I have been writing and covering press events about Walt Disney World for over 10 years. For someone who has loved Disney and his legacy since childhood, it is a dream come true! How many jobs take you to the Happiest place on the planet and experience the magic firsthand. However, one of the most gratifying aspects of the task is meeting some of the most amazing and talented people who have made Walt Disney’s Theme Parks the most desired venue to vacation to. I have met and befriended countless cast members, managers, artists and people that have added their talents and skills to the fold. Today, in this interview, I count another remarkable and talented gentleman I can add to the list, and another Disney friend. Derric Johnson, is the founder and creator of the Voices of Liberty who perform at EPCOT’s American Adventure Pavilion. This a Capella group have been entertaining Guests since opening day. Here is the story behind one the most beloved shows on Disney property…
MN- Where were you born?
DJ- Oakland, California.
MN- Where did you grow up?
DJ- Oakland California
MN- Voices of Liberty are, of course, a musical singing group. Do you have a musical background?
DJ- Yes. I took piano lessons for about 9 months, but I wanted to play football, but I didn’t do any music in High school. When I got to college, I met some great guys I liked a lot, they were great musicians. I got backed into music then.
MN- Did your parents encourage your love of music?
DJ- Yes, my mom really wanted me to take piano lessons.
MN- When and who developed the concept of the Voices of Liberty?
DJ- It started with the group Re’Generation. We were hired to do a bunch of shows at the Magic Kingdom and establish stages for them. The show, Star Spangled spectacular where they build a stage for us back in 1973 and a stage in then Downtown Disney, now Disney Springs in 1977 for a Living Nativity Scene.
MN- Can you give us a quick background of the group, Re’Generation?
DJ- It was a gospel traveling group, we did 500 shows a year, 11 a week. Disney discovered us singing up in Jacksonville Florida. One of the members of the Civitan Club, an electrical contractor who put the Magic Kingdom together, was best friends with Bob Cross the music entertainment director for the Magic Kingdom. He said…” Bob has to hear you guys, you gotta get there!” Bob called us, Re’Generation went in to sing, and that is how everything began. We did Star Spangled Spectacular 10 years before EPCOT opened.
MN- How does the casting call go out for singers for the group? For replacements, etc.
DJ- Disney talent casting takes care of all that. Now we move up 10 years. Now we are at EPCOT, for the opening of EPCOT. We try to get singers from the company, but there was not enough of that caliber, or quality of singers to be in Voices, so we had to go out and recruit people that we knew, that we worked with before from Re’Generation.
MN- This was before the internet, so it was more word of mouth?
DJ- Telephone! “Hello”, “Would you like to come sing for me again?
MN- What are the criteria for the singers?
DJ- Our auditions are in three phases…One is a solo, you get about 2 minutes because we sometimes get over 200 auditionees in a day. Let me hear your voice, your style, your range. If we want to hear more, we call you back the next day, divide you into groups, soprano, alto, tenor and bass. The Soprano’s sing “Summertime” The Alto’s sing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. Tenor’s do “Danny Boy” and Bass sings “Old Man River”. From that, we bring them back in the afternoon, because we keep trimming them down. We then bring in the Voices of Liberty real cast. We move you into the group, if you sing low alto, Debbie who is my wife, who at that point was the premiere low alto, she would move out and you would move in and take her part, give you the music and see if you can blend. Pavarotti could never sing in Voices of Liberty. It’s not that he’s not good enough, but his voice does not match what we do.
MN- When did the first performance begin?
DJ- Opening day, October 1982.
MN- How is the group managed?
DJ- Now, of course, Disney does everything. But when it started, I did it. I was the show director, producer, and musical director.
MN- How many singers are in the group?
DJ- They sing eight at a time and a lead, so there is nine on the floor. That’s the normal casting call, but we had to have 16 singers because you had to do 7 shows, 7 days a week, no one can sing 7 days a week for 52 weeks! You had to have 3 altos to cover 3 spots. You have to have some subs, people go on vacation, get sick, whatever. We went to a double cast for a while after President Regan heard us. We had as many as 32 singers in the cast.
MN- How are the singers rotated for the performances?
DJ- One cast does the whole day.
MN- How are interviews for future singers organized? Say two people quit or retire?
DJ- I always had people in my pocket. Someone left, I knew someone I wanted in. From past auditions, or past work with me. They have what they call a war room in the entertainment office where there are pictures posted of all the cast. They video every audition for the callbacks.
MN- Who designs the costumes, they are extremely elegant.
MN- How many different costumes are used?
DJ- Each person has one costume for the show. We don’t do wardrobe changes during the show, but each person has two of their costumes. These costumes are incredibly expensive. All of the costumes are custom made for each singer. The costumes are authentic, if you are a Dickens character, they want you to feel like a Dickens character.
MN- Are the costumes ever changed is style?”
DJ- Some, but they all stay very period.
MN- How often does the group rehearse?
DJ- Not as much anymore. When I started, we need a month to rehearse before opening day. From then it was 2 days every month, then a week to rehearse Christmas music.
MN- Do all the singers rehearse at the same time?
DJ- Every day it’s the singers of the day, but when you bring them in for the big rehearsals, its everybody.
MN- Is there a leader for the group?
DJ- A vocal captain. He or she will call the show. We have about 75 Americana songs and another 60 Christmas songs in the repertoire. Our show keeps changing, we have opener songs, closer songs, warm fuzzy songs and humorous songs and what I call message songs. The Captain is the lead; each show is different.
MN- Are any guest requests ever taken?
DJ- Beforehand, very seldom during the show do they do that. If we find out somebody has a birthday, we have an arrangement of Happy Birthday. Or if someone is celebrating a 50th anniversary, we’ll sing If I fall in love. So, we can do that, but not during the show. We have a timeframe because of the upstairs show which runs on a clock!
MN- Do the singers or the captain ever change the program during a show?
DJ- They can, but there has got to be a reason to do that. One thing they will change, they will assign a solo, like for “Skip to My Lou” if it’s a guy and there are no little girls out in the front row, then it changes to a girl, if there are little boys, so that can go on the fly. They use hand signals to see if you are off or on.
MN- Is there an age limit for the singers? You have to be at least 18 years old.
DJ- Of course, I always try not to use 18-year old’s because it’s a strenuous schedule, you are going to do seven shows a day, for 5 days, that’s 35 shows, and five songs per show. That’s 1500 in a year. It’s going to really wear on you, you have to have a physical structure, it’s just not there. 25 years old is settled.
MN- Do you recall the youngest performer?
DJ- It was probably the performer Rachel Herr; she was 18 years old.
MN- The oldest performer?
DJ- Probably Kevin Miles.
MN- There were lots of rumors circulating after the removal of the fife and drum corps that the Voices of Liberty could be next. Any truth to that?
DJ- Oh yeah, happens all the time. It’s a very expensive show. They own the show.
MN- How involved is the Voices of Liberty in the celebration of the Christmas Holidays?
DJ- Very. They sing at Candlelight production, I wrote that show for Disney; directed and conducted it for 25 years.
MN- How did you learn how to do all the arrangements, and directions, did you have to go to college for this experience?
DJ- By practical experience, you don’t learn that in College, there is no way that could be taught. I taught at a University for 6 years. You have to do it.
MN- Do the Voices of Liberty perform any outside shows or benefits other than Disney?
DJ- Oh yes, Disney will send Voices out very often and we have a side group of singers called Liberty Voices because we cannot use the name “Voices of Liberty” off campus. Disney is very careful about people making money off their name.
MN- Are they any time restrictions or length of service for performers?
DJ- If you can do the job, you get the job.
MN- How often is new material added?
DJ- When I was there, about every month we would bring in new charts, but they don’t do that anymore.
MN- So they basically stay with what material they have now?
DJ- Maybe two or three times a year they bring in extra material, some new material.
MN- It was wonderful talking to you, can you think of anything to add what we have talked about?
DJ- I just want to say that my time with Disney was absolutely fabulous, I liked every single minute of it, I loved the people I worked with, it was really a great time!
MN- Does Disney ever contact you today for follow up advice or information?
DJ- I talk to them from time to time, but everybody moves on.
MN- So now Disney directs and manages the entire show now?
DJ- Yes, totally. I have nothing to do with it at all.
MN- Derric, thank you again for your time!