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Arts and Entertainment

N.C. native goes from backup to solo debut
Shelby Johnson talks working with Prince and Anthony Hamilton and why she loves calling North Carolina home..
Published Wednesday, December 19, 2012 12:05 pm
by Michaela L. Duckett

Even though she performed during one of the highest rated Super Bowl halftime shows in history and worked with artists such as Prince,

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Johnson released her first single titled "North Carolina" on Dec. 12. The track was produced by Prince and features Anthony Hamilton on vocals.

D'Angelo, Mary J. Blige and Anthony Hamilton, you probably won't recognize Shelby Johnson-Allen. She is hoping that all that is about to change. On Dec. 12, the Greensboro native, who goes by the stage name Shelby J., released her first solo single, "North Carolina." The song is produced by Prince and features Hamilton, a fellow native North Carolinian, on vocals.

Johnson says the single is her "coming out" of sorts.

"It's my first chance at being Batman instead of Robin," said the vocalist, who has spent the bulk of her career singing backup.

As the title suggests, the song pays homage to Johnson's home state.

"No matter where I've gone in the world, North Carolina has made me the kind of person that I am," she said. "Everything that is North Carolina and that's in me, I wanted to get out in this song."

Johnson said the song was inspired by everything from her mother's collard greens and N.C. A&T homecoming football games to the Morningside Massacre, which occurred when Johnson was 7 years old. Five people were shot and killed during a confrontation with members of the Ku Klux Klan, who were later acquitted by an all-white jury.

"We haven't always shown our best as a state," said Johnson. "But there is still no place I'd rather live. I love the people. I love the community. I love my state."

As much as Johnson loves her state, she left it for a while to pursue her dreams. In the early 1990s, she boarded a train and traveled to New York where she sang in any venue that would have her. She landed her first gig at Sylvia's Restaurant and then began hosting an open mic at the restaurant owner's lounge, Sylvia's Also.

Soon, she booked a gig singing with the group Groove Theory, who at the time was enjoying the success of its hit single "Tell Me."

After the tour with Groove Theory ended, Johnson returned to New York. She started doing jingles. Her biggest contract was becoming the voice of K-Mart. You probably remember her jingle: "Right here, right now. There is no better place I'd like to be. Right here, right now..."
She started working with D'Angelo at the same time Hamilton was singing backup for him. She and Hamilton knew of each other from back home. While D'Angelo was taking a break, Hamilton got his solo deal and invited Johnson to tour with him.

Soon, Johnson found herself in Vegas performing with another artist at Prince's nightclub. The next week, she was performing the halftime show with Prince during the 2007 Super Bowl.

"I was the one in the white," Johnson recalls. "I did a (duet) with him. We did 'Proud Mary'... After that, I had to get a new phone number. Everything changed."

Now that Johnson is focusing on her solo career, she continues to apply what she learned while working with Prince.

"I have learned how to be better at everything that I do," she said. "I learned how to push myself. Good is not good enough. You want to be great... When you become more disciplined, you stop making excuses. You start making progress."

Johnson lives in Charlotte with her husband of nearly two years. She plans to release her first full album in the spring.


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