Johnny Williams hosts live music shows in the basement of his home on Dexter Ave.
From the November, 2018 issue
Not many people would regularly welcome forty or fifty people, some of them total strangers, into their home, and invite a wide variety of musicians to play concerts for them-and not make a penny doing it. But that's exactly what Williams has been doing for nearly twenty-five years.
The musicians who play "Johnny's Speakeasy" charge admission and keep all the proceeds. Williams limits the paying crowd to no more than forty people and invites a few friends and the volunteers who help him put on the show.
Williams' small, single-story house was built in the 1920s. Guests enter the Speakeasy through the back door (a sign on the side of his front porch says, "Hippies Use Backdoor-No Exceptions") and head down a flight of steep stairs to a landing area sporting a bar and a handful of stools. It serves as a balcony overlooking the lower level, another flight down, where several rows of mismatched chairs face a small stage. Enclosed with fieldstone walls, the basement served as an icehouse and fruit storage cellar for the apple orchards that once surrounded it. Now it's decorated with a wide variety of items that Williams picked up at farm auctions or were given to him by friends (see the cover of this issue). On music nights, before and after shows and during intermission, the crowd hangs out in Williams' kitchen upstairs, sharing snacks, BYOB drinks, and conversation.
Large speakers hanging from the ceiling, and guitar stands, mike stands, and cords on the stage are all part of a state-of-the-art sound system, run by a volunteer. "I absolutely love live music," says Williams, seventy, solidly built, with a full head of gray-white hair, a trim goatee, and a frequent smile.
He bought the house in 1994, and his first concert was a Halloween party, featuring several local musicians and bands, that he hosted for colleagues at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (he was a special ed teacher for thirty-three years). "After that,
word just got out," he says. Other musicians started asking about playing at his house. "I try to have 50, 60 percent local people," but he's had touring musicians from all over the U.S., and even from England, Italy, and Sweden-solo singer- songwriters to full blues and jazz bands, from folk to country, bluegrass to classical-even a string quartet a couple times.
"I really wanted to make it into a concert setting. I wanted it funky like Flood's [the onetime music bar on Liberty], but I also wanted it like the Ark. I want people to come, feel comfortable, but I also wanted it to be a listening room."
To that end, Williams has coined one all- encompassing rule for the Speakeasy: "Don't be an a-hole and don't bring an a-hole." (The emails that a couple of his volunteers send out about future concerts state it more decorously: "Don't Be One, Don't Bring One." When asked about the rule, Williams explains, "I worried I was being too crude, but … it kinda covers everything. Somebody once asked me, 'What's your definition of an a-hole?' I said, 'If you have to ask …'" On the other hand, he continues, "Of all the shows I've had here, I can only think of a couple of times when I've had to look over and give 'em my teacher look, or say, 'Hey!'"
In the early days Speakeasy shows were sporadic, but since Williams retired five years ago, he's upped it to two or three shows a month.
"When I got this place I thought, 'I never want to make somebody feel not welcome,'" he says. "I love communities. I just wanted to share my space with people who enjoy life, who enjoy live music."
[Originally published in November, 2018.]
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