Longtime Las Vegas resident and singer Michelle Johnson’s first full-time local gig was at the Golden Nugget, singing in the chorus for a show called “Country Fever.” Back then, she says, Steve Wynn owned the downtown casino resort, and he was paying the performers in the show as actual casino employees, including health insurance coverage, a 401k plan and the works.
When the show closed, and Johnson performed briefly in a replacement production that didn’t last, she ended up staying on at the Nugget to work in a new counseling program serving at-risk youth. “It was my first real day job here,” says Johnson, who moved here from New York in 1995 and is regularly referred to as Las Vegas’ first lady of jazz. “I did that for a while and kept singing, and eventually my schedule picked up so I had to leave that job helping kids cope with their stress and struggles.
“I’ve always thought if I could wave a wand I’d create a center for at-risk kids using music to heal, some kind of music and therapy foundation. It certainly has been my medicine for all these years.”
Empathy and music are definitely related on some deep level that we may not fully understand. “I think so,” she says. “If you think about jazz zingers, and why there are so many that seem so sad, and why when you look into that genre there’s so much tragedy, I think it reveals a natural tie between music and healing. Everyone has some kind of monkey on their back, something they’re working through. Music has a way of evening people out. Even when you don’t speak the same language, you can connect to people through your voice when you’re singing, and that’s what I try to do.”
Johnson, who has recorded and/or shared a stage with just about everyone from Gladys Knight to Elton John to Paul McCartney, won’t have a problem connecting with her audience with her latest show at the Smith Center. She’s once again performing “Tapestry Unraveled” this week, digging deep into the iconic 1971 album by Carole King. She sang the entirety of “Tapestry” the first time last fall, her first show at the Cabaret Jazz theater “that was really my show,” she says. “I tend to produce things with a big cast of characters, like the Prince tribute we did last year. So I was a little scared the first time because it was my show and it’s about my life. It’s a combination of talking about my life and that album and the synergy of growing up with her.”
“Tapestry,” of course, contains some of the beloved singer-songwriter’s best-known hits: “I Feel the Earth Move,” “It’s Too Late,” “Home Again,” “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Natural Woman,” to name a few.
“It was the second album I owned,” says Johnson. (The first was James Taylor’s “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.”) “It resonated with me because I knew she had written the songs. My parents are both very musical and played a lot of records, but when my mom told me [Carole King] wrote these, it turned a switch inside me. I realized you don’t have to just sing songs by other people, that you can write your own stories. I also learned to play piano by ear using ‘Tapestry,’ and that’s why so many of my chord progressions sound like that album.”
Johnson, who also operates her own busy entertainment backline company called Diva Las Vegas Productions, has met many of her showbiz idols during her years touring as a background vocalist, but she hasn’t met King. “I would like to meet her and just say thank you for allowing me to pursue what I want fearlessly,” she says. “One of the things I like about Carole is she doesn’t just write about love and relationships. She takes you through different perspectives of different people. And this album is almost like a novel with different chapters, so I try to take those songs and create a theatrical show, not just a concert, but a story about love and loss and those universal themes.”
Michelle Johnson presents “Tapestry Unraveled” at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 15, in the Cabaret Jazz theater at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Find tickets and info at thesmithcenter.com.