Share this article

print logo


A SLEEK BLACK Jaguar convertible catnaps in front of the Cafe Zanzibar, at Main and High streets.
Preparing for the July grand opening of a new supper club, lawyer LeRoi "Roy" Johnson explains that the Jag isn't his.

Nor does it belong to his brother, the flamboyant singer Rick James, an aficionado of high-energy cars and music.

It belongs to Lenny Silver, he says, just as the local golden record producer slips by to wish Johnson good luck. Unlike Slick Rick -- seen about Buffalo in his silver Rolls, Excalibur and Mercedes -- Johnson says he couldn't care less about cars and designer labels.

"I drive a '75 'Z.' It gets me where I want to go. I can leave it open and not worry about it."

Roy Johnson, who lives with his mother in a Chapin Parkway mansion, is the low-key half of the Brothers Johnson.

As a ghetto wild child, Rick James (born James Johnson) bounced around different Buffalo high schools before dropping out to turn on America's funk scene. Meanwhile, straight Roy was a dean's-list student at Canisius College and got his law degree from Georgetown University.

Rick wears flowing silk. Roy wears buttoned-down oxford cloth.

Rick is controversial. Roy is conservative.

Rick is staccato. Roy is adagio.

"But they're both passionate about what they do," says Jim Bush, Buffalo's celebrity photographer.

Roy Johnson, who worked for the district attorney and U.S. Department of Labor and in Washington, D.C., today puts his corporate law expertise to work in the underpinning of Rick's sound world.

This Johnson is also nostalgic about Buffalo's rock history. And that's why he wants to bring back the Zanzibar name.

In the '50s, the country's hottest DJ, "Hound Dog" George Lorenz, howled from the Zanzibar on Buffalo's East Side. Keeping cool under neon palm trees, the Zanzibar brought in big club names, performers like Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. Little Roy would climb up on the Hound Dog's lap sometimes when he did his show. The club even had its own dance: the Zanzibar Shuffle.

Not that the '50s were the happiest time for Roy Johnson.

When he was 10, he was almost killed. A truck hit him while he was riding his bike on Jefferson Avenue. The accident left him bedridden for almost three years.

"Just about everything in my body was broken," he recalls.

Yet he credits that misfortune with keeping him away from drugs and crime, and opening his mind to books. In bed, he couldn't do much more than read encyclopedias from cover to cover. He memorized details about the presidents' lives and dreamed about faraway places he would find in atlases. Like Africa, where he would journey years later.

"The Buffalo school system sent me a great tutor, who gave me educational tools. She taught me how to study, how to write, how to apply myself as a student.

"Wherever I went I had to stay there for a while -- I couldn't move at all until someone came and got me -- so I learned to observe everything."

His mother, Betty Gladden, who single-handedly raised eight children, worked two jobs to send him to college.

"She has a lot of energy; she's hard to keep up with. I wish I had more of her energy," he laughs. "I'm more slowpoke style. They call me '78 speed.' "

Johnson, says photographer Bush, "is very sensitive. He's one of the nicest persons I know."

Tragedy has touched Roy Johnson more than once.

Just as his brother was climbing the pop charts in the early '80s, Johnson's wife, Brenda, also an attorney, was dying of cancer.

"I died with her," says the widower, now 41. "It was like starting a second life.

"I began to think out things more clearly. I'm a realist. I pay a lot of attention to detail. I try to be an optimist, but I look at all the sides. Then I do a balancing act when I have to deal with budgets and the reality of 'what is.' "

Roy minored in philosophy at Canisius. Brother Rick is fiercely proud of his sibling's scholarly achievements:

"He didn't care about gang-busting. He didn't care about going out with the kids and drinking wine on the corners. He didn't care about smoking marijuana. All he cared about was going to Canisius and going to school every day. I used to watch him sacrifice. I was out havin' fun. He would be into the books every day, and I could never understand it. But when he made dean's list at Canisius and Georgetown, all of that sacrifice paid off."

He's also grateful to his younger brother for being one of his earliest supporters.

"Rick was always a free spirit you couldn't tie down," Roy remembers.

"I was one of the only ones who really believed in him. I would go and brag to people about Rick. And they'd say: 'Rick James? I never heard of him.' 'Yes, he's up in Canada, he's going to be big one day.' Guys used to laugh at me."

Today the brothers -- barrister and artist -- bolster each other's strengths.

"Yeah, we got it locked up, the alpha and beta, the right side and the left side of the brain," James commented. However he can't resist a bit of sibling one-upmanship: "But which is the smartest? . . . Just kidding."

Though he has traveled the world, Roy Johnson believes, "There's no better city than Buffalo. You can't live like you live in Buffalo anywhere.

"It's not congested, it's relaxing. Buffalo is a jewel. We have a lot of quaint places with amenities you don't have in another city, where you'd have to pay $20 to park, $20 to get into a nightclub, and pay $6 for a drink."

Opening the Zanzibar with partner Zellie Dow, Johnson fashions the glamorous club for an upscale clientele:

"Buffalo is coming back. It'll be a good thing for the city to have another establishment, another choice, another entertainment spot."

Also expressing the desire to see downtown grow, Brent Trammell, of Trammell's Little Harlem's Nightclub, isn't worried about competition.

"It can only help business, bring more people out," says the son of Wilbur Trammell, the former Buffalo mayoral candidate and judge. Little Harlem's is a family business, Brent explains. So in planning Cafe Zanzibar, Roy Johnson says he got in touch with Wilbur Trammell. They're brothers of the bar in more ways than one.

Over Cafe Zanzibar's marble fireplace hang pictures of various Rick James band members. There's a mirrored dance floor, warm Caribbean-style barn wood and a fine sound and light system. The menu includes shellfish New Orleans Sautee, orange ginger Chicken Zanzibar, with side orders of sweet potatoes, black beans and rice. One club sign denotes the distance from Buffalo to Zanzibar, the island city off Africa's southeastern coast: 7,738 miles.

"It's on the other side of the world," Johnson says.

"For thousands of years, it was a meeting point for the Africans, Arabs and Orientals, a metropolitan port. That's part of the concept of this place."

The supper club will feature live music, jazz groups, a place where people can dine and dance.

"Without loud music pumping at you all the time." But the tempo will pick up after midnight. Johnson envisions reggae nights, new wave nights. "It's a happy place," comments a preview patron, Buffalo artist Curtis Parker.

An impeccable host in a cream wool suit, the restaurateur puts on his brother's soulful hit duet with Teena Marie, "Fire and Desire."

"We'll play Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, Luther Vandross.

"And of course," he adds with a smile, "Rick."

There are no comments - be the first to comment