Sing State

J ohnny King is a storyteller. He tells a few when we meet: how he stumbled into a job as a grip for the film industry, what he did at the shoot for his video submission to NPR’s Tiny Desk music contest, what happened when his older sister, Evelyn “Champagne” King, hit the charts with her breakout single “Shame” back in 1977.

What King wishes people understood about his music is that it’s all storytelling. “People often take… singers and songwriters at their word. Literally,” King says. “Because I’m singing it, people think that I’m talking about what I’ve done or where I’ve been, but I’m [just] telling a story.” His album All About Me, in other words, isn’t all about him. And yet, in another sense, it is. “It’s a representative of me and my art.”

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We’re talking in Studio A at West Haven’s RVP Studios. King has just handed me his shrink-wrapped CD, a physical item that feels old-school in this digital age. He knows it, and he laughs. “Actually, I’m used to having LPs, but a CD, it’ll suffice.”

There’s also a decidedly old-school sound to All About Me, a “throwback from another time,” as King’s lyrics put it. “There’s a pop sense about it, but it crosses genres,” he says, especially R&B. You can hear the influence of ’80s greats like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Al Jarreau, but King’s liner notes suggest he also aims to please a newer audience. “If you’re simply trendy or don’t have the need for a little bit of storytelling, or the patience to allow the song to unfold, then hopefully I have infused just enough of that foot and bass to hold your attention,” he writes.

A career in music hasn’t come as easily for King as it did for his older sister. He comes from what he calls, in his website bio, “music royalty.” His father, Erick King, sang with the doo-wop groups The Harptones and The Orioles. His great uncle, Avon Long, was a Broadway actor who played Sportin’ Life in the 1942 revival of Porgy and Bess. Both his parents managed musicians and musical groups. All of his 7 siblings were musically inclined, including his older brother, Deltoro, whom he calls “a great bassist.” And his sister went on from “Shame” to hit the soul, dance, R & B and pop charts again and again.

“We would be, like, making music in the living room,” King says. “I don’t care if it was a fork and a bottle, but it was always really good, and people knew that this family was musical somehow.” He learned to play the drums at the age of 10, when his mother bought him a blue sparkled drum kit. His uncle set it up for him. “I sat down at the drum set and I just started playing. And I remember him saying, ‘Man, you know how to play already!’” King recalls. By the age of 14 or 15, he was on the road, performing with local bands and eventually with bigger names including Colonel Abrams, Gwen Guthrie, Jill Jones and his sister Evelyn. Along the way, “I became a multi-instrumentalist,” says King, who has brought his guitar to play a few tunes at the studio.

These days, he performs as a lead vocalist for The Trammps with Earl Young. In its original incarnation, the group was best known for its gold single “Disco Inferno,” which appeared on the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever.

But his own music, laid track over track in his home studio, is where King’s greatest passion lies. He plays or programs every instrument and sings every vocal line. The resulting sound is intimate, the lyrics revealing a voice whose “heart was on my sleeve,” as King sings in the cut “Access.”

King admits to being a perfectionist who, with his own music at least, is happy to work alone. “I wear too many hats, and I’m learning not to,” he says, “but it’s really hard.” It’s also really expensive. Even though he has a core band, he hasn’t performed as Johnny King more than a couple of times in the past few years. The music industry is in flux, and it seems harder than ever to get a decently paying gig. Still, he says the band is “reformatting” and rehearsing the tunes from All About Me with the aim of getting out there again.

At the end of the day, making music has to be a labor of love, he says. It’s something he’s grateful to be able to do. People sometimes tell him they “used to” play an instrument. “I can’t even understand that,” King says. For him, being a musician isn’t a job or a hobby; it’s who he is.

Johnny King
(203) 936-9283 | [email protected]

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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