We united with our family of friends at The Ark for a heartwarming concert of solidarity to bring Johnny Williams home and Save The Speakeasy.
Save the Speakeasy and Bring Johnny Home
I left The Ark last Tuesday night humming the melody and pondering the words of the encore song “Stand By Me.” We’d just experienced several hours of love in the form of music poured out on the stage at the Save The Speakeasy benefit concert.
These words from “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King resonated as we drove home:
If the sky, that we look upon, should tumble and fall
Or the mountains, should crumble, to the sea
I won’t cry, I won’t cry, no-no-no I won’t shed a tear
Just as long, as you stand, by me
A sold-out show raising 30,000 dollars made it clear that Johnny Williams has touched many lives, and they are standing by him in his hour of need. Not only had I attended an incredible show, I had witnessed the best in our community.
The Speakeasy: More than a Music Venue
Johnny Williams has been a long-time resident of Ann Arbor, where he taught special education for over thirty years. He is a devoted fan of music – particularly local Michigan music. In 1994, Johnny threw a party with live music for his colleagues at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District in his basement – a cavernous root cellar dating back to the 1920s. This first show sparked interest in more music from friends and musicians. The fun and funky Johnny’s Speakeasy was born.
The Speakeasy is a special place. More than house concerts, shows here are communal gatherings facilitated by a musical performance. The atmosphere is always friendly, extremely laid back, and welcoming. A night at the Speakeasy provided you with new friends and a one-of-a-kind listening experience– you were part of something bigger.
Disaster struck in September 2022 when a fire gutted Johnny’s home and the Speakeasy. It seems reasonable that the insurance you diligently paid for over 30 years to cover you would be there when you need it. Sadly, this is not the case for our friend Johnny Williams.
The insurance company (AAA) provided a pitiful offer that doesn’t come close to the actual replacement cost of the home. The ongoing dispute over the true cost of rebuilding the home has resulted in a legal battle. Thankfully, Johnny has a dedicated crew of friends who have sprung into action, creating a group called Save The Speakeasy. After organizing protests of AAA and building a Save The Speakeasy website to keep the community informed, the team is booking a series of benefit concerts, with the first being the one we recently attended at The Ark. The goal is clear – get Johnny home and hopefully resurrect the Speakeasy. It should be noted that Johnny Williams is not involved in any of the activities that his friends have organized. If anything, he is quite overwhelmed and humbled by this outpouring of support.
Save The Speakeasy Benefit: Musicians United
You could almost feel the air in The Ark vibrating when we arrived—a who-is-who of local musicians warming up, catching up, and sharing laughs before the show. As the doors opened, a flood of patrons quickly filled the seats at this sold-out show.
Our emcee for the evening was singer/songwriter Chris Buhalis. He shared jokes that weren’t funny (I’m kidding) and did a fantastic job of keeping the show on schedule. The night’s music began with the Whiskey Charmers sharing a new song from their forthcoming album. Rochelle Clark enchanted us with her amazing voice. The Rollie Tussing Trio roused the crowd with the old-time folk song “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” I’m not sure, but I had a feeling Rollie was thinking of AAA as he sang this tune.
Wilson Thicket showed why they are one of the best bands in the land by turning “I Want A New Drug” by Huey Lewis and The News into a ripping bluegrass number. They had everyone hooting and hollering.
Next up was The Sidemen, which features part of the Flying Latini Brothers. They shared how honored they had been to be part of Johnny’s birthday celebrations at the Speakeasy by playing the first song they had ever played there called “Crowbar Hotel.” Man, if ever a musical act captured the rock and roll strength of The Band, it is The Sidemen.
Al Bettis shared that he hasn’t yet had a chance to play the Speakeasy, but when asked to lend his musical talents for this show, he jumped at the chance. If you have not heard the Al Bettis Trio, stop reading right now and sign up for his newsletter so you can stay in touch. Their music is outstanding, evocative, and emotional.
Playing a new song, they wrote about the Speakeasy was Billy King with San and Emily Slomovits. This song captures the unique qualities that make Johnny’s Speakeasy so endearing to everyone who has played the stage or experienced a performance. As their song goes, the Speakeasy is “Ann Arbor’s best-kept secret.” Well, at least it was until now.
Lending A Hand
During a quick break, Doug Selby shared the latest news from the Save the Speakeasy team. Doug is a good friend of Johnny’s and a local builder. His interview on Fox 2 Detroit highlights the damage done by the fire and AAA’s failure to cover the loss.
Doug introduced Ron Miller from the North Country Opera, who explained how instrumental the Speakeasy had been to the opera. In recognition of the value that the Speakeasy provides the music community, North Country Opera Productions donated $1500. Doug then put up $1000 of his money and reached out to the audience for various levels of support. The response was amazing. In a matter of minutes, 16k was raised. By the end of the evening, with ticket proceeds and the Ark volunteers chipping in all their tips, this benefit raised 30k. Paraphrasing Chris Buhalis, we live among superheroes.
Bringin It Home
With the break over, the music ramped up into full swing with the Judy Banker Band. Judy dedicated her song “Sweetest Rain” to Johnny – a country anthem about holding on through tough times. Dave Boutette and Kristi Davis shared a folksy tune dedicated to those who will hopefully one day ring the bell at Johnny’s schoolhouse in East Jordan.
Annie and Rod Capps Band wowed the crowd with stellar musicianship on “When They Fall.” This was followed by Shari Kane and Dave Steele playing a nostalgic tune full of rich vocals and swinging slide guitar. Shari stayed put as she joined Peter Madcat Ruth for a burning blues song replete with sizzling harp.
Chris Buhalis took a break from his emcee duties to talk about the power of love and the strength of our community while making the point that it probably isn’t wise for big corporations to mess with hard-working people such as our friend Johnny Williams. Chris then jumped into his song “Daddy Worked The High Steel,” which resonates with the powerful working-class roots that so many of us in Michigan can relate to.
Heading into the final stretch was Dick Siegel playing a jumping tune with plenty of swing. Misty Lyn and the Big Beautiful were up next. Misty shared how she felt the word “belonging” captured the essence of the Speakeasy and the importance of places like it and The Ark. Jim Roll (bass) then shared a hilarious story about the last time he played Johnny’s, where he ended up spending an evening with a couple of ax throwing nurses and their husbands. The band then launched into a wistful tune that seemed to capture the essence of the evening to end the set.
More Work To Do
The musicians who performed at the Save The Speakeasy benefit concert at the Ark joined together for an encore of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” which ended in a standing ovation.
There is more work ahead for the Save The Speakeasy team. They have partnered with Manchester Underground Music and Art for another Save the Speakeasy benefit concert at the River Raisin Distillery in Manchester on Feb. 17. This show will be another doozy with Chris Buhalis opening for The Carpenter Ants from West Virginia. The show also features Larry Groce and special guest Jackson Smith. The show is sold out; however, a few standing-room-only tickets are available.
More benefit concerts are scheduled for Apr. 14 at the Trinity House Theatre in Livonia and Jun. 12 at the Chelsea Depot. Stay tuned to SaveTheSpeakeasy.com for more information, including lineups and tickets.
We have a ton of photos from the Save the Speakeasy benefit concert at The Ark. Please drop into our gallery to check them out.
Become a Supporter!
We wholeheartedly extend an invitation for you to become part of our Life In Michigan community. Your support is not just appreciated—it is vital. It is the lifeline that allows us to continue unveiling the unique and captivating narratives that paint Michigan in its true, vibrant colors. Whether you buy us a beer or choose to offer more sustained support via Substack, every contribution enriches our mission.
If our content has resonated with you, we urge you to become ambassadors of our stories. Share our work on your social media, or forward a link to someone who would appreciate it as much as you do. We are grateful for your support in every form. You breathe life into our cause and keep the spirit of Life in Michigan thriving.
We’d love it if you’d like our Facebook page. Better yet, subscribe to our newsletter through Substack. Life In Michigan posts and our Sunday Sip Newsletter are delivered directly to your email. You can also find us on Instagram.