How much love can a bucket hold?
Probably depends on whose bucket … If we’re talking Ellis Johnson’s, we’re talking high capacity.
Like many men up in their 80s, Johnson has a bucket list, but he attends to his with more earnestness than most. That’s because he has incurable cancer. His lifelong love and support of the arts, especially of music in Augusta, has filled a large part of his bucket. Educated as a child in Augusta’s segregated public schools, then given his entrée into life as a professional by Paine College, Johnson earned his living as a teacher and a counselor and spent much his free time as a singer, pianist and musical director. You couldn’t go to a concert, show or performance without seeing Johnson there, his wife, Ann, at his side.
When Johnson was growing up on Weed Street, his mother couldn’t afford a piano, so she arranged for him to take lessons, 25 cents a pop, at a neighbor’s house two doors down. She would listen to his playing from her front porch. Eventually she was able to buy a battered upright for $50.
Understandably, one of the most important things on Johnson’s bucket list was a grand piano. Two years ago, he bought one. It sits shining in all its Steinway elegance in his living room.
Sadly, the medications he takes now for his cancer have stiffened and numbed his fingers to the point that he can’t play it anymore. “I can only bang it like a baby,” he said, with tears welling up.
His days of making music are over, but not his listening. He and his cousin Larry Leverett, who lives just outside New York City, bought tickets to the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Porgy and Bess, a bucket list experience if there ever was one. But the cancer got worse; confined to a wheelchair and using an oxygen tank, Johnson couldn’t go. That bucket would remain unfilled.
But maybe not. If Johnson couldn’t get to New York, Leverett wondered, why not have New York come to him?
Leverett called Johnson’s niece and caretaker, Tracie Gallop, and she plugged him into the vast network of Johnson’s musical and theatrical friends in Augusta. Russell Joel Brown, a longtime admirer of Johnson, called soprano Laquita Mitchell, she called friends in New York, and the word spread among their friends about this mission of love. “I knew immediately what colleagues to call,” Mitchell said, “and when I did call them within that very hour, all of my friends/colleagues accepted with a resounding ‘Yes!’”
Getting performers to Augusta for a special show “was a most unlikely proposition,” said Brown, who set about trying to organize the whole thing. “To schedule four different opera singers, all with their own careers and schedules, find accompanists of the same caliber, make airline reservations, find accommodations — it was a logistical nightmare. But Mr. J. was always a mentor to me. He was the first black face I ever saw in the Augusta Opera. I had to do this.”
All this organizing — and community fundraising to make the whole thing possible — went on secretly, as many of the people who had been loved and helped by Johnson offered to help in whatever ways they could.
Dr. Rosalyn Floyd of Augusta University’s music department, a dear friend to Johnson for many years, quickly volunteered and brought in her friend Christopher Laysath to play the piano four-hand accompaniment with her. Soon the cast was set: bass baritone Kevin Short, tenor Robert Mack, and sopranos Mitchell and Indra Thomas. All of them had sung Porgy and Bess with major opera companies. Mitchell and Thomas had known Johnson and his wife for years, and both had sung at Ann Johnson’s funeral in 2018.
Unaware of the secret machinations going on around him, Johnson faced whatever was left of his life without fear. “I pray for strength, patience, unfailing faith and the presence of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “I’m in a comfortable place in my life. I’m not regretful. It’s a comfort to remember the things Ann and I did together over almost 50 years.”
He also remembered the 20 happy years he spent as musical director of the Augusta Chorale and, more recently, his work with the kids at the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, of which he was a founding board member. Johnson was the community’s chief contact with Norman, having grown up singing in church with her. He accompanied children from the school to Toronto in April 2018 when she was named the 12th laureate of the Glenn Gould Award. Johnson beamed remembering the night in the midst of the weeklong festivities, when the international opera star had dinner with “her kids” from Augusta, sang with them and talked to each one.
That was his last meeting with his old friend. Norman died in September 2019. Afterward, it was Johnson whose persistence got Broadway star Audra McDonald to the Miller Theatre for a memorial concert supporting the Jessye Norman School in October.
Eventually, of course, Johnson had to be informed about the upcoming opera to be staged at his house. He would need to provide a guest list, plan a lavish feast, supervise his living room’s transformation into a theater and wrap his mind around what would happen on Nov. 18.
When that Monday evening finally arrived, guests greeted one another outside Johnson’s house, in the shadow of the Bon Air, feeling the joy of a reunion, the excitement of a Broadway performance and the sad realization that they were saying goodbye to someone they loved.
Ever the gentleman, Johnson had positioned his chair near the door so he could greet each of his 70 guests. Once all had been welcomed, drinks poured, introductions made, a prayer said and the pianists seated at the Steinway, Mitchell entered in a gorgeous red dress, singing the opera’s first aria, the famous Summertime.
Her shimmering voice filled the room with the familiar words about a time when the living is easy, fish are jumping and the cotton is high. But a couple of lines in the second verse took on unexpected poignance as the crowd in the living room watched their host taking it all in in amazement and joy:
“One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singing, Then you’ll spread your wings, and you’ll take to the sky.”
Yes, that morning would come soon enough. But with Porgy and Bess at his Steinway, and old friends pouring love into his bucket, Johnson was already flying.
Ellis M. Johnson passed away on January 15, after this story had already gone to press.
Appears in the February/March 2020 issue of Augusta Magazine.