by Carole Verona
Chestnut Hill chanteuse Paula Johns began sneaking out to bars and clubs when she was in her early 20s. It’s not what you think! She didn’t go to drink, smoke or engage in other questionable behaviors. She went to sing.
Why the secrecy? Paula grew up in North Philadelphia in what she describes as a “classical” household. “Classical music is all we knew,” she said. Her mother, Mertine Johns, was an opera singer who concertized throughout Europe and the U.S. Her father, William “Buddy” Johns, was an organist and choir director who was particularly fond of directing Handel’s “Messiah” and other classical pieces. Paula was certain that they would disapprove of her love for jazz.
“My father always wanted to know where I was going, so one night I invited him to join me. ‘Just come and have a ginger ale,’ I said. As we sat there, we heard the bandleader announce, ‘Here’s Paula Johns. Come up here and sing, Paula.’ When I finished singing Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless the Child,’ my father started to cry. He said, ‘I didn’t know you could sing.’ So, I took my mother the following week and, after that, it was OK. They both knew what I wanted to do.”
A graduate of Northeast High School, Paula attended the Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism and worked fulltime as a graphic designer for local publishing companies while pursuing a career in the arts. Not sure how to get started, she took acting courses at Freedom Theater and landed a role in one of their musicals. That solidified her desire and goal to be a singer. She went on to study with her mother and then with several singers at Temple University.
Her first professional gig came as a surprise. “One night, Philadelphia jazz pianist Eddie Green (who died in 2004) called me. His singer got sick, and he needed someone right away. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but he said I’d be fine. I didn’t know anything about anything. But I knew the songs. I copied a bunch of lyrics and just said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
That’s the kind of freedom Paula has always enjoyed when accompanied by a piano player, who will basically follow whatever she wants to do. “If I want to sing a song like a fox trot instead of a ballad, I can just tell the piano player. Singing with a back-up group of musicians or with a big band requires more structure. Everybody has to know what I’m doing,” she said.
She recalled her first big band experience performing with the Midiri Brothers for large audiences at one of the casinos. “I’d be this little dot on the stage to most people. I used to think I’d have to scream and holler, but I learned that I don’t have to sing over the band.”
She also explained that you can’t improvise with that many people. “The music is written for piano, bass, drum, saxophones, trombones and trumpets. Each musician has to learn and play note-for-note what’s on the paper. I, too, have a written vocal part, and I can’t deviate from it.”
The Chestnut Hill Local’s music critic, Michael Caruso, has written about Paula’s singing: “Her glowing tone, unaffected projection, lilting phrasing, clean diction and rhythmic vitality … and, I hasten to add, Johns was never in anything less than complete control of the vibrato, and she employed it expressively to communicate the obvious and not-so-obvious meanings of the lyrics.”
Paula and Bob Perkins, a jazz expert who is on WRTI radio, collaborated on a show called “Great African American Ladies of Song.” She says she incorporates a lot of humor in how she presents these singers to the public. “I’m from the cabaret school; I’ve got something to tell you about the song that I’m singing.”
She also wrote a show, “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” that she will perform on Valentine’s Day, Friday, Feb. 14, at Saketumi Restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, DE. With her will be Aaron Graves, pianist; Andy Lalasis, bass player; and Grant MacAvoy, drummer. She has also created shows dedicated to Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins and Cole Porter. She looks forward to bringing her talent to clubs in and around Chestnut Hill.
Paula has been married to drummer Grant MacAvoy, who was featured in the Dec. 27, 2013, issue of the Chestnut Hill Local, since 1985. “I seek his advice because he’s been in the business longer than I have and is more knowledgeable about it. He’s definitely very supportive of me, but in the end I have to go with why I want to perform or record a particular song.”
Paula has released three CDs: “Watch What Happens,” “Well, We Did It” and “A Cape May Christmas.” She’s currently working on “Through My Eyes,” a recording of original music.
When asked how old she is, Paula responded: “My age? Well, I like to think that singing those ageless songs from the Great American songbooks keeps me young.”