In 2002, Stephen Johnson moved to Cleveland from Detroit leaving behind a career rich in arrangement and production for big name musicians to do something different, something of his own. “I thought I was moving to a musical ghost town. I was coming here to end my career as a musician. When I got here, it was just a surprise to see that it was a goldmine of talent,” Johnson remembers.
“I’ve worked for a lot of artists and I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all over the world, but at the end of the day when I got home, all I had was a nice resume and a check. Nobody here ever asks to see my resume, so I was like, ‘Okay, what would I accomplish playing for somebody else?’” he recalls.
It was back in the early days in Cleveland when Johnson met Alex Price, one of FunkyardX’s managers, through their connection to drummer Chris Coleman. Not everyone plans on being star struck walking into church on a Sunday morning, however for Price and Johnson, that was how a lot of early networking happened. “I remember I came to church late one day, service was starting and [Steve} was like, ‘Man, that dude plays for Alicia Keys!’ talking about Paul John, and that dude plays for Perfecting Church,” Price says.
“Pretty much every drummer, or every person in the rhythm section on a big tour, whether it’s Justin Timberlake, Drake, or Britney Spears; most of the rhythm section started in the church,” Matt Segall, tenor saxophone in the group, comments. “Let me give you just a small background on church,” Johnson elaborates. “Church is kind of like our training ground, because especially in the urban churches, they’re open to a variety of everything from traditional to rock, to R&B and soul.”
It took Johnson almost ten years to get acclimated in the Cleveland music scene and start a new chapter of The Funkyard Band that he had begun in Detroit. He decided to call the new incarnation FunkyardX or Funkyard Experiment. “It was an experiment when I put this band together. This band was a compilation of young guys who really nobody called on. That’s the way I wanted it because the guys who got a lot of calls didn’t have time to do it. In order to pull off something like the sound that we have it takes everybody contributing their time.”
In 2013 they played their first show for “The Basement”, manager Johnnie Parker’s event series orchestrated at different venues. Then, Take 5 in the Warehouse District offered the group a residency, studio, and rehearsal spot. “Before, I was the only one that had a name at the time. If you look at some of the old posters, they’ve got my picture up as ‘Steve Johnson and The Funkyard’. That’s all we had to go on, so we couldn’t get many gigs because nobody really knew us outside of my face from playing around the city.”
At that point, the group was devoid of a consistent horn section, which was organized with the assistance of Segall in 2014. “We played sporadically, had personnel changes, and eventually, they came on and now we have a band. The sound is amazing. It’s more than what I could have thought of. We kind of grew together and it came out even better than I expected,” says Johnson.
Their current line-up includes Johnson and Leon Turner on keys, Willie McMillion performing vocals and keys, Chris George playing guitar, Jeremiah Napier on bass, John “Johnny Blaze” Turner on drums, Segall on tenor sax, Richard Williams on baritone sax, Daniel Spealman on trumpet, and Lawrence Galloway on trombone. The band is comprised of musicians from not only a church background, but also classically trained jazz musicians. This past year, a stint at Tri-C Jazz Fest launched the group into another circle of diverse fans.
“With that background, I just think that strengthens or makes the whole fusion of the horn section, the jazz-trained people and the members of the church, more aware of how those two mindsets are complimentary. In church, you never had charts. They’re learning completely by ear and feel, and the spiritual aspect of the music. […] It’s a part of the secret sauce of Funkyard’s success,” says Segall who studied at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music.
“We’re a funk band, and basically what we’re trying to do is promote a brand,” says Johnson. “We take popular songs, that’s what we’ve been doing until we write our own, and we make them ours. Whether its rock, funk, old school, it doesn’t matter what it is, we’ll take it and make it our own.” So far, they have done medleys blending their own original parts with shortened versions of Michael Jackson’s “PYT” and “Thriller”, in addition to selections from Bruno Mars, Prince, and even Nirvana.
“The reason we do the funk is because the funk, it does something to ya,” Johnson flashes a smile. “It makes people get up and dance, and that’s the kind of energy that The Funkyard is. We’re the happy, good time band that makes people want to get up and dance. I think everybody loves that feeling so it crosses cultures and it exceeds where we could ever go, because music is universal and if it feels good it doesn’t matter where you at, what nationality you from, you’re going to feel it and you’re going to get up and dance.”