Studio Visit is a Q&A with a local artist. Here, Melissa Merli visits with musician and radio personality Isaiah "Mr. Sensation" Johnson, 46, Urbana
Q: How did you get the nickname Mr. Sensation?
A: I was a guitar instructor and giving a kid a lesson when I was working for the Champaign school district back in 2005. I play the piano, bass, drums and the organ, and the child told me "Man, you're sensational." I just thought about calling myself Mr. Sensation.
Q: How long have you been doing "Mr. Sensation's Monday Morning Jazz Jam" for WEFT Radio? What kind of music do you play during your shift?
A: I've been doing this for seven years. It's a new style of jazz: fusion, with heavy guitar; or it could be light, with effects; and a contemporary groove.
Q: Are you a DJ, too?
A: Yes. I've DJ'd for the farmers' market in Champaign. I do weddings and all that kind of stuff.
Q: Do you play in bands, too?
A: I have a band, Mr. Sensation and the Sensations, and I'll be releasing a CD, "I Bet I Get that Big Fat Woman Off the Wall." I have it all together. Now I'm trying to pay for it.
Q: What kind of music do you play?
A: I do funk. It's like soulful funk and blues and some fusion.
Q: How many people in your band?
A: Altogether, I have six in the live band. I might be playing at Indi Go (Artist Co-op, Champaign) on Feb. 14. I'm looking to play a lot more.
Right now, I'm focused on this CD before it's too late for me. I have to make a decision whether I'm going to put my all into my music or try to get a job in this economy the way it is, because it's hard out there.
Q: What kind of work do you do?
A: Substitute teaching. Teacher's aide. Custodial. Guitar and drums instruction. I'm also the head musician at the Apostolic Deliverance Temple in Champaign. I've been doing that for a year and a half. I play the keyboards there.
Q: When did you start playing instruments — and did you learn them on your own?
A: When I was 4, I found a harp phone, the thing Snoopy in Charlie Brown plays. When I was 6, my father bought me a harmonica; I was so captivated I went out at 6 and bought a book on how to learn to play harmonica. Then when I was 8, my father (the late Bobby Johnson) bought me my first guitar. At 10, I was playing drums at church. At 11, I got my first bass guitar.
All the while I was being shown how to play the piano and keyboards by musicians in the church, including Paul Jones. He used to play for T.D. Jakes, who has a big church following in Texas. The other person who helped me out was Deborah Banks.
Q: Did you ever take formal lessons?
A: Yes, at Urbana High, with Mr. Davis, for 10th through 12th grades. That was when they used to teach guitar in high school. I had to work to buy my own acoustic guitar for the class.
Q: What's your main instrument?
A: Electric guitar. I can play fusion and all styles, and I can read and write music.
Q: What else do you do?
A: I have my own recording studio at home, Lessons for All Ages, where I record and give bass, guitar and drum lessons. I'm recording my CD there. I wrote all the songs and I play every instrument.
Basically, Mr. Sensation and the Sensations are musicians from the circuit. They're not around all the time. By recording the CD myself, it limits how much money I put into it, and I get exactly what I want.
Q: Was your uncle John Lee Johnson a musician? Was he an influence on you?
A: No, he was an artist. He was a big influence on me by the way he went out and did things. He wouldn't procrastinate. He would just do it. That was his advice to me all the time: "Just do it."
EDITOR'S NOTE: "Mr. Sensation's Monday Morning Jazz Jam" airs from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Mondays on WEFT-FM 90.1. He will perform as part of the WEFT benefit starting at 9 p.m. Feb. 14 at the Indi Go Artist Co-op, 9 E. University Ave., C.