Back to Archives

The Red Man

Sound Check: Pianist David Rhys-Johnson is a hard man to follow.

Email Article Print Article Share on Facebook Share on Reddit Share on StumbleUpon

It took several attempts to get an interview with David Rhys-Johnson, aka The Red Man. We played phone tag for days since he frequently travels out of town for piano gigs and lessons. He seems to be constantly on the move. Tonight you can catch him as he performs at Blue Mouse Theater as part of the Sister City International Film Festival.

Once I got him on the phone, Rhys-Johnson answered my questions like a man on fire. He spoke quickly in excited tones, and I got the sense that behind every answer there were 20 or 30 stories he could tell me about each thing and all of them would be fascinating but he had only enough time to give me the highlights. We started at the beginning.

“I grew up in a deeply religious gospel family. Mom bought a piano when I was 9 years old. When I was 12, I started playing at the church. The music there was very improvisational,” he says.

He took piano lessons from age 12 to 17 where he learned basic theory, but the style he developed didn’t come from that. He was more influenced by the music of the ’60s and the ’70s — particularly the Beatles, the Doors, The Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Bob Dylan. His MySpace page says his music sounds similar to Ray Charles, David Lanz, Yanni, Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Joel, Peter Kater, and Liberace.

Though most kids would rather be outside playing than practicing piano, he says, “I didn’t have a problem practicing. I had a problem practicing what I was supposed to be playing.”

He was always more comfortable as an improv player, using his fingers to express what he was feeling on the keys. As I spoke to him, it became apparent that he would rather answer my questions with piano strokes than words.

I could hear him tinkering with the keys in the background while we spoke. It was as if he couldn’t wait to hang up so he could set the music inside him free.

“I was always able to express what I wanted to say with music. It transports you to another place,” he says.

Though Rhys-Johnson didn’t study music as a career intentionally, wherever life took him the music always followed. In his early adult years, he says he was a typical child of the ’60s. He calls himself a converted hippie. He spent a few years at University of California - Santa Barbara, not as a student but as part of the Jesus movement. He was part of a team of street ministers who also ran a 24-hour hotline. He describes that part of his life as very turbulent with four major movements happening at once: the civil rights movement, the feminism movement, the anti-Vietnam movement, and the Jesus movement. “I watched them burn down all the buildings around us except for ours.”

After that, he moved to Sierra Nevada and spent more than a decade living a quiet life in the mountains teaching music at a Christian school and raising his children. He has five grown children — three girls and two boys. Both boys followed in their dad’s footsteps and learned piano. His son Mathew Johnson has his own music career with fans as far away as Japan, and like his father, he has several albums of his own composition.

“His music is not the typical 24-year-old music,” says Rhys-Johnson. “Most kids his age are into hip-hop. His music is very internal, thought provoking and heart moving. He has a Zen quality. Mine is more energetic, ’60s and ’70s rock ’n’ roll, gospel, folk, Yanni … whatever skin I need to put on; as a chameleon, I can do that. I do special parties with special themes such as Spanish, Russian … . I definitely have a love for international music.”

Rhys-Johnson moved to Washington state upon urging from his daughter, who had moved here to be near her husband’s family. These days Red Man is a sought after performer for live events, accompaniment to singers, studio work, and lessons. He is quick to point out that he makes only about a quarter of his income from lessons because he chooses to work only with a select few special people.

He has performed in front of as many as 7,000 people. One time he played a concert in Sacramento, Calif., in front of music teachers from across the nation, all of them highly educated musicians. Since his talents are largely self-taught, he felt like this was quite an honor. He also played for the dedication of the new glass Menorah at the Tacoma Jewish Temple last year. He says that is probably the reason he was selected to perform Jewish music at the film festival. 

He says although it is fun to put on big shows, he also doesn’t mind playing background music. He says he can tailor the music to fit the mood in the room, or he can intentionally change it by the choice of songs and method of playing.

At the reception preceding the Israeli-Oscar winning film Broken Wings at Blue Mouse Theater, he intends to play Hebrew holiday songs, Jewish folk music, klezmer, and a few songs suggested by local Jewish leaders.

Doors open tonight at 5:45 p.m.; refreshments will be served, and the film begins at 7 p.m. Broken Wings is about a widow and her four teenage children coping with the loss of her husband and their father.

For more information about David “Red Man” Rhys-Johnson visit or

[Blue Mouse Theater, David “Red Man” Rhys-Johnson precedes Israeli film Broken Wings, Thursday Feb. 28, 6 p.m. $18, 2611 N. Proctor St., Tacoma 253.752.9500]

My name is Angie and I’m just a shot away — If you can’t rock me, somebody will.

comments powered by Disqus