Meet Maestro Derric Johnson



By Mike Scopa, AllEars® Feature Writer

Feature Article

This article appeared in the
August 12, 2008 Issue #464 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

If you ever have the opportunity to meet and talk with Derric Johnson, the first thing you will notice is that he is a charming, warm, friendly and, above all, a most humble man.

Who is Derric Johnson? Well, if you've ever visited the American Adventure Pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase you might have experienced the wonder of the Voices of Liberty, who sing inspiring renditions of Americana songs in a delightful a cappella style. You can thank Derric Johnson for that -- because Derric Johnson is the founder of the Voices of Liberty.

Also, if you ever visited Epcot during the Christmas holiday season and enjoyed the pageantry of Walt Disney World's Candlelight Processional then you would have experienced more of Derric Johnson's musical genius.

Derric Johnson has been a creative consultant to Walt Disney World for more than 20 years. In that time he has built a legacy of music that has brought joy and great memories to all who have visited "The Most Magical Place on Earth."

Recently I sat down and got a chance to talk with this man who has touched so many people with his wonderful musical arrangements. I found that there is more to Derric Johnson than his musical genius.

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MUSIC ENTERS THE DOOR
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I guess many of you reading this would be somewhat surprised to learn that it wasn't until he became a student at Azusa Pacific University in California that music became an integral part of Derric Johnson's life. He was into football, not music, and he played the sport in both high school and in college.

While at college he became friends with some fellow students who were musicians and actually had a roommate who was a music major. Pretty soon Johnson found that he was really into music... more than he thought. He also discovered, as a sophomore, that if he changed his college minor to music that he'd be doing himself a big favor, as he would then avoid some not-so-pleasant classes with a not-so-pleasant Dean of Students.

Years later, while serving as an assistant pastor at a small San Diego church, opportunity knocked. The church choir needed help and Johnson wanted to do something about it. He approached the church pastor and offered his help. Alas, there was no music budget for the church -- but that did not stop Johnson. He decided that the first step was to improve the overall musical quality. That meant sitting down and writing some music for the choir. He spent 13 years writing and working with that church choir, and in that time learned quite a bit about arranging music, blending voices, and producing magical musical memories.

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ENTER RE'GENERATION,
ENTER DISNEY
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As he became more and more involved with his musical writings, Johnson soon formed an a capella group he called "Re'Generation." This troupe of singers performed inspirational songs filled with the American spirit. Re'Generation's sound became quite popular and as their popularity grew so did the musical genius of Derric Johnson.

It was Bob Cross, then the director of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, who in 1972 came across Re'Generation and thought, "That's the type of entertainment we need in the Magic Kingdom."

Cross had been looking for an act or talent that would be suited for performances in front of the Cinderella Castle. This talent had to be fresh, high-spirited, and above all represent the Americana spirit that goes hand-in-hand with the Magic Kingdom and Main Street USA. Re'Generation was perfect.

Little did Derric Johnson realize that while he was molding Re'Generation he was at the same time setting the standard for quality talent at Walt Disney World.

A portable stage was constructed in front of Cinderella Castle and on February 11, 1973, Re'Generation began performing for Magic Kingdom guests. The initial contract for Johnson and his troupe called for four performances a day for 11 days. To say that they were received well by the guests would be an understatement, as witnessed by the fact that some 35-plus years later Derric Johnson's influence, in the form of the Voices of Liberty, still reigns as one of the longest-running entertainment acts in all of Walt Disney World.

Obviously, after the wonderful debut of Re'Generation, there was a move to sign them to a longer deal. However, Re'Generation had some road commitments. To fulfill these road commitments and also continue to entertain guests at the Magic Kingdom, Johnson had to immediately start interviewing and hold auditions for more performers. Soon there were enough performers to go around, and the act soon became known as -- and I know this will ring a bell -- The Kids of the Kingdom.

Re'Generation continued to enjoy success, and soon released an album called "Christmas in Velvet," which was noticed by some Disney directors. It was obvious that there was more to Derric Johnson's music than songs of Americana. Again Johnson and his Re'Generation singers were approached to provide special entertainment to Walt Disney World guests. They were asked to be the Dickens carolers in Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square during the holiday season and to also perform at the nativity scene at the Village Marketplace (which eventually became Downtown Disney).

Again Derric Johnson was asked to write the script and the music. Little did he know that he would be doing that for the next 19 years. And then one thing led to another.

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THE VOICES OF LIBERTY
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There was a new park on the horizon and this park was to be called EPCOT. Like all Disney theme parks it would offer guests attractions, fine dining, and of course top-drawer entertainment.

Before Epcot's opening in 1982 Derric Johnson was approached by Forest Beruth, then entertainment director for Epcot. Beruth wanted to speak to Johnson about designing some entertainment at what they were calling the American Adventure pavilion in World Showcase. The feeling was that an a capella group would work well in the pavilion's rotunda. Beruth knew Johnson was very comfortable and successful with a capella arrangements and asked him to come up with an act that would blend well with the pavilion.

Johnson went to work and on October 1, 1982, when Epcot opened its gates, those guests who were fortunate to be there on opening day were privileged to hear the first performance of the Voices of Liberty. And to this day, "…the mariachi band in Mexico is the only other remaining entertainment act from opening day," states a very proud Derric Johnson.

Also, from that opening day, only one performer has remained through all those years -- Johnson's lovely wife Deb, who has participated in more than 30,000 performances. Of the original 16 Voices of Liberty performers, only nine were Re'Generation alumni.

As Epcot and the Voices grew in popularity, there was a need to increase the number of singers. In the late '80s and early '90s the cast expanded to 32 singers. In recent years the cast has been trimmed down.

The string of Derric Johnson successes was lengthening but what is perhaps his most widely known and loved achievement was still to come.

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THE CANDLELIGHT
PROCESSIONAL
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Walt Disney World's Candlelight Processional was first held at the Magic Kingdom and it soon became quite popular. To put it in Derric Johnson's own words, "Its success was its own demise."

The Candlelight Processional started out at the Magic Kingdom's train station. Obviously such an event would have an impact on the normal operation of the theme park. When Candlelight was first introduced performances were held only on Saturday and Sunday nights and for the most part these shows were put on for special guests.

Two important factors led Candlelight Processional to its present home at the America Gardens Theater. First its popularity grew in leaps and bounds and thus it could not remain in the Magic Kingdom. More shows had to be added, and it was just not practical to "tie up" the Magic Kingdom more than it was already tied up with the weekend Candlelight Processional shows. Secondly, Epcot's attendance was lagging, and every effort was being made to draw guests there, especially at night. It made sense to move the Candlelight Processional to World Showcase and the America Gardens Theatre.

There was more needed than just moving the show to Epcot, though. New music was needed, new arrangements as well. In 1983, Johnson was approached to tackle the task. He recalls, "We had 15 shows that first year. The shows were so successful the following year we increased the number to 30, which covered the time from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve."

Johnson conducted and directed each and every show, taking no chances with their success. The move, the new arrangements and music -- everything came down to the actual performance. Derric Johnson's fingerprint needed to be there for every note.

Candlelight's popularity soon soared. Soon there was a need to increase the number of performances to 30 for the season. It still was not enough, so the decision was made to hold three performances each night during the Christmas holiday season. With the addition of a third performance some adjustments had to be made. A third performance necessitated the need not just for a second conductor but also a complete second choir as well. Sure, you could use the same musicians for every performance, but not the same choir or conductor. As Johnson explains it, the issue is the comfort level between the conductor and the choir. There needs to be a familiarity between the two if the performance is to be the best it can be.

"When we went to three shows, that meant going to a second chorus and a second conductor," he says. "It was important to keep the choir and conductor together and that means rehearsal and performance both."

So the next time you see the first performance of the night of the Candlelight Processional, keep in mind that somewhere there is another huge choir rehearsing with its own conductor for the second performance of the night. Now you know a little secret about the Candlelight Processional.

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THE DERRIC JOHNSON
PORTFOLIO
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Over the years Derric Johnson has had his hand in over 100 Americana and 75 Christmas arrangements. However, as I said earlier, there is so much more to Derric Johnson. For instance:

-- He has written more than 150 original songs; 28 cantatas, and has produced more than 2800 musical arrangements.
-- He is an author, having written 32 books ranging from the humorous, to the motivational, to the inspirational.
-- He has been involved in producing more than 84 albums, which include American spirit, inspirational, and Christmas songs.

Wait... there's more. Derric Johnson also:

-- has been a specialty writer for Radio City Music Hall and wrote four arrangements for the Christmas show.
-- served as both an Artist in Residence and Director of Music Ministries at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon.
-- is a Staley Foundation Lecturer and is often found delivering inspirational and motivational talks at national and international conventions.
-- is listed as an Event Conceptualist by the Masterplanning Associates of Orlando, Florida. When people want to do a special event, he is a catalyst -- an event planner.
-- is an ordained minister, serving for 18 years in two churches as Associate Pastor, Minister of Music, Minister to Collegians and Minister to Singles.

You can imagine that anyone with such a robust background would somewhere along the way, collect some honors:

-- named Azusa Pacific University's Alumnus of the Year
-- named Society of European Stage Authors & Composers (SESAC) Inspirational Songwriter of the Year
-- named Man of the Year by Life Enrichment
-- twice awarded the George Washington Honor Medal by the Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge
-- awarded the Mousecar (Walt Disney World's version of the Oscar) for outstanding creative achievement

And last but not least he is currently listed in The International Who's Who in Music.

The first time I heard the Voices sing such songs as "Shenandoah" and "The Star Spangled Banner" I became a fan of Derric Johnson and his music. And so many years later I remain a fan. To this day, nothing moves me more than to see and hear the Voices of Liberty perform his arrangement of "Let There be Peace on Earth."

You often hear that question, "What would Walt think?" I'm sure Walt would give Derric Johnson an enthusiastic thumbs up.

So the next time you listen to the Voices of Liberty in the rotunda at the American Adventure Pavilion in World Showcase, keep in mind that the man behind the music can answer to more than just "Maestro."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mike Scopa has been a huge Disney fan for as long as he can remember. He first visited Walt Disney World in 1975 and has returned many times (how many? he's lost count!) since. Mike is a contributor to the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and Cara Goldsbury's Luxury Guide to Walt Disney World, and has served as keynote speaker for the 2006 and 2007 MagicMeets. He is also co-host of the WDWTODAY Podcast and writes a regular blog, The View from Scopa Towers, for AllEars.Net: http://land.allears.net/blogs/mikescopa

Other AllEars® articles by Mike Scopa: http://allears.net/btp/mikescopa.htm