Cogeco Stage - Saturday June 16, 9:30 pm
About the Artist
Molly Johnson’s voice evokes the aura of dark, smoky night clubs of a bygone era. It speaks to an emotional depth that few vocalists in any genre ever reach. Like the woman behind it, it is a voice filled with humour, joy, surprise, sassiness and, of course, love. It is also a voice that has long deserved a wider audience. The product of a white mother and a black father, Johnson’s story starts in the mid-sixties when as a young grade schooler, she and her brother, Clark Johnson, were tapped by legendary Toronto producer Ed Mirvish to appear in Porgy and Bess at the Royal Alex Theatre. In time Porgy and Bess was followed by South Pacific, Finian’s Rainbow and other now-classic musicals. The budding child star was soon enrolled in the National Ballet School as she desired to become a choreographer. Not too far from school was the Colonial Tavern where two friends of Taborah Johnson, Molly’s older sister, Shawn Jackson and Dominic Troiano (later of James Gang and the Guess Who), routinely held court, playing set after set of R&B fuelled by a number of songs that Jackson and Troiano had written.
Molly was taken with the idea of writing songs and, while ballet school was cool, the future chanteuse began to think of herself as a potential songwriter. By the age of fifteen, Molly was fronting a disco band with the ignominious name Chocolate Affair. The group lasted just over a year. “I couldn’t stand singing ‘Love to Love You Baby,’” grimaces Johnson. “I wanted to perform original material.” Chocolate Affair was followed in 1979 by Alta Moda (Italian for “High Style”), a funky art rock group formed by Johnson in conjunction with Norman Orenstein that was a seminal part of Toronto’s dynamic Queen Street scene. Signed to Sony, Alta Moda released a solitary self titled album from which the single “Julian” became an FM hit. The core of Alta Moda morphed into the harder rocking Infidels who proceeded to sign with IRS, releasing an eponymously titled album in 1991 from which both “100 Watt Bulb” and “Celebrate” attained domestic hit status.
While Johnson was trying to make headway in the world of rock and roll with both Alta Moda and Infidels, she began a parallel career as a jazz singer. “I started singing the American song book because I was trying to learn how to write a melody and write a good pop tune,” explains Johnson. “There wasn’t a lot of melody in Alta Moda. It was more vibe and attitude. I thought I should go to the masters, the originators of popular music — Gershwin, Ellington and the rest of the Tin Pan Alley greats.” By 1992, IRS Records had unfortunately lost interest in the Infidels. Despondent over her second record deal gone bad, Johnson turned her substantial energies to mounting a star-laden Molly benefit concert that she dubbed Kumbaya, raising money for charities working with HIV and AIDs. “Kumbaya was in direct retaliation,” stresses Johnson with not a small bit of rancour. “I could either sit in my basement and get really bitter and grumpy and freaked out or I could open up my phone book and do that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney thing and put on a big show!” For the next four years Kumbaya was an annual event, raising over one million dollars to help battle the ravages of AIDs.
By the late 1990s Johnson had started her family and, being burned twice by record companies, was contemplating giving up on the music business. “I wasn’t really up for making another record,” she declares. “I was just burnt out. I thought there’s gotta be something else I can do.” Into the void that had become Johnson’s career stepped Toronto songwriter and producer Steve MacKinnon who suggested that Molly try and write some songs with him. The partnership proved to be fruitful and after a dozen or so songs were past the gestation stage, MacKinnon declared, “I think we have a record.” The self-titled jazz-pop CD Molly Johnson, recorded in MacKinnon’s living room and featuring a guest appearance by French jazz legend Stephan Grappelli, was issued to critical acclaim in 2000. Unfortunately, Johnson’s record company, Song Corp., went bankrupt shortly after the disc’s release, leaving Molly once again high and dry. Three years later, Johnson recorded her second jazz-pop release, Another Day, which through a series of fortuitous events led to her becoming a bonafide star in France.
Messin’ Around, Johnson’s next release, was also her first in a new relationship with yet another record label, Universal Music Canada. Recorded in fourteen days with a core band consisting of her long standing collaborators drummer Mark McLean, bassist Mike Downes, flute and saxophonist Colleen Allen, guitarist Rob Pilch and pianist Andrew Craig, Johnson opted to record her vocals “live” off the floor alongside the band, eschewing overdubs altogether. “To me that is what a good jazz record should be,” stresses Johnson. “It was all in the performance. We didn’t mess with it. We left it as it happened. My thing is with every song I should be able to stand and sing it alone with no accompaniment and it should work. That’s how I test songs to see if they hold up.” The result was an extraordinarily engaging mature pop record for a sophisticated audience as Johnson skilfully integrated her well honed melodic skills, artful Tin Pan Alley style lyrics, jazz phrasing and overall pop sensibility. A few new staples in Molly’s recording career came out of this album: An original entitled “If You Know Love”, a bossa- influenced song by Marc Jordan entitled “Let’s Waste Some Time”, a French chanson entitled “Tristes Souvenir” and Johnson’s quirky cover of Prince’s little known “Tangerine” – an ersatz hybrid of pop, funk and jazz that should get most listeners dancing around their living rooms full of unabashed joy and wonder that music can be so invigorating, fun and life affirming. Messin’ Around’s two most powerful performances, the Johnson-MacKinnon penned “Rain” and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” are harrowing in their emotional impact.
The successes of Messin’ Around led to a busy touring period for Molly, including another trip to France, a Canadian tour, and showcases in the U.S. In 2007, the end of the promotion of Messin’ Around coincided with a truly huge honour – Molly’s induction as an Officer of the Order of Canada. This rare distinction was given to Molly to recognize her philanthropic work for a variety of causes and for her international contributions to the arts.
Fast forward to fall of 2008 and Molly embarked on another career milestone – her solo debut at the venerable Massey Hall. Leading up to this concert, Molly, along with Universal Music Canada and Universal Music France released her first album of jazz standards, simply entitled Lucky. Lucky was recorded in 3 days this Summer with an all-star group of Canadian jazz musicians including pianist/saxophonist Phil Dwyer, drummers Mark McLean and Ben Riley, and bassist Mike Downs. Aside from the Johnson-MacKinnon penned title track and the Bobbie Gentry 1960’s hit “Ode to Billie Joe”, Lucky features classic jazz standards from the great American Songbook, interpreted as only Molly Johnson could. From the epic power and sadness of “Lush Life” and “I Loves You Porgy”, to the soulful renderings of Ellington classics “I Got It Bad” and “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You”, Lucky is a tour-de-force recording that sees Molly Johnson reach a new level of interpretive and artistic growth and maturity. Lucky went on to win the 2009 JUNO Award for Best Vocal Jazz Album as well as an Engineer Of The Year Award for John ‘Beetle’ Bailey. Molly also took home the 2009 National Jazz Award for Best Female Vocalist.
Molly is currently the host for the CBC Radio 2‘s weekend morning show.