I first met J.C. Johnson when I was about ten years old.
I was playing in the back room of the bank in Wurtsboro, N.Y., that my father managed. He called me into his office and introduced me to an older gentleman he said was a songwriter from New York who now lived in our village. That man turned out to be J.C. I had recently started piano lessons and was passionately interested in my lessons and music in general. I chatted a bit with Mr. Johnson about my playing and the kind of music I liked, after which he excused himself.
Within the hour, he returned with a published copy of one of his songs, BELIEVE IT BELOVED, and gave it to me. On the front he had written, “GARY, If you learn to appreciate good American music, you should succeed, J.C. Johnson”. Thus began a friendship and mentorship that lasted until J.C.’s passing in 1981.
I often visited J.C. at his house. On Saturday afternoons, I would go to the living room concerts he held with fellow musicians. A few were from J.C.’s past career, most notably the violinist and conductor, Billy Butler. But mostly, I would bug him to tell me stories – stories of Harlem and the people he knew there, famous and otherwise. He did, but always reluctantly – he was not one to toot his own horn.
As a teenager and in college, I started doing little shows at the barn in the town park. I would ask J.C. to come up and play a tune or two, and he was always the hit of the show. When I was driving him home from these events, he told me that as much as he liked his songs being in Broadway revues such as ME AND BESSIE and AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, he would prefer to have them in a book musical, with a full plot and characters. He also indicated that if such a project were done, he would like me to do it.
At J.C.’s wake, I mentioned this conversation to his widow Julie and said I would like to create a full show using his music. She gave the project her total support and I went to work. The first thing I did was take J.C.’s 500 songs, literally lay them out on the floor and start picking the ones I thought would fit best. The pile quickly diminished to about 40 – and looking at those 40 songs, it became clear there were three levels of love stories to be told. (J.C. mostly wrote about love!)
Out of J.C.’s songs and stories, Trav’lin – the 1930s Harlem Musical was formed.
At the same time, all the stories J.C. had told me were swirling around in my head, inspiring the characters and feel for the musical. Remarkably, although the show has changed in many ways, the basic characters, songs and plot structure have remained very similar to the original 1981 concept.
By 1984, I was a graduate student in the Dramatic Writing department of N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts. Julie and I visited Allan Shapiro, then a music and Broadway attorney, to see about legal representation for Trav’lin. Allan was instantly interested in the project, became passionate about it as well, and took on the role of creative producer. In that capacity, he was intimately involved in the creative and writing process.
Then, in the late 1980s, life got in the way and the script was put on the shelf. Allan and I went on to other cities and projects until 2003, when I decided to start up with Trav’lin again. I contacted Allan and asked him to come back to the project, this time as co-author. And then, well….life got in the way once more, and we didn’t start working in earnest until mid-2005.
In 2007, we had a private reading of the show in New York, followed by successful public readings in 2009 and 2010 at The York Theatre Company in Citicorp Center as part of their Developmental Reading Series. Then in October, 2010, nearly 30 years after the journey began, Trav’lin was fully staged for the very first time as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The journey continues to unfold . . .