Meet the Detroit artist known as Saxappeal, who backs up funk legends, digs Lisa Simpson
By Patrick Dunn
Photography by Darrel Ellis
Video by Ned Specktor
Saxophonist LaDarrel Johnson takes pride in the diverse influences he incorporates into his music, from the Motown soul his parents and grandparents loved to the hip-hop he heard growing up in Detroit. But Johnson’s earliest musical inspiration was particularly unlikely: Lisa Simpson from TV’s “The Simpsons.”
“I was like, ‘She’s 8 and I’m 7. I could be this good? I want to do what she’s doing!’ ” he recalls. “I told my mom about it and she was like, ‘You can’t be serious.’ ”
Now 35, the lifelong Detroit resident has turned that youthful fascination into a career. Under the name Saxappeal, Johnson, who lives on the city’s west side, has released two solo albums featuring a blend of R&B, jazz and occasional spoken-word interludes. With ex-wife LaKeisha “Ideeyah” Green, he also co-founded Collective Peace, a now-defunct soul-fusion group (one of their songs cracked the iTunes Top 100 jazz chart). He’s even hit the national stage, backing up notable musicians including Detroit R&B star Dwele and The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson. His third solo album, titled “Black Gold” and recorded in Detroit, is due out this fall on the Evry Music label, in which he is a partner.
Johnson says he wouldn’t have his career without the strong, early support of his family — particularly his mom, Krystal, who quickly got over her initial skepticism and enrolled him in sax lessons at age 7. Johnson’s father Demetrius Smith was an amateur musician, but the two never got a chance to play together. Smith died of a heart attack while playing basketball at age 30, when his son was just 8.
Johnson says that tragic turn of events “actually pushed [him] more towards music” out of a fear of more athletic pursuits. He describes his father’s death as a “dark cloud” that hung over him until he began school at the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts, now known as Detroit School of Arts. “I didn’t learn how to utilize those emotions until … I was taught how to paint different pictures with different colors, musically,” he says. “Prior to that it was just really tough.”
Johnson’s musical abilities developed rapidly in high school as he studied under local musical luminaries including legendary trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. He joined the school’s Wind Symphony, which gave him the opportunity to tour nationally, most notably playing Carnegie Hall when he was just 17. Johnson says that experience “set the bar pretty high.” He says he remembers thinking, “ ‘I don’t want my peak to be at 17. You’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to keep doing bigger and better.’ ”
Johnson spent two-plus as a jazz studies major at Wayne State University. But his academic career was cut short when he met Dwele (born Andwele Gardner) through Johnson’s aunt, then Dwele’s landlord. Gardner invited the 19-year-old Johnson to sit in on a few of his rehearsals, and Johnson was shocked when Dwele asked him to join his band on a six-month tour. Gardner says he was particularly impressed by Johnson’s improvisational ability, given his young age. “He had drive. I saw that he went for what he wanted and I liked that about him,” says Gardner. “I felt like bringing him on board would give him a stepping stone.”
Indeed, Johnson’s 2005 stint with Dwele opened the door to additional touring gigs, and to Johnson’s own solo career. Dwele’s then-manager encouraged Johnson to develop his own music, telling him it was “the only way you’re going to live forever.”
Following that advice, Johnson released “Stay Saxy,” his debut album as Saxappeal, in 2009. His stage name was inspired by an incident during his senior year in high school, when his mom walked in on him taking pictures for his MySpace profile. “She was like, ‘Oh, you think you saxy, huh? You got that sax appeal,’ ” laughs Johnson. “It stuck.”
Although Johnson found success both in his solo career and touring with other artists, he didn’t become a full-time musician until 2016, when he was laid off from his day job as an inventory associate at Quicken Loans. He says the layoff felt like “being pushed out of the nest,” a chance to either “take the music thing seriously” or “find another corporate job.” He chose the former, helped along by reliable employment with the Grammy-nominated Wilson, with whom he’s toured consistently since 2017.
COVID-19 put an indefinite stop to that gig, but it’s also prompted Johnson to focus on new projects. He co-founded Evry Media, a Royal Oak space where he produces and records his own music and others’. He’s started a recurring Instagram Live show in which he interviews creators, including Dwele and Detroit poet Jessica Care Moore (with whom he collaborated during his Collective Peace days) about how they’re dealing with the pandemic. And he’s refocused on his long-gestating third solo album, which had been delayed by his work with Collective Peace and touring gigs.
Johnson says his new album will have “something for everybody,” in keeping with his wide-ranging musical interests. The title of his 2011 release, “Unmarketable,” was inspired by an interviewer who described his music as such. Nearly a decade later, he’s still embracing his uniqueness. “In 2020, being who I am and how I am is my greatest weapon,” he says. “Individuality is the new sexy now. If you can be you and just have a good personality and enjoy the people around you and make them feel involved in your movement, that’s what wins.”