Remembering 'a Bermuda icon’
Six years after his death, there’s a new song about Johnny Barnes.
It was written by Greg Morrison, a prolific songwriter who uses music as “an opportunity to give back in some small way” to the island he has called home for nearly two decades.
As with many of his songs, he turned to “the extremely talented” John Woolridge for help.
The pair met five years ago when Steve Easton, the late singer, songwriter and music producer, asked Mr Woolridge if he would produce a video for one of Mr Morrison’s songs, Paradise Lake.
Mr Woolridge has “probably produced about five or six” of Mr Morrison’s songs in the years since, including one about a wedding, This Bermuda Night, and a song about Mary Prince.
“I always enjoy watching a song transform from an idea in one’s mind to a musical presentation that one can share with others,” Mr Woolridge said.
What also piqued his interest was Mr Morrison’s desire to have Bermudians sing the leads in all his songs about the island.
“Our first attempt was the song called Mary Prince; a young singer, Chinerye Nwasika, did a fabulous job. For Johnny Barnes I approached Korrin Jameel Lightbourne. I’d heard him sing at a church worship night and he had just an expressive tone and a commanding range.”
The singer “willingly came in at the very beginning and did a great job”.
“We're excited about him being on board. Jameel has a wonderfully smooth and rich voice and he really nailed the expression and communicated the essence of what Johnny Barnes was trying to say to the island of Bermuda about love and how Johnny Barnes simply expressed his love by just consistently being there at the roundabout,” Mr Woolridge said.
“That's something that Greg would like to try to do more often with songs about Bermuda in the future. It would be a wonderful experience for young talent to come to a recording studio and bring historical Bermudian characters to life.”
For close to 30 years Mr Barnes stood at the roundabout at Crow Lane from roughly 4am until 10am, waving to Hamilton commuters and telling them he loved them.
Although he only met Mr Barnes once before he died on July 9, 2016 at the age of 93, Mr Woolridge remains impressed by his legacy.
“He discovered his mission after he retired,” he said of the former bus driver.
“He may have serviced the island in his vocation but he transformed the island with his passion. He was just so happy at the roundabout, so sincerely expressive about connecting and loving — which was something you knew wasn’t a put-on, it was something that was in him, bursting out. It was just wonderful.”
It also inspired Mr Morrison. The songwriter described his muse as “a Bermuda icon” who “was known and loved around the world”.
“I used to drive by Johnny Barnes at the roundabout on my way to town,” he said. “His energy and enthusiasm for life always made me feel good. It gave me a little happiness to start my day.”
The project was a good fit for Mr Woolridge, whose life was “full of music”.
The head of the music department at the Berkeley Institute, he played with “an awesome music team” at his church, Cities of Refuge Ministries, and met “all sorts of talented musicians and singers” through Just Platinum recording studio.
“These are some of the things that will always motivate and energise me,” he said. “I spend time enjoying listening to what my students create and encouraging them to pursue their talents.
“My wife also is a fantastic singer, both of my daughters sing and one is a producer. My brother Wentworth Woolridge is an amazing bassist and guitarist.”
As a child, however, Mr Woolridge dreamt of becoming a doctor with his friend, Theodore Stephens.
“He went on to fulfil that dream and I began to fall in love with music and pursue this as my calling. I remember being drawn to music,” Mr Woolridge said.
He played the drums and bugle while in the Boys Brigade at Christ Church Devonshire, and studied music theory at Saltus Grammar School where Bill Duncan “took me under his wing”.
“I began to play the bass guitar in the school band and piano on my own,” said Mr Woolridge, who received a bachelor’s degree from Berklee College of Music in Boston and a master’s degree in education from Alabama A&M in Huntsville.
On his return to Bermuda he taught at Berkeley and CedarBridge Academy.
He considers his work as a producer for musicians such as Mr Morrison an extension of his teaching.
“The arrangement that you hear is what I create as the producer. As a producer of my own work, I remain focused on what I want to hear from my heart. When I produce for others I try to hear and understand what they are trying to express. My goal is to give their work the best presentation but remain transparent enough that the audience hears the composer's message.”
The best thing about the song is that it honours someone who would be remembered by people who are still living, Mr Woolridge said.
“When we think of retirement we might imagine that this is the time to take it easy, sleep in, play golf and just relax. But Johnny Barnes is one who modelled for us, for 30 years, there is more we can do to make our island a better place. He took the time to show up every morning at the roundabout and tell us that he loves us.”