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creative:impact - Johnny’s Speakeasy. IYKYK!

Johnny Williams in Johnny's Speakeasy.
Mark Bialek
Johnny Williams in Johnny's Speakeasy.

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Creative Washtenaw CEO Deb Polich at the WEMU studio.
John Bommarito
89.1 WEMU
Creative Washtenaw CEO Deb Polich at the WEMU studio.


Johnny Williams
Johnny Williams
Johnny Williams

Johnny Williams paid AAA Insurance for a premium replacement policy for 30 years, but when a devastating fire destroyed his home in 2022, AAA was not there for him. After over a year of delays, AAA is now suing Johnny to force a settlement far below the replacement value. To add insult to injury, AAA also unceremoniously kicked him off the temporary housing rider he is entitled to. Johnny is now living in a partially heated old schoolhouse 220 miles from his hometown.

For 30 years, Johnny has opened his home to hundreds of musical acts and thousands of friends, old and new, without ever taking a dime of the money collected for the performing artists. In fact just the opposite – Johnny went to great lengths at his own expense to turn the Speakeasy, a unique rathskeller-type structure under his home that has hosted music since the 1920’s, into one of the best places to see live music anywhere.


Ann Arbor Observer: "House Party: Johnny Williams hosts live music shows in the basement of his home on Dexter Ave."

Save the Speakeasy

Save the Speakeasy: Events

Save the Speakeasy Benefit Concert- The Ark



Deb Polich: Welcome to another year of creative:impact, 89 one WEMU's exclusive segment that showcases the artists, creative people, businesses and organizations that make Washtenaw a great place to live, work, play and visit. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. So, you know, I've been hanging around Washtenaw's arts and creative world for almost 40 years. It still surprises me, though, that I continue to discover art and creative treasures hidden in plain sight. Johnny's Speakeasy is one of those treasures. To my defense, it is a speakeasy and true to its name. You must be in the know to know the secret location. Still, I wonder why I was never on the list. Johnny is here to tell us about the underground music club that he started. But, shhh, don't tell anyone. Johnny, welcome to creative:impact.

Johnny Williams: Hey, thanks so much for having me.

Deb Polich: We're really, really glad you're here. And I want to start out first. For those of us that are not in the know, describe Johnny's Speakeasy.

Johnny Williams: Okay. Well, I bought my house in 1994, and the house next door was built in 1837. It's on the historical register. And it was one of the original farmhouses in Ann Arbor. And my basement, which happened to be across the driveway, was a fruit cellar that was dug out in the 1870s, and it's 15 feet underground with a barrel ceiling. And, in 1920, they put a house over it, a little house that I live in, and it was a speakeasy during the prohibition.

Deb Polich: A real speakeasy?

Fire damage can be seen to the home that housed Johnny’s Speakeasy at 2923 Dexter Road in Ann Arbor on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023.
Jacob Hamilton
Fire damage can be seen to the home that housed Johnny’s Speakeasy at 2923 Dexter Road in Ann Arbor on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023.

Johnny Williams: It was a real speakeasy. I talked to a neighbor of mine at the time. He was in his eighties--Elden. And I asked him, I said, "Elden, did you ever come here when it was a speakeasy?" And he goes, "Oh, yeah! I'll tell you something, Johnny. It was nothing but Germans and cops. And. I said, "Well, did you guys ever have music?" He said, "Well, you know, some joker might show up with an accordion, but we weren't there to listen to music." But he got a kick out of the fact that I had music there.

Deb Polich: So, it's really been a public venue for decades--a century even!

Johnny Williams: Yeah. You know, it depended on who owned the place. I mean, the people that owned it before I did, they used to have music there. Not as elaborate as I did. And then, there was people before them that didn't make it a public thing.

Deb Polich: And how did you actually end up making it more public? I mean, you know, a host, a band or whatever in somebody's basement, I guess, you know, lots of people have live music, but opening it up to the public is another thing.

Johnny Williams: Well, it took me a while. When I first bought it in '94. I knew a lot of musicians because I used to live out of Manchester. Along with other people, we used to have a hoedown. So, I knew, like, the raisin pickers and a bunch of different people, and I tried to get something going. And the first few years, I'd mention it to people and, and they'd look at me like, "You know, Johnny. My dad's got a basement, too, with a picture of Elvis. I don't want to drag myself down there. So, it took about three years. About 1998, it's when it really, really took off. And then, word got out. And then, once word got out, I was getting calls all the time.

Deb Polich: And you've been doing it since. And you're not the only in-home or hidden music venue in these parts. I know of at least two others around town. Do you all connect with each other, or you're all pretty much on your own?

Johnny Williams: You know, we go to each other's shows at times. And then, you know, there's a lot of touring musicians besides just the local people that we support. And we make sure we don't step on each other's toes if we can help it.

Deb Polich: Well, that's always the way we like to do it in the music business. 89 one WEMU's creative:impact continues with Johnny Williams, the man behind Johnny's Speakeasy, a little venue down the road that's been hosting intimate music concerts since the late 1990s. So, how does it work? Do you find the bands, or do they find you?

Johnny Williams: Well, early on, like I said, I knew a lot of local people. And, you know, every local musician that you can think of, I'm pretty sure played at my place. But then. Word got out, and I've even got people from Europe who said, "Hey, I was sitting in a bar someplace. And somebody showed me this video of your place. And we're going to be in the States. Any chance we can play there?" So, after I retired from teaching, I used to do it once a month, and then I got to the point where I was doing it two and three times a month.

Deb Polich: Wow, wow, wow, wow! And and the artists get all the fee. They set the ticket price, and you don't actually collect anything off of that.

Johnny Williams: That's correct. It's usually somewhere between $15 and $25. And they do a PayPal thing, and I don't touch any money. I checked with the city when I got this going and made sure I was okay. And they said, "Well, are you selling alcohol?" I said no. People can bring whatever they want to. And they go, "Yeah. This is just like a home party, so you're fine."

Deb Polich: And that's awesome. So, 30 years in, 40 years, many decades. Do you have a favorite night that stands out?

Johnny Williams: You know, I've had over 500 shows. I've got most of them taped, and I'm getting them cataloged right now. But, you know, there's so many good local people I've had: The Flying Latini Brothers, Dick Siegel, Madcat Ruth. Probably one of the greatest nights I had was a group called The Carpenter Ants from West Virginia. And they're like a soul/gospel group. And they just raised the roof. People didn't want to leave. But, you know, I've had a lot: Sherry Kane and her husband Dave.

Deb Polich: Lots of locals, as well as others from around the country and beyond. That's amazing.

Johnny Williams: Yeah. Billy Strings was probably the main biggest name person, if you know anything about bluegrass. He played at my place with his group and, pretty much, people go, "How did you get a hold of him?" I said, "Well, you know, Billy called me."

Deb Polich: These are all names that are going to be familiar to so many WEMU listeners. So, unfortunately, about a year ago, a fire devastated the venue and your home. Tell us what happened.

Johnny Williams: Well, I've got a one-room schoolhouse up north in Antrim County, and I was up there. And I got up one morning. It was September 1st, 2022, and my phone was blowing up with all my neighbors calling. And before I could find out what was going on, I got a call from the fire department in Ann Arbor. And the fire chief knows me, and he said, "Johnny, I got bad news." I said, "Well, what's going on?" He goes, "Well, there was a fire at your house." I said, "Well, was it pretty bad?" And he goes, "Well, you lost everything." I said, "It burned to the ground?" He goes, "Well, the building's still standing, but the whole insides and all the contents are gone."

Deb Polich: Oh, my gosh!

Johnny Williams: So, I was just kind of devastated.

Deb Polich: I can understand. And ever since, you've been doing your best to rebuild. You've hit a number of roadblocks. But your friends have stepped in to help. Not just help, really, but they've launched a campaign to save the speakeasy. What's in store? What are they doing for you?

Johnny Williams: Oh, my gosh, Deb! I am such a fortunate person. Tonight, it's going to kick off. They've got all these benefit concerts set up for me. Tonight, I think there's like 20 acts are going to be playing at The Ark. And that show sold out, like, in just a matter of days, which I just couldn't believe. And then, I've got shows at On the Tracks that are in Chelsea and Trinity House. And Angela Klein, who is the music director for the Ann Arbor Arts, she's given a stage---

The Ark

Deb Polich: At the Art Fair.

Johnny Williams: At the Art Fair, yeah, for three days in a row. It's going to be people just singing for my benefit. And, I mean, there's just so many great things coming up. If anybody wants to know any of the schedules, if you go to Save the Speakeasy--one word--dot com, it'll have a list of all the all the different venues and the times--and the Manchester Underground, too.

Deb Polich: Such great friends. Really, truly, a true testament to how much Johnny's Speakeasy and you are loved.

Johnny Williams: Like you said, I'm overwhelmed. I mean, I just turned 75 last week, and, you know, I'll get up in the morning some time and just feel kind of down and out about not having my house right now. And I just I think about all the love and support I've got from the community.

Deb Polich: Well, you know, a lot of people would give up at 75 and say, "Well, I'm done with that and move on to the next thing." And is it because of all these friends that you keep it going?

Johnny Williams: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I would have wanted to anyways, but I don't know if I could do it not just financially, but just the morale boosting.

Deb Polich: Well, we're going to look forward to you being back in Ann Arbor and the reopening of Johnny's Speakeasy--your speakeasy. And, better yet, I'm going to be in the audience. So, we're going to wish you great success. And, again, thanks for letting us know about your hidden venue. And we'll look forward to it being live and and online once again.

Johnny Williams: Well, Deb, thank you so much for letting me be on your show today. I really appreciate it.

Deb Polich: It's been great to meet you and to have you here. That's Johnny Williams, whose in-home music venue, Johnny's Speakeasy, was devastated by a fire a couple of years ago. Beloved by local bands and musicians, they have launched a campaign to help Johnny rebuild. Find out more at WEMU dot org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. Please join me every Tuesday to meet the people who make Washtenaw creative. This is 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

If you'd like to a guest on creative:impact, email Deb Polich at deb.polich@creativewashtenaw.org.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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