more about NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts, click here. To listen to a 2015 interview Johnny King did with Babz Rawls-Ivy, click on or download the audio above.