By Ellen C Warren
Starting around the age of two or three, “My mom said I always just sang, sang, sang all the time, through the house,” says Ms. Erica Johnson. “My dad was a record collector of the Blues. There was always Muddy Waters or KoKo Taylor going on in the house. Every day! can just remember always loving the Blues.”
She sang in a couple school productions in middle school and at the High School of the Arts and then took a long break from performing, other than to respond to an occasional request for a funeral. Around the age of twenty-six, after lots of schooling, living, loving, and a couple kids, her cousin wondered why she wasn’t singing. There was an R&B band that was looking for a female vocalist. “Give it a try,” he said, “if you don’t like it you can just say you gave it a try.”
And she did. For three months she sang with Phase Two without a real gig “doing a lot of R&B — Whitney Houston, a lot of ballads, a lot of Anita Baker.”
When the band’s keyboardist told her a blues band was trying to find a female singer she thought, “Ah, that ain’t really for me. I grew up on that, I don’t want to sing the blues. I liked to listen to it, and I loved it, but it just wasn’t what I wanted to sing.”
Still, when she heard from The Bedroom Doctor and he asked her to audition, she went.
Not really knowing what they’d want to hear, she prepared to do a ballad. Instead, when she got there, he asked her to sing “Clean Up Woman,” a well-known blues standard.
Before she finished the song, she was hired. Three practices a week and lots of gigs, including for the AM1290 Christmas Party, kept her with the band until James Tatham (Foots) of the Misfits heard her singing karaoke. “Something is really distinctive about your voice!” he told her. “If I ever need a female singer, I’m gonna call you.”
The opportunity came quickly. Starting with a couple weekly gigs, as well as playing blues spots all over, Erica sang all the songs she remembered from her youth, “making them (her) own.” In 2010 Erica got married. Around the same time Foots decided to end the Misfits. But it was only a few months before she was putting up an ad at Cascio’s, looking for a new band. Brew City Rhythm and Blues brought her on for a few years which led to five years of being a Blues Disciple.
“Then,” explains Erica, “I felt like I was sort of stuck in this same kind of music … I can do a whole blues set, but there’s always a few people in that audience that are not blues lovers. So, you gotta mix it up.
“Blues is really touching … but sometimes you need something that kind of snaps you back out of that … the blues, all of it ain’t sad but all of it has a story that relates around hurt. So, I said, I want a band where I can sing some things that make people happy … Let’s switch it up! Let’s have some fun!”
The Mighty Ms. Erica and The Sound Production is that band. Backed by four super-skillful musicians, Erica is playing a mix of blues, soul and r&b in venues from clubs to Locust Street Festival to Summerfest to the Harley Homecoming. A little Clean Up Woman. A little Gladys Knight. “I do a lot of Tina Turner … It’s kind of been like my thing. At the end everybody’s waiting for me to do Proud Mary,” she says. “I always end my show with it.”
You need to see this dynamo in action on stage! But before you go, get your hair done by her. Because, yes, this is only one part of Ms. Erica. She’s also a business owner. Close to twenty years back, she took her Cosmetology License and opened a salon in Wauwatosa on 68th and North.
When she needed to move her shop, she found a spot in Riverwest that had been a garage space. The architect’s design ended in it being a near replica of her first shop. The cozy, chic salon, London’s Healthy Hair, has been at 610 East Clarke St. for nine years now.
By appointment only, Erica and her daughter, Rashon, are the two stylists. Rashon, who is twenty-seven, has been helping out at the London since she was fourteen. She apprenticed under Erica for Cosmetology and got her Instructor’s License, like her mother. Erica has also been teaching Hair in the Cosmetology department at MATC for the last four years.
A multi-faceted achiever, Erica Johnson also holds Bachelors Degrees in Criminal Justice and Education. She is planning to complete her Masters Degree in Social Work at UWM, to focus on Family Therapy, particularly working with youth.
A grandma now, she’s the mother of three, Paige, Rashon, and London. Her blues-loving parents still reside in Milwaukee and her large family includes Chris Wilder of KRS Hair and Wax Studio on Locust, which was featured in a 2006 Riverwest Currents story.
While she enjoys the diversity of Riverwest, she especially likes the genuineness of the folks in the neighborhood. And you can’t get much more real than the Mighty Ms. Erica.