AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – A significant loss here at home and around the world. International opera star and Augusta native, Jessye Norman passed away Monday morning. She died in a New York hospital from septic shock and multi-organ failure, complications from a spinal cord injury in 2015.
Ellis Johnson, one of Jessye’s closest friends told NewsChannel 6 reporter Devin Johnson, that she was not only known for her superstar talent but also recognized widely for giving back to her community.
To the world, she was a great opera singer; to Augusta, she was a woman with hopes and dreams who made them come true.
She started her singing career at Mount Calvary Baptist Church at an early age.
She graduated from Lucy Craft Laney High School in 1963. Later she graduated with a degree in music from Howard University. But that was only the beginning of a life that took this Augusta girl far from home and into the hearts and ears of people around the world.
“It was such a shock to learn of the death of Jessye Norman,” said Ellis Johnson.
Johnson says he and his wife have known Jessye for more than 60 years. He believes the opera star is more underappreciated than most of the celebrities who come out of Augusta.
“Everybody doesn’t appreciate that kind of music,” explained Johnson. “But those who do and allow them to hear it loves it.”
Here, she is mostly known for the school that bears her name and the amphitheater named in her honor. Johnson says Jessye enjoyed seeing the growth of area students enrolled at the school of arts each semester.
“She always makes it her business to visit the school,” said Johnson. “In an effort to talk to the children, to find out what they are doing, what they are singing, and how they are dancing.”
While the world knew her as a performer, Johnson knew her as a philanthropist and great friend. It’s only been a year since his beloved wife Ann Johnson died. Now as news spreads of the death of their friend, Johnson reflects on a particular moment Jessye provided music to his wife’s ears before her death.
“I put the phone on speakerphone and carried it to her bedside,” said Johnson. “And Jessye sang a song that was very meaningful to her. The way I knew it was meaningful to her, I saw the teardrops from her eyes. That let me know she heard the song. And the smile on her lips that she appreciated it. That meant all the world to her and me afterward.”
Mayor Hardie Davis says commissioners will go on with its citywide dedication of 8th Street on October 11th. They are planning to change the street name to Jessye Norman Boulevard.
Photojournalist: Will Baker
Full interview of Ellis Johnson below.