Johnny Malone ‘74, professional musician and songwriter, was seventeen when he started his educational career at UTC, then still the University of Chattanooga, as the first African American student in the Music Department.
“It was a challenge for us then. In 1967, there weren’t many black students in the school. But, I was used to being in situations like that. I played in youth orchestras in high school, and I was usually the only black student.”
For Malone, the biggest challenge he faced in coming to the University was the same challenge that students face today.
“It was a shock, coming from high school. College was more demanding, but there’s more freedom too. You have the freedom to succeed, but you’re also free to fall by the wayside. No one holds your hand and forces you to succeed.”
Malone had his heart set on getting away from his hometown to attend an out of state school.
“Me, being my rebellious self at that age, I tried to flunk out, thinking my dad would send me somewhere else. Well, he sent me somewhere alright – he sent me to work!”
Malone spent time working at Miller’s department store, before he came back to UTC at 19, ready to get down to business.
“It wasn’t a bad job. I didn’t want to follow money, though, I wanted to follow my passion, and that was music.”
Before Malone was a master of the keyboard, he used to practice in Cadek Hall when he thought it would be empty. “I didn’t want anyone to overhear me.”
On one such occasion, Malone overheard a phenomenal piano player. He followed the sound of the music to its source. “I looked through the window in the door and there was this skinny little red headed kid playing amazingly, just tearing it up. I tapped on the door and he nodded me in. I said, ‘Hey, man, that was great. Do you think you can help me work out some music I’ve got in my head?’”
Together, the pair collaborated to bring the tunes Malone had thought up to life on the piano.
“Afterwards, he told me, ‘Hey, you’re a great songwriter!’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not a songwriter.’ Because at that time, I wasn’t good at writing out the notes on the page; I got a D in Sight Reading. He said to me, ‘You thought it up, didn’t you? Then you wrote it. And if you can write something like this, you could write music for a band.’”
Malone may have gotten a D in Sight Reading, but despite that, he ended up making a lifelong career out of music. When Malone’s band cut their first demo, it drew the attention of Elektra Records.
“This guy comes up to me at a bar in this fancy suit, telling me he’s from Elektra Records and they want to talk about hiring me. I told him, ‘No, you’re not. Get out of my face, I’m having a drink. Bye.’ He went back to his table with some other fancy looking men, they laughed a bit, and he comes back with a business card, and I’m like, ‘Wait, you are for real!’”
It turned out, however, that they were interested in hiring Malone for his songwriting – and only Malone.
“They wanted me as a writer, not my band, so I turned them down. Which was stupid!” laughed Malone. “It sounds morally great, but it was just me being young and dumb. If I’d gotten that job at the record company, I could have just hired them as a recording band and we could have stayed together that way!”
Eventually, Malone moved to Los Angeles to pursue musical opportunities.
“I got to work with artists that I’d only ever dreamed about – that I’d listened to, but never thought I’d meet.”
After being in Los Angeles for only a year, Malone auditioned with Stevie Wonder.
“Stevie’s office called me! They heard about me through my acquaintance, whose sister was dating Stevie’s cousin. This was before the days of being discovered on Youtube, but you have to get lucky either way. I got a lot of breaks most people never get.”
Malone auditioned with Stevie Wonder while he was working on his Hotter than July album. It was 1 AM before Malone got to meet the famous musician, which gave him plenty of time to get cold feet.
“I was thinking, oh my god, this is Stevie Wonder’s studio! And I was saying, ‘Thank you, you’ve all been so nice, but I don’t think I should be here, I’m going to go.’ Then Stevie came in, and I heard his voice and I recognized him before I ever saw him, and he said, ‘Come on, Johnny!’ He liked my playing, but I wasn’t what he was looking for. I wasn’t good enough, yet.”
Malone was included in several videos featuring artists like Ray Charles, Manhattan Transfer and F-MOB. He also had a brief stint in an artist development program at Motown as a songwriter. He also had one of his songs recorded and produced by the then hottest producer of the eighties for R&B, Leon Sylvers. Malone recently recorded a contemporary jazz song co-written with Sheldon Reynolds, former member of Earth, Wind and Fire.
Eventually, Malone’s music career came full circle when he began teaching, which had been his goal when he started his music degree at UTC. He started off substitute teaching, and then became a high school band director in 2002.
“I had planned to be a band director when I started college in 1967, but those aren’t the opportunities that presented themselves to me. I am where I am because of UTC. The seed was planted at Riverside High School, watered at UTC, and bloomed when I moved to L.A. I’ve been so lucky to have a successful professional career doing what I love.”
When he’s in Chattanooga, Malone still makes a point of visiting the UTC band. He likes to chat with current students and sit in with the jazz band.
“It was a big deal to me when I saw myself on the wall of fame in the Music Department. One of the kids asked me, did you go here? And I said, yeah, this is me right here in this picture! He said, ‘That was you?!’ and he ran down the hall to grab the other kids to show them. They were so excited, and that meant a lot to me.”
Malone semi-retired in 2007, though he still stays active in music.
“I’ve been playing for forty years now, but I’m still always trying to improve. I like to say I’m a blue collar musician – a working musician. The music was always more important to me than fame. You know, I’ve worked in music my whole life, and I’ve worked with a lot of famous people. I’m not famous, but I’ve got a lifetime of musical achievement, and that’s more valuable to me.”