Anthony Ray (“Billy”) Johnson
“To come here and learn this much music and have the camaraderie and be around the people who are so nice as we are all to each other, that’s what life’s about, that’s the world that I want to continue to see and believe in–that anyone who works hard at what they desire, they can make it.”
(Anthony has a hearty laugh that punctuates everything he says with a wonderful step back irony. Imagine this while you read his story.)
I was named after Anthony Quinn. My mother had five children. My older brother was named after my father but she named everybody else after TV stars–Elizabeth Taylor, Anthony Quinn, Gregory Peck and Craig Stevens. The oldest was my sister, then one older brother and two younger. I was right in the middle.
I was born in Passaic, New Jersey in 1951. It’s in the metropolitan area of New York/New Jersey right across the George Washington Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel, Holland Tunnel. Couldn’t ask for more. Wonderful place to grow up in. It’s a very beautiful place. It’s just the people. (laugh) I don’t know what’s worse, the New Yorkers or the New Jerseys. Great experience growing up. Educated in the Passaic school system. My parents owned their own home.
Passaic. Everyone was there. It was a multicultural environment due to the fact that the Botany 500 mills are located in my community. U S Rubber, Manhattan Rubber, Panasote. You could migrate from anywhere, from Europe, Africa, Caribbean–south, north, west–and you’d have a job by noontime. You could be fired in the morning and be working at another job by noon. They admired the fact that migrants wanted to come over and work for very little and if they proved to be good workers, they had no problems raising a family and becoming well off. Not just better off–well off. You had black communities that moved from the South that everybody in the family worked because that was the way they were raised. My father is from South Carolina, from Aiken close to the border of Georgia. My mother’s from Macon, Georgia which is also close to the South Carolina border. I have family that migrated from the Florida area. We have Cuban relatives.
Before the country was getting started the Irish, Polish, Scottish, Welsh–poor Europeans came over as indentured servants, worked in the same plantation fields as the blacks that were not indentured but were slaves. The hillbillies in Tennessee, West Virginia, Oklahoma hills–that’s a mixture of the people who didn’t want to play the American racial games and buy their platitudes. So believe it or not, you have the Indian, black and indentured servants, that’s who your hillbillies are, and those people have no recognition of that now. Those were the folks who wanted to get away from American racism and over the years they’ve become a little ignorant of what America was about and what they were about and about what they were trying to be.
And now everyone is a mixture. No matter what complexion you have. My father’s father was mulatto. My sister and one of my brothers you can see that but in me and two of the other family members we took after our mother’s complexion which is darker. She was half Indian. Her mother was Indian from the Georgia area. They were Seminole.
My father’s side are quite educated. We have a doctor, PhD, in our family and she wrote a book on our family, documentation going quite far back. My oldest brother during college did a paper on the family and he discovered where Mama’s father apparently had come in, the port in Georgia or South Carolina where he arrived. The documentation is available. We could trace our blood lines. But my father told me many years ago be careful of anyone you date that’s white because if their name is Wiley it could be your cousin. That’s how easy it could be traced. Daddy’s grandfather, the white plantation master–that was the father of his father–was very good to his father. In fact at his death he gave his father a hundred acres in Aiken, South Carolina which the family kept for many, many years. We still have a church that is the family church–Beaver Dam Baptist Church–that is in Aiken, South Carolina. We still have a graveyard of our relatives going back to the 1800s.
One of the problems that the African American has today is not being told, not being acknowledged, or not having the insight to understand your history, not having the ability to recognize what has happened.
My momma’s style was street people and I mean good street people too. Hard working people, laborers and everything else you can imagine. They are city and brilliant people. As you get older you realize that being the smartest has its true benefits but if you can live and learn how to live on the street without an education, without advanced options and opportunities, I have more respect for you being able to do that with no support, no help whatever. Two of my friends that I grew up with were in special education class so they were considered students that needed help. I watched these two human beings in my lifetime work hard to raise two children together. The mother actually spent time in a sanitarium, a crazy house. I met with them ten years ago and they were so proud. Bradley Kerney and his wife–She was a King, related to Martin Luther King in fact.–they introduced me to their two children. One was a doctor and one was a lawyer. I cried. I went back home and I said, “The two stupidest people I grew up with (laughs) produced a lawyer and a doctor.” It’s opportunity.
My father was a politician and a pastor of a good sized church in Newark, owned his own trucking business. He was a community supervisor for the city of Newark for many years–a councilperson. My mother was not educated. I think Mama had basically a 5th grade education, if that, but she was the smartest person I’ve ever known in my life.
The blackout (Editor–He’s referring to the electricity being cut off recently because of the fire danger.) taught us something that most of us have forgot. Most of us have forgot what our parents had to endure to just exist. Cable, electricity, television–all that stuff wasn’t around when we were coming up and you know what? We did pretty well. I remember when we told Mama that she didn’t need a kerosene lamp anymore. I remember people having cold boxes. If you’re eating fresh foods, if you’re living intelligently you may not need a cold box that’s as big as the kitchen. You may be able to survive on fresh vegetables. Fresh milk was delivered every morning and we were healthier. My mother had all of the remedies that we needed for each season. She’s feed it to us. Father John, Milk of Magnesia. She was not a doctor but she was a midwife at a young age. She was considered one of the smartest ladies in our community.
Jack Tatum who used to play football for the Oakland Raiders–I grew up with him. He was a member of the church of my family and our families were close. So when I graduated college, he invited me out here and that’s how I got out to California. I graduated from Rutger’s University in New Jersey in 1974. Jack was out here playing football. Really a phenomenal player. And he said, “Come on out here. You need to be out here in California. This is the type of lifestyle that’s for you.” We were at a party at his home and there were a few people who knew my family and parents from New Jersey and we got into a conversation and I told Jack that my mother was not educated and he said, “Stop lying to me. You know your mother graduated college.” I said, “Get out of here.”
I went downstairs and got a letter that my mother had wrote to me while she was in night school. And it was a letter written by someone who was in the 3rd to 5th grade and they laughed and they said, “Johnson stop it. You’re killing us.” And I said, “No, my mother is not educated.” And they said, “Your mother is most educated looking woman in the church. She has a better position and attitude and the way she speaks is better . . . What the hell are you talking about?”
I said, “My mother is not educated.”
When we were young, my father would be speaking at different churches–he did revivals at some points. We traveled a lot following him and having fun seeing him in different locations. Daddy would preach anywhere. He’d always make sure that he’d put something in there that was for us. I’ve tried to do that with my children too. When we were in Washington D.C. we’d go to the museums. If we were in Georgia we’d go to a site. If we were in Pennsylvania, we’d go Gettysburg. But we’d be somewhere that didn’t know Momma couldn’t read and they’d ask sister Johnson to do the invocation. And my sister would always sit close to my mother so that when they give it to my mother, my mother would simply pass it to my sister and my sister would say, “I’ll read it for my mother.” And in the black community they knew what that meant. They understood how that worked.
My mother worked for one Jewish family for three generations. Growing up I wore hand-me-down clothes that had the nametag Silverman in it. My three brothers and I assumed that it was from Macy’s or Sears. It was just a normal name in a shirt. When you buy shirts they have names in them. Well, this went on for a lifetime. Coats, pajamas–they would give my mama all their old dresses. The family was in Botany 500 mills. They were clothes manufacturers. My mother would wear clothes that black women couldn’t afford. And you could tell. So my mother would be in church the women would say, “Sister Johnson, my goodness that an awful beautiful dress. That must be expensive.” And my mother would say, “Girl, you know I ain’t bought this dress. Work lady gave me this dress.” And I’d say, “Momma, why don’t you tell them Daddy bought it?” She’d say, “They know good and well that Daddy ain’t got this kind of money.”
When the schools from my community, which was the upper black, merged with the white community that was better off, we all went to a school called Number 4. I went to the 9th grade in ’67. Prior to that I’d gone to school with better off blacks, lower middle class whites and lower class Spanish in most cases. When I went to Number 4, we merged with the better off WASPs and Jewish constituencies. The day before I went to school at number 4, my mother comes in as she does every morning and she says to us various things, and she says, “Okay, you’re going to meet Roger today and you better not hit him.” I was a pretty active guy coming up–a bully and a jerk to be honest but a good one. As the kids used to tell me at the high school reunion, “You were a bully but you were a good one. You weren’t the bad one. You’d only charge us a little money.” Anyway, Momma says, “Don’t bother Roger.” And I’m saying, “Who the heck is Roger?” She said, “What did I say? I said, ‘Don’t bother him.’ And if I hear anything, you’re going to get it.” So I go to 9th grade and they merge us in with mostly whites where before we had spent most of the time with people of color. Well, I’m sitting there and the teacher–Miss Slovis–asked us to give us our names and Roger Silverstein’s name comes up and I turn and say, “So you’re Roger Silverstein.” And he’s panicking because my mother’s told him about how crazy I’ve been ever since I was a child. Remember she’s been wiping his butt and cleaning his room and washing out his toilet ever since he was a baby. Alright. So I turn around in front of everybody and basically I’m new to most of these people. The rest of the people from Number 11 knew who I was and knew I thought I was a big shot. So I said, “So you’re Roger Silverstein.” And Roger is turning red and he panics and he says, “Alice said you wouldn’t hit me.” (hearty laugh) And I say to him, “You call my mother what?” And he says, “Miss Johnson Miss Johnson.” So I sat down and I’m saying to myself, “Oh my God, I’ve been wearing his clothes all my life.” I suddenly realized “Silverstein” was not a name brand; they were his clothes. So I learned that in the Jewish culture they go to camp and they put all the name tags in their clothes. That’s just the way they do it. So I went home and I told my brother, “We’ve been wearing this cat’s clothes, him and his brother’s clothes all our lives” and my mother just laughed. But I imagine Roger is still scared of me to this day. (Another hearty laugh)
That’s the experience that you have to step back and say, “My parents were great people to be able to work their way through their life to take care of five kids.” We’re all educated, all college graduates, all successful. At this point their great grandchildren are successful. Now this comes from a mulatto man, son of a plantation master, and a black child of a slave.
My grandfather was a farmer, a field doctor as they say, and he had powers. I’m not going to get into this because you’re not going to believe it and whoever listens to this is going to find it hard to believe. My father learned from his father how to talk to fire. My mother was the seventh child which means that she had powers. Once again this is hard for you to believe but I lived it. I remember standing at the kitchen table when I was shorter than the table because I could see the inside markings of that table. Daddy was taught by his father how to relieve fire victim’s pain and fever. Once again this is hard to believe and unless I was there I wouldn’t believe it. The hospital would send the patient by ambulance because they wouldn’t let him do this in the hospital. Daddy would have the family members of the individual as well as us stand around the table. The individual would be put on the table from the gurney. The hospital doctors would be standing behind us also. Daddy would say some words and steam–not the cloudy steam but you know how fire has that look of waviness–as the person would be screaming you could see it lifting out of them. Now Daddy would never take money for it. He was never able to legally say how he did it or he would never share it. When we asked if he would teach it to us, he would say, “No, because you would do it for money.” And I told him, “Yes, I would do it for money, Daddy.” (laugh) I never learned it. In fact, my aunt Gladys had the ability, Daddy had the ability, and they’re both dead. We don’t believe that there’s anyone of this generation that knows the power but I wouldn’t believe it unless I saw it. I wouldn’t believe it unless it was my Daddy but that’s the way they handled it. They would send the ambulance to our home and there are people to this day when they see us, the children of Reverend Johnson, Reverend Dr. Johnson, cry because they say, “If it wasn’t for your Daddy, I wouldn’t be here.” And that speaks volumes.
Now my mother would get up in the morning and tell us something that would happen that day. And when you’re a young kid, you don’t think about it. You just say, “Momma said that this was going to happen.” And when it happened you just say, “That’s what Momma said,” and you don’t think anything of it. Until the community start relying on her. We didn’t understand it. People would say things like, “Miss Johnson, what did you think about this?” She’d say something, she’d literally say, “Do not go down there today. If you’re going to come home, don’t go through route 1.” And sure enough something would happen.
We traveled South every year. Daddy always had a Cadillac, we owned our own home, and he always had the best clothes so we always had the best clothes. Whenever we drove South, the white policeman would stop us and say negative things, make him pull over. When we’d go to restaurants, they make him go in the back and we’d want the food. And Momma would say, “You fools. What are you talking about. There’s black people in the kitchen cooking the food. We feel better about them.” And we learned. We couldn’t understand why policemen would call us the N word and say, “How dare you drive this car while white folks aren’t on the road. You stop here in town.” And Daddy would wait ’til he drove off and then we’d go. But to remember how Momma would say, “Tell your brother not to follow us this time” going to South Carolina for the summer. “Tell Gladys to go ahead of us. When we go we’re going to see this and that. There’s going to be a major accident.” It would happen. Was she magic? No. Did she have a premonition that was pretty regularly true? Yeah. But they were taken as normal everyday people. They were accepted in the community as leaders and as people that could raise their children correctly.
The couple of times I had a run-in with the police, the police told me this. They said, “Oh no, we don’t want you to go jail or anything. We’re going to call your father.” I cried. I said, “No, I’m a grown man. I’ll go to jail.” Well, they called Reverend Johnson and Reverend Johnson had to come to police station to get his son. It wasn’t nothing major but when Daddy walked in the police door, his eyes were fire red. I peed in my pants. (laugh) Now keep in mind. I’m the big time football, basketball, baseball player from the high school. I got my own car. I’m the coolest guy around. I’m really hip. So Daddy came. Daddy did what he was supposed to. And I didn’t say anything and when I did say something he gave me a look that made me shut up immediately and his statement was, “I did not raise a child to have me leave my bed and get him out of jail.” I said, “Can I drive my car home, Daddy?” (laugh) He had brought my brother down with him to drive the car ’cause he wanted me to ride with him. He said, “I can’t trust you driving your own car.”
Daddy stopped giving you beatings when you were thirteen. He said he’s not going to hurt his hand. To hurt his integrity, feelings, and respect was more important to me and more of a shame to me than anything I could ever imagine. Daddy was one of only two black professionals that would speak to the high school students and the other organizations. Great public speaker–Daddy was just phenomenal.
Being the middle child, being the bad kid in the family, Daddy would be in front of the entire audience say at the high school, and they’d all be shouting (My nickname is Billy. That’s my grandfather’s name. His name is Bill. They called me after him.), “Billy’s father, Billy’s father. A.J.’s father.” It would be a chant. And Daddy would have to say, “Okay, okay, I’m his Daddy. I admit it.” (hearty laughter) I’m not kidding you. Teacher’s would say, “Reverend Johnson, is he really your son?” (hearty laughter) And Daddy would say, “Yes, that’s my middle child.”
My older brother and sister were perfect. I never tried to live up to them. I was a bully and a jerk and I had a lot of fun being who I was. I was good in sports. I thought I was the coolest thing in the world. We were blessed because Daddy wore beautiful clothes. He studied to be a tailor when he left the military. He was in the Second World War. He spent time in Germany and he did Europe. Momma told Daddy, “If you plan to look good every time you walk out of this house, every one of your four sons will also look that good.” Daddy took us to a store called Larkey’s which was a very high level clothing store in Passaic, New Jersey for many years. I remember Daddy buying me clothes that I wasn’t able to afford when I was making six figures. It was like, “I remember having this jacket. Well now the jacket is $600. I won’t be buying that jacket.” That’s how good Larkey’s was. So we were raised with a great deal of respect for how we appeared. We were children of the pastor and we wanted to look good. And we did. And I thank him for that. To this day I enjoy buying nice clothes; not that I wear them anywhere but that was the basis of my upbringing–strong discipline.
I spent many, many afternoons in churches all over and got a chance to learn how not to listen to anything. (laugh) I enjoyed the music. I didn’t enjoy the pastoring until I think I was maybe getting ready to go to college. And the music was great but once again you don’t listen to Daddy because I didn’t listen to Daddy anyway at home. Later I started listening to him–and I have tapes of him and my brother who became a pastor also.
That was my oldest brother who did the military, died of Agent Orange. Came back from Vietnam, raised a family, got an education, and lived well, but it did kill him, it did cause him to leave this earth early. Bobby was named after my father–Aquilla Johnson, Jr. He was also a pastor of his own church. Aquila is the Spanish word for eagle. We never knew where that word came from other than the Spanish version. Two years ago the family received a document from the South Carolina government. They by mistake eliminated all the black World War I soldiers from any benefits. By mistake. And unfortunately no one at this point could receive any of the remuneration because of the length of time that has passed. Well we found out that my grandmother–Daddy’s mother, her brother was named Aquila.
In the black community they don’t talk about the past very often, they don’t mention the difficulties, I think so that we wouldn’t be angry. Every week we would get Jet Magazine–black magazine that had been around for ages. And in the back of the magazine it would tell who was hung that week. Momma and Daddy never talked about it. Momma told us after we got older that her brother was killed by the plantation manager because he owed him five dollars. My cousin Johnny is old enough to have experienced seeing the manager hit him in the head with a bat and continue to kill him. These are the stories that you hear as you get older. They wouldn’t talk about things. They wouldn’t mention things. They wouldn’t tell us the story about our father’s cousins that were hung and burned as they hung because they were accused of killing a white family. I think they did kill the white family. I think that is the reality so I can’t say much about retribution because people still are people. No matter what occurs, I’ve learned at 68 years old, things don’t have to make sense to you for it to be right or wrong.
I’ve accepted racism as a choice. And if it’s your choice? I’ve got my choices; you’ve got your choices. I’m friendly and I’m open and I talk to everybody because I know how. If you don’t want to be talked to, I’ll learn that the first time. If you want to talk a lot then we’ll probably be talking a lot, but I don’t push and I don’t expect to be pushed and color doesn’t affect me. I’ve been a bully of black people, white people, Spanish people, Chinese people for a long time. And the reason being, and I’m certain of this, my mother’s family had seventeen with five half siblings. My father had twenty-four siblings. So in the town of Passaic if you wanted to bother or hit me, you had to fight 40 people. (laugh) If you wanted to fight me, there was ten behind me. So I never had a fear and I lived in a tough environment. We had our own home. We lived in the nice section for black folks but I didn’t have any problems living in the worst section or in the next worst or the next because I had family in every section and people couldn’t tell us apart; we looked so much alike on Momma’s side. Daddy’s father’s first set of children are so fair until some pass for white. Daddy’s father had two wives, 24 kids. The first 16 were fair like him and his father because the mother was light complexion, so much so that Daddy couldn’t bring us to their homes. They were Cleveland, Chicago, Kansas City. Daddy could visit but he couldn’t bring Momma and us because we were too black and that’s how that was. But I got cousins that are white. It’s amazing how America has developed. I thought we were getting better at being together and recently the white older American males are afraid of losing something. They’re afraid of things changing. When I was in grade school, our Jewish teachers told us, “This will be a melting pot. People will be colored but not as dark as they are and not as white as they are.” That’s what they taught us. That’s what’s happening. Evil won’t win. Evil succeeds in a lot of endeavors but goodness will reign because there’s enough good people. We don’t mind capitalism. We don’t mind socialism; there’s nothing wrong with socialism. What we care about is caring for everyone. I can’t drive by seeing you and your family starving. I can’t drive by seeing you living on the street because I can’t sleep at night and if I think I am sleeping, it’s because of the pills I’m taking. So that’s America. America will get better based on what Donald Trump has done because there’s no way in the world you want your child acting like that. Now, whether he does good or not, that’s up to the individual, but you don’t want your child acting like that. And if you do, you don’t want this world to be a good world anyway. But that’s my opinion.
Three-fourths of my friends that I came up with in the city of Passaic of all nationalities and colors are dead for various reasons. What causes that stress? The people who were successful in their endeavors in their life would come down to those who had two parents, would come down to the people who didn’t decide to go to jail, didn’t decide to become dope addicts, didn’t decide to become alcoholics. But I know single mothers or single fathers that raised nine kids perfectly but believe me, Miz Johnson would let her children know, “I’ll whoop your behind right here in front of everybody if you ever disrespect me.” My mother smacked me one time at Safeway because some little white kid cursed his mother and his mother didn’t do anything. And my mother turned around and smacked me damn near to the floor and said, “If you ever say something like that to me boy, I’ll kill you.” And the little white boy’s mother was in shock at my mother hitting me. I looked at the little white boy and said, “If you ever cause my mother to hit me again, I’ll beat you again so you won’t know who you are.” And he started crying. The white mother was standing there in shock because my mother smacked the mess out of me, the little boy is crying because he thinks I’m going to beat his butt, and I’m the only one standing there saying, “I got hit.” (laugh)
That was Alice Johnson. Alice Johnson would be driving down the street with her husband and she’d see a cripple or a blind person or someone who was handicapped and she’d say, “Lord, thank you for all of my children being okay except Billy.” (laugh) And I’d be sitting there looking at my sister, “What the heck?” She’d say, “Lord, if you’d just let me, I’ll adopt some of these kids and raise them the right way.” And we’d all be sitting there saying, “So what are we, chopped liver? Did she make a mistake with us?” Momma told us at a breakfast table when my sister was 13 or 14–we were all under 10. We’re all three years apart. And Bonny said, “Momma, how did you and Daddy plan on having the family, how did you plan on the kids, how did you plan on us?” And my mother in her Southern way of talking and thinking did not look up from her plate. She said, “Everybody was a mistake but the baby.” So I’m 6, 7 years old, I don’t know what the heck she means; I have no idea. At 45ish I’m driving down the highway and I shout out, “I’m a mistake.” (laughs and pounds the table) I just caught on to what Momma told Bonny. We’re all a mistake except Craig. Their logic, their humor was unbelievable.
I came in the door with a broken nose from football practice. My father gave Passaic High School $3.20 for insurance to play football. My nose was that big. It was broken. I walk in the house with my friends because you know they want to make sure that Reverend Johnson know what happened. My mother and father looked at me and started laughing. My friends said, “What the hell . . . ?” My mother and father said, “We told you not to do that, you fool. You’re out there letting people hit you like that? No wonder.”
“The coach said that you should take me to the hospital.”
They said, “We ain’t taking you nowhere.”
I said, “Momma!! Daddy!! My nose . . .”
They said, “We gave you $3.20 for insurance. Tomorrow when you go to school you tell your coach we gave you enough money to take care of you.”
So I’m with a broken nose. I get up to go to school and people are looking at me like, “Oh, god!! What happened, Anthony?”
I literally go to the coach and he said, “You didn’t go to the hospital?”
I said, “Daddy said to tell you he gave you $3.20 to fix my nose.”
The coach looked at me, looked at the other coach and said, “Get in the car.” (laugh)
My brother was at his girlfriend’s house and some kind of way she makes a mistake and stabs him in the leg by mistake. On the leg. Of course he goes home and tells Mommy and Daddy, “I got a cut.”
“Well, how did you get it?”
“Well, I was at Sheila’s house and something happened and something happened.”
And they said, “Well, call Sheila’s mother and father.” (laugh)
He calls Sheila’s mother and father. “She said what?” “MommigHaaa and Daddy said, ‘She cut it; she need to fix it.” (laugh)
They were Southerners that were no nonsense. We had a Jewish doctor named Dr. Jerome Sobell. Our message was no matter what happens you have permission to go directly to his office. You don’t have to tell us and he doesn’t have to tell us either if you’re that stupid. That was always our option. And I feel bad about modern day medicine because that’s what we needed. We needed people assigned to people who cared.
I played football, baseball, basketball, ran track. It’s amazing how the sports game is run in grade school and in high school. I’m astonished at how they manipulated us. They basically planned for us to be professional athletes. Without any exaggeration that really was their intention and that’s the way they worked it. If you were good in sports they let you get away with not doing homework; they had someone that helped you or if the teacher was on your side, you really didn’t have to do very much. It was amazing.
I’m trying to figure out how in the world you go to Rutgers University and graduate and miss it all. I studied women in college. I’m not kidding. I was pre-law. I learned how to get grades one way or another. Mickey Giavante, the author and poet, was my professor. She told me one time, she said, “Anthony, if you’re going to copy people’s information, change some of the words.” My English professor, another black guy, Professor Benny Collier said, “Anthony, you can’t write. You write the way you talk and you can’t talk for shit.” (laughs) I said, “That’s not nice.” He said, “It’s the truth.”
I have always enjoyed poetry. I’ve written poetry. I’ve enjoyed writing. I’ve had writings from the time I was a child. When I read them I realize why I’m not a writer. Writing takes work. It takes editing and it takes rewriting and work. I’m a great talker; I’m a great BSer. When I write something and take my time, it’s good. I rarely take my time.
I didn’t mind playing my horn every day. I enjoyed it. Playing my horn now, learning what I’m playing is the most gratifying thing that’s ever happened to me in my life. I wish I could have been this person at 10. I wish they wouldn’t have pushed me in sports and pushed me more in music. I started playing in fourth grade. I was playing baritone horn but you’ll looking at a true New Jersey African American young boy that has no respect for anything but what he wants. The back of the band room had all the old instruments. I must have took every instrument I ever wanted from the back room and I’d share it with friends, we’d play, we’d have fun. We had a group and everything. And I think about how many opportunities Anthony had. It was almost as if they didn’t mind me taking the coronet home, they didn’t mind me taking the piccolo, the flute, the trombone. Even in college I played everything. I enjoyed music.
Larry Ridley was in charge of the music department at Rutgers University. Larry Ridley is a noted bass player, highly educated, a doctor. His department was full of high ranking musicians. They hired me on the work study program to be in charge of all of the drums and instruments. In other words I had to make sure that no one stole and was able to get away with any of the instruments. Brian Blake, the head of the student center hired me and he said, “We all here at Rutgers decided that (laugh) you’re the only one on campus that could steal the stuff and get away with it so we figured, why don’t we hire him and he’ll keep all the other thieves from stealing it and if they do steal it, he’ll know about it.” (laugh) I got paid student wages, the student work program, every month to make sure that no one stole the equipment or if they stole it, I could tell them to bring it back. And that’s what I did. (laugh)
They gave me the job to drive the musicians to New York to the studios. When I tell my children and my wife these stories it’s almost unbelievable. A freshman in college, the preacher’s son. I was responsible for driving James Spalding, the famous alto sax player, to the Strata East recording sessions, to New York shows and things like that because they could rely on me getting James there and back. What was unbelievable is that I would be at a jazz session with twenty major musicians and I would be so excited. It would be like a dream come true. You know what they told me, they all gathered around me–and I hope I don’t cry with this–and they would say to me, “You’re what we’re happy about. You being a black college student at Rutgers University, having the responsibility, having the opportunity to develop and learn as much as you want to learn without having to play an instrument, having to work at night, having to do this.” They would say, “You’re the image that we honor.” I would freak out. I would be able to hang out with Lee Morgan. I would be able to hang out with major drummers, people who, when I think about it, it would be like . . . How the hell could I be with this bass player Charles Mingus and be talking to him like y’know we’re just kicking it. And he was also nutsy coo coo. John Coltrane lived in the same projects I lived in as a child. (Editor: Coltrane had a daughter out of wedlock named Shirley who lived in Passaic.) His daughter grew up with us–prettiest girl in the world but no talent toward that. John Coltrane would be playing out of the window in front of the projects and I grew up thinking it was the bar a couple of blocks up the street that they were practicing at so I’m talking to some people about Sheila’s father John Coltrane and Gerald Chambers, a friend of mine who also grew up in the projects, says, “Johnson, that wasn’t at Sugar Bill’s. That was John Coltrane playing out the window all the damn time.” And I said, “You’re kidding.” I remember him having a white Jag at the parking lot with everyone else’s cars and it would be like who in the world. I found out it was Trane’s car.
I had the opportunity to do things that are just incredible. Being on the football squad they would have us chaperone some of the people. I got to chaperone Stanley Turrentine, Hal Mayburn, people like Bill Russell, the basketball star, people that when I look back and reflect on it now it’s like, man this cat was just kickin’ it. We were just having fun talking about everything. John Lee Hooker, the blues singer–my brother used to go to his house and hang out with him. I talked to John Lee Hooker like he was my uncle. He looked like my uncle; he sounded like my uncle. And I remember something he said that to this day I laugh about it. “They talk about me playing only in one key. I only need one key.” (laugh) I think he’s right. It was amazing coming up in that environment.
The Shirelles’ younger sister was my sister’s best friend. She went to all of the concerts. They would sing at the house. Daddy was the preacher for them and married everybody.
My first girlfriend’s mother was a debutant in Harlem. We would go places where there would be major band groups and we’d walk in and the band conductor in front of an audience in the middle of a dance routine would say, “Hold on. Effie’s here.” And her daughter was a dancer for James Brown. It was nothing to go by their house in the evening and see the Imperials, see James Brown, see Billy Stewart. Around the corner from my home. So I was raised with being able to go in the back room of the Apollo Theater. Mizz Simpson would bring us there. A little short (I shouldn’t call him a midget but there was a guy who was the doorman who was notoriously known), when he saw Effie he stopped the crowd. “Hold on. Hold on. Effie. Yeah, go ahead.” And I grew up thinking that this was normal.
Kenny Burrell. I used to date this singer–Linda something, she was pretty well known, pretty famous. We would hang out with Kenny Burrell and all his group. It’s to the point where you feel so comfortable they expect you to be a musician. (laugh) And I’d say, “Naw, I’m with her” or “I’m with him.”
In 1972 I left Rutgers and I came out to USC. I was going to play football with USC. And they wouldn’t give me any money. They said, “Go back to Rutgers. If you’re going to play for money, you already have a scholarship. You want us to give you our money when you’ve already got money.” So I went back and I finished up at RU and when my cousin moved to California in the ’60s he said, “This is where you need to be. You’re a free willed person. This is where you need to be.”
My cousin Jimmy convinced me to come out here. I was coming out here to go to law school. I stayed with Jack. The first night I’m hanging out with OJ, Kareem, Jack, one of the first black racehorse owners. I’m with people, I’m with movie stars, I’m with people that I swear to goodness the second day I was certain I would be on Johnny Carson show. It was like I’ll be famous in no time. I think I went to the intro up at McGeorge law school up at University of Pacific. I think I spent a day. Coming from New Jersey, Oakland-San Francisco was city. Sacramento wasn’t city. And it was like, NAW! So I joined a corporation. I made more money in my first job with Heublein Corporation than my father had ever made in one year. Selling wines and liquors. I was in charge of all San Diego city and county Safeway stores. Being the person I was, it wasn’t hard to dazzle them. I just immediately learned a lot in sales and within a two year period I joined Control Data Corporation and I sold computers for Control Data, Basic Four for the next ten or so years and did real well, well enough to go through wives, I guess.
I’ve been married five times. After you’ve married three black women the NAACP sends you a letter and says you can’t have no more. (laugh) I have a daughter who’s 47. I was at the gym the other day. You get older and you get time to reminisce. I’ve been knowing these guys going on eight years and they were trading stories and I said, “Well, it’s probably not as bad as the guy who lost his high paying job, wife left him with a child and lost a new house and they took his new car. Can’t be as bad as that.” And everybody was quiet and they were looking at me. And I said, “Oh, that wasn’t me. I don’t want you to think that it’s me. That wasn’t me.” I came home, I told my wife, I said, “Do you know that’s the first time I ever said that out loud, that I ever thought about the fact that my first wife, who I grew up with, who–I don’t blame her one bit for what she did, my daughter’s mother. We had been together since we were kids. When she was 7 and I was 9 I said, ‘Don’t worry. When we get older, we’re going to get married and we’re going to have a little girl and we’ll live really nice.’ And we did everything. I should have asked her how she felt though.” I said that and everyone recognized that “this is something that happened to YOU.” And I’m not kidding, I had never said that out loud. I’d never thought that at any point in my life.
My fourth wife is the mother of my 22 year old college student son. His mother was a migrant who needed citizenship. She was an underwriter for my finance company, my real estate company. Within five years she bought a little mansion up in American Canyon. She is very good with numbers and she could write a contract. And as I told my father, “I didn’t know that if you had sex with your secretary she’d have a baby.” He didn’t think that was funny. He didn’t think that was funny at all. Anyway, I signed some documents to keep her in the country, to sponsor her. So I’m up there. God is good to me. I’m driving a big Mercedes. I’ve got money. I’m living in a penthouse but for some reason, I’m not happy and I don’t understand how in the hell this woman could move to America and in five years amass money and possessions as she did.
I had heart issues and blood pressure and diabetes issues. I was flying a lot, traveling a lot, and still drinking–not excessively but as a diabetic you can’t drink. I almost died twice. I was used to going to Puerto Vallarta a couple of times a year, Hawaii. I went Back East to see the folks at home a couple of years. It wasn’t strange for me to fly back thirteen times in a year. But that was my lifestyle. I was always transitioning. I had a business development in San Diego as well as up here. I was working for World Savings Bank as a mortgage broker while I owned my own real estate and mortgage company in San Francisco and in San Diego.
So I’m crying as I’m driving down back home from American Canyon to San Francisco where I was living and I decide to ask God when is it going to be my turn to get someone that wants to be with me and I want to be with them. I decide to go to my old favorite restaurant in Jack London Village called Scott’s Seafood. The maitre d’ brings me to a cubbyhole where there’s just me and one other person. I didn’t say anything to her because her glasses were over here and she was sitting over there so I figured there was a guy or someone else that was coming. When she picked up her glasses and I said, “Ma’am, I apologize. I was raised better than that but I thought you were with someone and I didn’t want to interrupt.” That’s who I married. (laughs) She was on assignment for a company. She traveled the world. That’s another thing that excited me.
I invited her for dinner. She said, “No, but maybe lunch. Call me and we’ll see what we can do.” I took her to a nice restaurant over in Alameda and we had a wonderful time. Being a Mormon, she didn’t drink liquor, didn’t drink coffee and was very straight about everything. The bill came back for $16. Being a corporate America salesperson in computers, money, banking, real estate, homes, I’m used to spending $200 on lunches, $300 on dinners in San Francisco. I’m used to having a bar bill of $50-60 at all times. The bill comes back and it’s $16. I told her, “Sweetheart, I’ll marry you based on this alone. I haven’t had a cheap date like this since grade school. They used to charge us when we took someone out for lunch in grade school.” And she laughed and she said, “This is my culture. I don’t do this and I don’t do that. If you’re expecting something physical, I don’t do anything unless I’m married.” I said, “I think we have the basis for talking.”
My wife’s a PhD in fine arts. She can speak several languages. She’s an educator. She’s brilliant. And I think about her lifestyle and her family’s lifestyle. Everyone in her family is a doctor, highly educated.
My wife’s a Mormon. We had a home in Utah at one time. I had an office in San Francisco and I commuted for about two or three years before I moved it. She graduated from BYU, undergraduate and graduate, did her doctorate at UC system. In learning about the Mormon’s in Utah I found out that at one point in America it was legal to kill Mormons. They were chased out to Utah. But they said I couldn’t go to heaven because I was black. If you look at the history of the Mormons you’ll see that the blacks were initially part of the Mormon development but when the Southern Mormons came, they wanted to bring their slaves and that brought about the changes.
I was 56. She’s ten years younger than me. After 100 women and four marriages I think I was ready to do something intelligent. I tell you unequivocally that she was sent to me. I’m not that bright. I’m not that smart. I prayed openly. I weeped openly. And I said, “There must be someone for me, someone for me.” And it’s been perfect.
I tell my son and I tell my family members, “Life don’t have to be difficult.” The Mormons live very boring existence–very, very menial. No liquor, no smoking, no this, no that. If you can get your child from 0 to 19 without getting pregnant, dropping out of school, having to go to military, become a dope addict, alcoholic, I’m on your side. If you can get your child from 0 to 19 without going through all that . . . I’m 68.
Most of my friends are either dead or in jail. My father told his four sons, “You’re not allowed to go to jail.” Some things we weren’t allowed to do. We had to be respectful, we couldn’t steal–Didn’t say we didn’t steal but we weren’t allowed to steal. Daddy said, “There’s two things we won’t allow–a liar and a thief.” And he was serious about that. My mother’s side of the family was completely different. My mother’s side of the family was–if you stole something can you share it. (laugh) Is it enough for all of us? My mother’s position was–if you’re going to be a thief, steal something worthy of your time that you may have to spend. Do not go to jail for $50. If you’re going to go to jail go for $500,000 so you can give us some. (laugh) Daddy would say, “Don’t listen to her.” (laugh)
Several years after my present marriage my fourth wife’s husband calls me and says, “I’ve got news for you that you probably don’t know.” I said, “Greg, what’s up?” And he say, “My wife’s married to you.” I said, “What the heck are you talking about?” For her to be able to stay in the country she needed to be pregnant and she needed to have someone to sign for her to be sponsored. That sponsorship was not a wedding. It was a letter that I signed in her lawyer’s office that later on turned out to be a marriage. (laughing heartily) My wife was quite upset about that, of course, but I was angry. When I calmed down I explained to him; I said, “I don’t agree with what she did but I certainly understand if I was concerned about being put out of the country, I would do whatever I had to. So I understand. The only problem is she has one child by me, she has one child that I believe was an adopted child from the Philippines–her oldest child whom I helped raise, and she has three other children by another black man. And we both agree that we have been had but we are very thankful for the children–very beautiful, very intelligent, very meaningful children.”
I talk about the road I’ve walked and I don’t believe it sometimes. I ask myself, “How in the world could you have married five people in one lifetime?” And that is the question I have. “What in the world were you doing?” Well, I was doing everything wrong. (laugh) When you’re not looking, anything can happen. But I’m fortunate. I’m here, my children are very happy, I’ve taught them to never do anything that I did. (laugh)
And this is one of the greatest things that I’ve ever done in my life. I’m free, I’m retired, I have enough to live decently, and I’m playing music with people who have studied music in some cases, have not in some cases, people that I would never have had the opportunity to speak with. I wish I could offer this to smaller minority communities. They don’t know what to do and they don’t have access to the things that will allow them to do something very easy–be active and stay alive. Something so simple.
This is extraordinary. This brings a discipline of music to my face. You can play music but nobody wants to hear it if it’s not done effectively and correctly. I sit next to people who–well, Irene has been here 25 years. I practice at home and I’m really having a wonderful time practicing and learning. I still come here and I’m still so far behind. (laugh) I’m still behind so it’s like when I can hang in there. Hell, I’m proud when I can finish when everybody else finishes. (laughs)
If you were an outsider and you looked at us just from the outside and saw how many seniors were together having a very good time doing something so positive, you’d ask yourself, “Well, why aren’t other people doing this? Why can’t more senior citizen groups get together like this?” And I don’t have an answer for that. I’m amazed. I’ve been with you guys for two months now and I’ve learned more in two months about music than I ever have before. And my experience goes back to grade school. I played in the fourth, fifth grade concert band/marching band and I stopped playing because I started playing sports and I was positive I would be a famous sports star so I didn’t need to play music.
I played in school bands. We had a community band I played in but they kicked me out because they said that I didn’t want to practice. It was true. (laugh) All of my best friends were in a group called The Flames. It was pretty good and in fact when they would play at the school or at certain community events they would shout, “Where’s Billy?” and they would say, “He ain’t with us.” So I’m looking forward to when I learn to play better so that when I do go back home to Passaic High School reunions I could play with some of the guys.
I was always playing AT music but as my instructor over at Stanroy Music said to me, “You’ve learned how to play everything the wrong way.” And it was the truth. I’ve always been the smartest person in the world. I know everything. And as you get older you realize what you really don’t know. Playing with this band is one of the happiest experiences I’ve ever had. I could play songs but to understand what you are playing and how music really works is wonderful. To come here and learn this much music and have the camaraderie and be around the people who are so nice as we are all to each other, that’s what life’s about. That’s the world that I want to continue to see and believe in–that anyone who works hard at what they desire, they can make it. I’ve been very fortunate.