By Amanda Gordon
Alexandria, VA – When Alexandria musician and beloved local treasure Johnny Artis, “the man with the biggest heart”, was unexpectedly diagnosed with congestive heart failure early in January, his fans and fellow musicians knew what they had to do – band together to support him and his family, including his 9-year-old son, Elijah.
On Sunday, January 26, five bands, including Artis’ own, did just that: they threw a fundraiser at The Light Horse Restaurant at 715 King Street in Old Town. The bash turned into an outpouring of love and support for a man who has brought so much joy and many happy memories to his legions of local fans.
He Makes Us Dance ‘Til Our Feet Bleed
Among those in attendance on Sunday were Michelle Cappelle and Anthony Barile who said that they have known Artis for 40 years and that he has “played the music for some of the most fabulous nights of my life. He makes us dance till our feet bleed.”
Cappelle and Barile are not alone: The Johnny Artis Band was established in 1986 and has been one of the most dynamic and versatile bands on the Alexandria scene since. The group is known for playing jazz, blues, Southern rock, funk, swing, reggae, country and more and is able to range from a two-piece acoustic duo to a full-fledged 15-piece band including keys, strings, horns, percussion and of course the phenomenal Johnny Artis vocals.
Fans remember seeing him play at The Wharf, at the 219 Basin Street Lounge, Moose Lodge, private house parties along the Potomac, as well as in area venues from Manassas to Adams Morgan.
The Man with the Biggest Heart
Perhaps more than his amazing musical performances, however, what most people seem to love most about Artis is his presence and the heart he brings to his performances: “the soul and making people feel good” as donor Larry Thomas put it.
Light Horse Event Manager Duncan Cameron said throwing the event was “a no brainer” He and Artis were roommates years ago, and Artis was a best man in Cameron’s wedding. More than that, the men share a special connection: In 2015, Cameron had what he thought were ongoing seasonal allergies. It was Artis who convinced him to see a doctor, and, Cameron said, “I walked out with a stage four throat cancer diagnosis. Johnny was on the stage for a couple of the benefits held for me. He has performed at so many other benefits for other people over the years. So many, so much of his time. We had to do this for him.”
Artis’ wife, Lili, attended the fundraiser with Elijah and said it was “a great event with phenomenal energy”. She said Elijah’s relationship with Artis is very unique because they are each other’s hero. “They are so in tune with one another that they can sense when something is wrong without seeing each other,” she said.
Among those performing at the fundraiser on Sunday were approximately 20-30 musicians, all of whom have shared the stage with Artis over the years. They included Form of Expression, a Manassas band that fuses rock, reggae, and funk; One Night Stand, a DC band playing jazz, rhythm and blues, and Motown; The Tighty Whiteys; The Road Ducks, a guitar-driven Southern rock band; and, of course, Artis’s own band. Musician Joe Bernui emceed the event. Although Artis attended a portion of the event as an audience member, he is under doctor’s orders not to perform.
Funds Still Needed
In addition to the Light Horse fundraiser, a GoFundMe campaign simultaneously is running to help Artis and his family, who lack health insurance, to assist him with medical expenses. Since performing is his primary form of income, the loss of that income has amplified his family’s need.
GoFundMe donors Bill and Monica Elliott posted that they “held onto a business card of the Johnny Artis Band for 11 years once I first saw them at a wedding, hoping they could play at mine someday. Bill and I are forever thankful that Johnny and the band made our big day a dream come true. Prayers to you as you navigate this bump in the road of life, Johnny. Thank you for all you’ve done for the rest of us.”
As Artis says, with a laugh, in a video posted on the GoFundMe page from the hospital on January 19, “I’m usually the one that’s giving and not the one that’s trying to get back on my feet. Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Cameron said the Light Horse restaurant and staff are directly contributing to the Artis family and also will host another benefit Sunday, March 1. For those wishing to donate, the GoFundMe campaign page for Artis is also active at gofundme.com/f/1v0x6y10hc.