Michelle Johnson remains a Las Vegas favorite at The Smith Center for her heart-melting shows honoring musical greats, with anticipation high for her musical tribute to Carole King’s “Tapestry” album on September 15.
But many who soak up her sizzling sounds are likely unaware of her long journey to the stage, which includes a childhood abroad, an Ivy League education and nearly spending her career in the courtroom, instead of the spotlight.
All of these experiences have shaped her significantly, Johnson says, especially as a performer.
“It’s been my experience that music has the same effect no matter what country you’re in,” she says. “It’s a healer, and it’s something that brings people together.”
A Globetrotting Childhood
She should know.
Johnson grew up in Egypt, with her father was stationed as a Liberian diplomat. Working for the United Nations when Johnson was born, he represented his native country all over the world.
“This was just our life,” Johnson recalls. “My father dined with presidents. He knew all of these world leaders, who had actually been to our house.”
Attending an international school – which held a memorable graduation ceremony at the ancient Giza Pyramids – she gained a global perspective early on, attending extracurricular programs in numerous countries.
She remembers winning a debate tournament in Athens, and competing in a Model United Nations tournament at The Hague in the Netherlands.
“It changes the way you look at the world, because your peers end up being from all over the place,” she says. “It opens your eyes to the fact that even though we’re all different in some ways, we’re all really the same.”
Although Johnson’s parents instilled an early love of music in her, they expected her to uphold the prestigious family pedigree.
She went right along, entering Yale as an undergrad with plans to become a lawyer like her brothers.
“That world of dignitaries and lawyers and businessmen was all I knew,” Johnson remembers.
That is, until she started classes at Yale and discovered its thriving drama and musical departments.
Joining a singing group and immersing herself in performing opportunities, she knew she had found her calling.
“I graduated and didn’t even take the LSAT,” she says. “I knew what I wanted, and I said to myself ‘I’m going to New York to pursue this.’”
From Paralegal to Performer
Johnson struck a deal with her parents: she would try a traditional job, before jumping into a musical career.
After a year as a paralegal in New York City, she announced “I’ve got to go,” and dived into working as a recording session singer, actor, and singer-songwriter.
Her talent and versatility quickly led to recording and/or performing with artists of many genres, including legends such as Paul McCartney, Gladys Knight, Sheena Easton, Barbra Streisand and Elton John.
Johnson even achieved her dream of performing in a Broadway show.
“Sometimes I thought, ‘Should I go back and get my law degree?’” she recalls. “And then I thought, ‘Why? I’m having so much fun!’”
Drawing from the Past
Eventually moving to Las Vegas to embrace numerous performing opportunities here, Johnson says her passion for singing feeds from her worldly past.
Performing allows her to access the commonalities between diverse groups that she experienced abroad, she notes.
“We all can feel joy, or pain, or yearning. We are all the same inside,” Johnson says. “I look out at an audience and I see different faces, but I see a similarity in the look in their eyes when a song hits them a certain way. I love watching that moment.”
Michelle Johnson performs the Carole King tribute “Tapestry Unraveled” on Friday, September 15, under the musical direction of the show’s co-creator, Jeff Neiman.
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