David Johnson' Soul Music

by Sarah Lewis

Hidden deep in Southwest Florida is a musical talent so extreme that, while watching him perform, one may think,“what the heck is he still doing here?”. The answer? David Johnson, bassist extraordinaire, enjoys that balance of a family life and being able to play locally. An accomplished musician who has performed on David Letterman, Jay Leno, and the Today Show, David Johnson fell in love long ago with the Fort Myers area, and to our good fortune, decided to stay.

David came to Fort Myers from Detroit in 1989 with the band Traction, playing six nights a week at what was then Louie’s Lounge. He is a true musician, playing keyboard, guitar, and drums, but his intense love of the bass keeps him connected to that above the rest. He studied musical theory by way of piano from the age of seven, and shortly after that began to teach himself to play bass. His immersion in the instrument was immediate and unyielding, and has led him to a career that includes both a 2000 tour with Grammy Award winning legends, the Neville Brothers, and becoming a member of the Aaron Neville Quintet.

David’s passion for music is evidenced in his performances. “I just want to make people feel about music the way that I do when I listen to it”, he says with a smile. When onstage, his energy radiates out into the crowd, whose dancing pauses only for full appreciation of the jaw-dropping solos that David slaps out on his bass. His musical inspirations run the gamut from Stevie Wonder, who he credits as not only an obviously gifted singer and musician, but an innovative songwriter and humanitarian as well, to his favorite classical musician, Ludwig von Beethoven. “ I think he was soulful”, David says.

In 2003, David released his first solo CD, Songs About You and Me, a debut album influenced by soul, R & B, and smooth jazz. He considers the album an enlightening experience, and calls it a snapshot of where he was at the time. “It gave me an opportunity to figure out where I was as a singer, as a songwriter, as a producer,” he says, “as well as a chance to document musical growth.”

Currently, he is absorbed in several major projects, including lending his playing skills and co-producing pianist/singer/songwriter Chris Workman’s upcoming CD Cakes ‘n Ale. In addition, David is hard at work on two solo CDs. The first is an album of crowd favorites that are continually requested during his shows and will be available this summer. The second consists of original instrumental pieces that he hesitates to characterize. “I don’t want to say it’s smooth jazz; I don’t want to call it fusion or just a bass album,” he says, “It’s an album of instrumental pieces that I’ve written, whatever I feel coming out.”

David’s songwriting inspiration stems from both life experiences and spontaneous insight. “It can come from having a musical idea in your head. It could be a bass line, or a drum groove, or it could be just a series of chord changes on the piano,” David says, “but the main idea in the end is that you want it to come from some sort of life experience”.

When asked about the music scene in southwest Florida, David speaks of the difficulty of making a living as a full time musician in a band. “When I first came down here, there was a bigger budget for bands and entertainment. Most places have downsized now to the point where they’re hiring solo acts or at the most trios”.

David resides in Fort Myers with his beautiful wife, Tara, and his two young daughters, Melody and Natalie. When asked if he has started passing his musical knowledge on to his children, he speaks very seriously. “They are stumbling into music”, he says. “I’m kind of backing away from it. I want them to know they can come to me about anything, and I’ll do my best to expose them to all kinds of different music, because that’s what I had as a child. I was exposed to all different types of music all the time. That was a big part of my development.”

David’s future plans? “I’m going to continue to make good music,” he says, smiling confidently. •

from the July-August 2005 issue

image by Jeff Lewis