Alexandria Sightings – Johnny Artis: From cooking to cookin

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The story of local lounge legend Johnny Artis, whose band will be kicking off the musical portion of CrystalBlock, an outdoor celebration starting at 1 p.m. this Saturday, Aug. 25, is equal parts tragedy and inspiration.

Born into a gospel-loving Caroline County, Va., home where he was the first grandchild for nine aunts and three uncles to play with, Artis developed a passion for singing and dancing in order to please his family. At the age of 10, after his mother moved the family to Old Town Alexandria in order to remarry, the boy decided to focus on another family tradition that was a little less Sam Cooke and a lot more professional cook.

I come from a family of chefs, recalled the showman during a recent interview.
I started out as a dishwasher, but eventually worked my way into the kitchen. Over the next 20 years, I worked in over 25 restaurants scattered all around Alexandria.

Then one day, everything stopped. The source of his personal strength, his mother, died.

Suddenly, the world that Johnny Artis knew to be true seemed oddly off-kilter. His confusion led to the removal of his highly respected chefs hat at the Crystal City Marriott, never to return back to the stove burners again. To honor his mother, Johnny Artis knew it was time for him to return to her first love.

She always wanted me to be a singer, reflected Artis.

So, in about three weeks, I put a band together [which he called Johnny Tenspot (JT) and Loose Change]. We played every song I knew growing up from Otis Redding, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley to Hendrix, Clapton, and Earth, Wind, and Fire I made a promise to the manager of the restaurant Politics (a now defunct eatery that used to stand at the corner of King and Henry). I basically told him if we didnt sell out the place the first night, he didnt have to pay me. Well, all I can say is, I got paid, and the rest is history.

Regular work
JT and Loose Change started landing weekly regular gigs at area establishments like the Wharf and slowly built a following of diverse music lovers. Eventually evolving into the Johnny Artis Band, the group has been together for close to 20 years, playing over 200 dates annually, on the local, national, and even occasionally international levels.

Once, a DOD [Department of Defense] guy heard us at a bar and invited us to play for the troops in Saudi Arabia at the General Walker Resort during Desert Storm. Well play anywhere, at any time.

With seven CDs of original work in circulation, Artis attributes his long lasting success to his versatility.

Ill get a phone call asking for a blues band. I always respond Im the one. Someone will ask for a country band. Im the one. Soul and R&B?  Im the one.  Southern Rock? Im the one. No matter what somebody is asking for, I honestly feel we can play it because even my original work doesnt neatly fall into one specific genre. While were none of those types specifically, were also all of those types.

As for the future, Artis sees many more dates with his four loyal band mates (each of whom have been with him for at least eight years) by his side.

Every time I wake up, I look forward to my job. Im living my dream, giving the people what they want to hear.

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