Story Jason Browne | Photograph Luisa Porter
Johnny Coleman is a rock ‘n’ roll time capsule.
Born in the late ’40s, he’s old enough to remember the birth and ascension of rock music. He was too young to get involved when he did, singing in a honky tonk at the age of 16. Compelled by his love of soul, he was ahead of his time in breezing past racial politics. He grew up and got a degree and a straight job and kept playing. He faced down the karaoke boom and kept playing. He dabbled in the business side in publishing and kept playing. And he’s still playing, in multiple bands, after 50 years.
But what makes Johnny Coleman so special is that he resisted hitting the road to tour, resisted the call of better-paying jobs elsewhere in the world and lived out his entire rock ‘n’ roll odyssey right here in the Golden Triangle.
Coleman’s first paying gig was on a Sunday afternoon in northern Lowndes County in 1957. He was 10 years old. His maternal grandfather had suffered a stroke and was bedridden, so his brood of 50 or so gathered at his house each Sunday, the adults around his bed in the living room and the kids in the kitchen or the yard. One day he called young Johnny front and center and insisted he sing him a song in front of all his assorted aunts and uncles.
“Elvis was going real strong at the time so I did ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ and they were all clapping and carrying on. Then they all reached in their pockets and started throwing nickels and dimes. As a kid, I got 50 cents a week allowance for chores. Now, I had two or three dollars stuffed in my pockets,” said Coleman.
Things moved quickly from there. His parents played multiple instruments and taught him when they could. He took up singing with his buddies around the school piano in the mornings, and soon they had themselves a group on the sock-hop circuit.
Things really got serious when the principal of his high school, of all people, recruited Coleman to sing with his country band at a local tonk.
Coleman’s father’s first reaction was, “Hell, no!” Eventually, he relented. Johnny wound up a member of that club’s house band from 1964 through 1970.
“I didn’t really like playing country, though. I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones hit during that time,” said Coleman. “I would slip in some Stones, but Myrtle, the lady that ran the place, would yell, ‘Nobody likes that crap! Learn some Merle Haggard!’”
When Coleman was a freshman at Mississippi State, he realized his dream of singing and playing the keyboard with his own rock band. He cut his first record in 1967, which he still has at his house in Columbus, and it’s an original song, not a cover.
In addition to rock, Coleman was putting his voice through the ringer singing hardcore soul music.
“I can remember being 16, and my dad still made me and my brother go to bed at 8 p.m. every night. We’d listen to WLS from Chicago or Randy’s Record Rack from Nashville on the radio. One night they broadcast Otis Redding: Live at the Apollo. I just came up out of the bed like ‘Who is this?!’”
Even in Mississippi in the turbulent ’60s, Coleman said the Golden Triangle was rife with white musicians who specialized in black music or performed with black singers.
“I remember at MSU in the mid-’60s, you would only see one or two black students on campus. Then some of my musician friends would throw a party at the boll weevil lab building, and black people would come. And we’d all get some drinks in us, and they were just regular folks like everyone else,” said Coleman.
After graduation, Coleman began teaching junior high American history and science in Aberdeen. He kept his music alter-ego a secret from his students for as long as possible, but once some students stumbled upon one of his gigs, the word was out.
Through the years he has stayed busy with raising a family, working his main job and with side hustles like flipping used cars and playing music every week. His main group, Swingshift, has been together since ’85, and while they stay in demand, they’re still humble enough to set up in your carport for a wedding reception.
Coleman sticks to vocals and keys, and a little harmonica here and there. Even after 50 years, he never has to wonder why he still plays, because he’s reminded every time he gets on stage.
“When the music is sounding like you want it to sound, when it — you could call it soul — it’s coming out right, and the guy next to you is clicking, and people are snapping their fingers and singing along, it’s a natural high. You’re so high, you’re flying like a jet. And you think, this is why I work late at night to get these songs right. To someone who’s never done it, they wouldn’t understand. But to everyone who’s done it, they know what I’m talking about.”