Classic R&B, Swing, Blues, Jazz, Classic Rock, New Orleans
THE HM JOHNSON BAND On the record with the frontmen of Hampton Roads’ own musical trio
by Candance Moore
When Carlton Lillard and Henry M. Johnson sit for a chat on an autumn evening, they don’t seem to be the masterminds behind a popular live band. Dressed like straight-laced businessmen and decrying the culture of ego in modern music, they are the opposite of stereotypical rockers.
Then they start talking about what music means to them, and they come to life in an instant. They both recall falling in love with music at a young age, buying albums from the legends to memorize the riffs and auditioning for bands before they were even old enough to graduate.
"The great thing about music is how it keeps a part of us young forever," Henry remarks. "No matter how many years have passed, when I sit down to jam with a friend, it holds the same energy as when we were teenagers. Playing on stage is still as exciting for me as it was in the beginning."
Bass player Carlton Lillard, left, with drummer Juju and guitarist Henry M. Johnson
Henry was an introverted kid from Virginia’s Eastern Shore who liked to ham it up at times. He was drawn to the soulful sounds of the blues scene. His earliest influences were Bill Doggett, Chuck Berry and The Beatles. At 15, he started listening to B.B. King and Albert King. But, it Wes Montgomery who fueled his love for jazz guitar, along with other greats like Grant Green, early George Benson, Hank Garland and Pat Martino.
Carlton grew up in Portsmouth with a musical family going back to the riverboat era. He started on a viola in school – then it didn’t take long for him to realize a bass was a cooler way to tickle strings. He spent days at home, alone in his bedroom, learning how to play by any kind of music he could get his hands on.
The youngest of four boys, everyone had their own music," Carlton recalls. "My dad was a sax player, so he loved early jazz. Mom liked country and gospel. My brothers would bring home the new Motown stuff. I had a cousin in a band, so I would sit in their garage and watch them play. Eventually I learned how to bring the different styles into something I could call my own."
Carlton found himself joining a band at age 16. As a high school student just old enough to drive, he traveled to venues that would intimidate even adults.
Meanwhile, across the bay, Henry was busy making music of his own. He’d gotten his first taste playing with a band called The Terrible Termites when he was only 13. Through the years, whether with other bands in Hampton Roads or going solo, he opened for or played with big name acts from Boston to Ft. Lauderdale including The O’Jays, BB King, Delbert McClinton, Tom Browne, and most recently with legendary saxophonist Eddie Shaw.
He also performed the soundtrack for a CBS Film production, played in the house band at CBN and worked on countless other projects. Young people started asking for lessons. By the early 90s, he’d put out two albums, Feel It and Everybody Wants Control of You, which got nationwide recognition and radio play with national blues publication reviews. He went on to mentor countless young players.
"We look forward to seeing each other at every gig, and we have a laugh every night. Not many bands can say that after almost 20 years together."
— Carlton Lillard
Then a moment in 1994 changed everything. Henry made a tough decision to part with The Rhythm Kings, a band he loved. He had a vision for building a trio, a low-key and no-frills outfit, to play the kind of music he really wanted: the intersection of jazz and blues with affection for both and preference for neither. A friend referred him to a talented bass player named Carlton Lillard.
"The first time I called, he didn’t sound one bit interested," Henry says with a laugh. "So I left him alone for a bit."
He booked a gig for a Christmas party at Moe’s Music with a trio cobbled together. Then at the last minute, his partners couldn’t make it. Against all odds, he called Carlton for a second chance. Although not terribly enthused, Carlton agreed to play the gig.
They met at Moe’s with drummer Mike Williams. Having never met in person before, and with mere minutes before going on stage, they built an impromptu play set by calling out song titles everyone knew. That’s when Carlton learned he was expected to sing.
"I couldn’t believe I found myself there with Henry M. Johnson and he was expecting me to sing for him," Carlton says. "Henry was so well known in the Hampton Roads music community. That audition truly made me nervous."
Carlton sang a bit backstage. Henry instantly said yes.
"He sings ten times better than I do," Henry remarks. "When we met in that room and had that meeting, I knew I wanted to work with him."
They took to the stage with little more than enthusiasm and a tentative plan. Something magical happened that night, and the crowd responded with approval. The HM Johnson Band was officially formed, and this Christmas marks its 19th anniversary at Moe’s. From Steely Dan to Johnny Cash to James Brown and Bruno Mars, this trio lacks nothing in musical variety. It recently played the launch party for The StoryBook of Chesapeake to an impressed crowd.
"We never set out to be the next anybody else," Henry notes. "We wanted to be really good at being the HM Johnson Band."
Carlton and Henry have fronted the band since the start, with Juju serving as their primary drummer. They achieved the dream of a bluesy-jazzy sound weaved through songs from every genre. This unique approach has earned them fans across Hampton Roads and opened doors to perform at prestigious venues.
"It works because we cultivate an environment of respect and freedom," Henry comments. "We trust each other. We’re allowed to be ourselves on stage, and that is an absolute blessing. This whole thing has worked out amazingly well."
Carlton says he’s stuck around for so many years because of that artistic freedom. "There’s no room for pressure or ego or unrealistic expectations for us. We look forward to seeing each other at every gig, and we have a laugh every night. Not many bands can say that after almost 20 years together."
Yet through it all, they’ve remained the same unassuming men, shying away from self-promotion as they’d rather let the music speak for itself. They easily transition from playing at a major festival to headlining at a small business party.
Both of them serve on music teams at church. Henry has a YouTube channel which highlights guitar demos, videos of the band, cuts from past recordings and other musicians on collaborating projects.
Carlton keeps his day job at the Army Corps of Engineers. He and his wife Phyllis founded Rosetta Learning Center in Greenbrier to help young people learn math. It’s not what a professional bass player is expected to do, but it makes perfect sense to Carlton.
"For young people looking to follow in our footsteps, value your education," Carlton offers. "Have a realistic attitude with lots of patience, and work hard to nurture your talents. Take advantage of age-appropriate open mic opportunities. That gets young performers comfortable performing on stage and also helps to meet the local music community: those connections could be helpful in the future. If you are serious, you need the help of a good attorney or music management company. Take the advice that you’re given: praise is good but criticism is better."
Henry nods in agreement. "If a young person wants to make it in music, first they need to do their homework and eat their spinach. If they stay committed to their true self, with some hard work, they’ll end up happier in the long run."
As The HM Johnson Band gears up for its 20th anniversary in 2014, with a quickly-filling schedule and ever-growing fan base, it would certainly seem these two speak wise words on how to find success.
The HM Johnson Band 757-635-0273 http://www.hmjb.htmlplanet.com