July 10, 2019 10:17:21 AM
If you want to thrive in the music business, you better know how to entertain a crowd.
That's how Johnny Coleman, lead singer and keyboardist for Swing Shift, said he's made it as a musician for more than 50 years.
"You can be a musician and not be an entertainer," Coleman, 72, said. "But you'd better be both if you want to work a lot."
Swing Shift, born in a since shutdown recording studio on Gardner Boulevard around 1985, will take the stage Thursday in the Sounds of Summer concert series, hosted by Columbus Main Street at The Riverwalk from 7-9 p.m.
Coleman said attendees can expect "a rock 'n' roll band masquerading as a rhythm and blues bunch" from their performance.
He's the only remaining member who was there at the band's inception. Members have come and gone over the past 35 years, allowing for a relatively fluid cast of characters.
Currently, Robin Roberts, Bird Crane, Gary Shaw, Ronnie McGee, Jessie Yates, Doug Thomas and Ben Ferrell comprise the group, and sometimes Perry Barker, who will be taking over the keys for Thursday's performance in place of McGee.
Among the members are vocalists, guitarists, a bass player and a drummer, but Coleman said the lot can do it all. They're versatile musicians, each a master of many instruments, as well as skilled entertainers.
Music has always come naturally to Coleman, who was regularly playing with multiple bands by age 15 and landing gigs left and right around northeast Mississippi.
But it wasn't until he was in his mid-20s that he started learning to perform and create an experience for concertgoers and the bar crowd. Now it comes naturally, but it was something he had to learn.
"You gotta sit up there and call out somebody that you see four tables over, and say, 'Hey, Billy Bob, good to see y'all in here tonight,'" Coleman said, waving to an imaginary concertgoer across the room Tuesday afternoon at Coffee House on Fifth. "'I'm going to do this next song just for y'all. I know you like this one.'"
He learned by studying and trying to emulate a performer who routinely took the stage after he played at a joint on Old Macon Road.
"He was just cracking jokes and joking with people and everything, and I thought, 'That's what I need to be doing,'" Coleman said.
At any given venue, Coleman judges the crowd and guesses a song from the band's "flexible" set, of which the tunes span genres and decades, that he thinks they'll like. Then he observes while performing, scanning the room for feedback in the form of head bobs and foot taps and the ultimate goal: when people get out of their seats and dance.
"We always like to pride ourselves on making sure if you came to dance, we're going to put something down that you can dance to, and we're going to joke and laugh with you, and we're going to try to entertain you (and) involve you in what we're doing, so your experience is a fun time," Coleman said. "Because next time you want to get somebody, we're hoping it's going to be us."
Where some bands take a load off and enjoy some solitude during mid-performance breaks, Swing Shift members mingle with their audience and take song requests. Even if they don't know how to play the song someone is after, they'll try their best or play something similar, Coleman said.
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