The irony was not lost on Timothy "Romeo" Johnson last week as he sat in his mother's house in the Highway 58 area.
The 30-year reunion of his Brainerd High School class was last weekend, but Johnson was a day early. He would be spending the weekend working in Nashville.
"Man, I almost wish I was back in LA instead of this close," he said. "I hate that I'm going to miss it."
Johnson was in Tennessee to audition performers vying for a spot on "The Voice," the NBC singing competition. He is the only vocal coach on the show and is involved in every leg of the competition from auditions to finals.
Since leaving Chattanooga for Los Angeles in the early '80s, Johnson has crafted a career that has included being the only backup singer to have performed live with both Michael and Janet Jackson. He's also worked with Snoop Dog, P. Diddy and Beyonce.
Q: How are the auditions going, and do you attend all of them and hear every contestant?
A: This is what happens pretty much. I went to all the different cities last year. We had between 700-1000 people. Now we are getting 10,000 to 12,000. We have someone from a casting agency Michelle McNulty, A&R rep Lee Chestnut and myself. We have open calls and then we call back the ones we like and then we narrow it down to 25 or 30 people from each city.
They are sent to LA and they perform for the TV executives and we all take notes. We narrow that down to 100 people. Then I have to coach every one of them.
We prepare them for the blind audition in front of Christine Aguilera, Blake Shelton, Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green.
Q: You can't listen to 12,000 people. Do you pretty much hear the first note and say, 'Next,' with some of them.
A: Exactly, but we've chosen to basically be pleasant. We are not trying to be mean, but at the same time, we have to be efficient.
Q: The blind audition is different. Do you like that element?
A: Yes. The celebrity coaches' chairs are turned so that can't see the performer. It is all about singing. But, there is also a full audience there who can see you so you have to impress them also. The coaches pick up on whether you are connecting with the audience.
The battle round is fun to watch, too. With the other shows, you can kind of determine who will make it to the later rounds, but on this show, the two best people can be paired against each other in the battle round and one goes home.
Q: As the only vocal coach, how do you avoid picking a favorite, or being accused of picking a favorite?
A: Certain people come in and they are amazing. You help them, but others come in and they aren't as strong and you get involved in helping them. By the time it is all over, they end up like my children -- or brothers and sisters depending on their age. You become neutral like you do with your kids. They all have strengths and weaknesses.
Name: Timothy "Romeo" Johnson.
Education: Brainerd High School, UTC.
Vocation: Vocal coach for "The Voice," performer.
Children: Christopher and Nycalis.
Movie: "Life" with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence.
Books: The Bible, "Battlefield of the Mind."
Song: "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Bonnie Raitt.
Quote, expression or saying: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
Q: Do they ever say, "Romeo spent more time with her and if he'd done that for me, I would have won."
A: This show is all about fairness. I have to spend the exact same amount of time with each contestant. We tried to have a female and male coach for five days at first and I had to undo some of what the other person did and a lot of contestants did say, 'I wish I'd had Romeo from the beginning. I would have done better.'
Q: What else are you into these days?
A: I have my other private clients and I'm writing a book. It's basically teaching people how to have a successful career with longevity. You have to work on the craft, of course, but it addresses things like people skills, having a thick skin and being aggressive without being offensive.
Q: Do you have people ask for advice on how they can win your show or "American Idol?"
A: Yes, but I've gotten that since Sam Sims and I first moved out here. I guess being from the South we just have a different work ethic. We did a lot of things that a lot of people in LA didn't do.
I remember when I was 17 I was crazy about Prince and The Time. I loved (producers) Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and I looked on the back of the album and saw the name of their management. I found their number and called. Someone answered and I said, "I want to speak to Clarence." He actually picked up the phone and I froze up and hung up.
Can you believe that? The thing is, it opened my mind and 30 minutes later I was thinking, what if I'd had something to present. I need to be prepared because it can happen. It opened my mind to just go for it.
When I was in LA for the first time I saw Quincy Jones and told my friend I was going to say hello. He said you can't do that. We talked for like 20 minutes. I was respectful, but I also wanted him to know I had something special, too.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...