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November 3, 2015

Original Voices of Liberty singer taking final bow

Orlando Sentinel

On the day that Epcot opened in 1982, Debbie Johnson was there, singing.

More than three decades, meetings with four presidents and thousands of "Skip to My Lou" performances later, one of the theme park's original Voices of Liberty is on the edge of retirement. Johnson's swansong with the a cappella Americana group is Saturday.

That's a lot of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" over the years.

"You do pace yourself," said Johnson, 62, of her regimen. "And you're just wise and you hope allergies don't get the better of you. You get your sleep, you drink your water and you avoid — I mean, I do — smoking and drinking, those kind of healthy things."

The Voices of Liberty perform seven 15-minute shows daily in the American Adventure pavilion. Park visitors sit on the floor in front of the 12-member group, dressed in 1800s-style clothing. They are known for gentle songs such as "Shenandoah" and arrangements with big, powerful finishes. Folks feel the vibration beneath the rotunda.

A former director dubbed that effect "85-103," Johnson said.

"We hit that last chord at 85 percent of volume and then we pump it to 103 and add the vibrato," she explained. "It's something you can feel from your toes to the top of your head. … It's absolutely thrilling and just satisfying and rewarding."

Johnson moved cross-country from Washington to be part of the group and Epcot's debut. She had studied music at George Fox University in Newburg, Ore., and traveled with a musical group called Re'Generation, but Disney World was her first long-term paying singing gig.

"This was something that had never been done in a theme park: This kind of music, this kind of message. Who would expect it in a theme park?" she said.

Now, she is the final of the original Voices to be with the group.

Johnson's experience is valuable to the Voices' newer members, some of whom are younger than Epcot, said Melissa Hoepner, entertainment guest-service manager.

"She definitely brings heritage to the group — the history and traditions," Hoepner said. "She's a fabulous storyteller. I love just sitting and listening to what happened in 1982."

Johnson has been married for more than 30 years to Derric Johnson, who was the first show director for Voices of Liberty as well as the primary arranger. They have three grown children and four grandchildren scattered from Miami to Oregon. In retirement, Johnson intends to travel with and support her husband, who has several creative projects in the works.

"We enjoy spending time together," she said. She will now be more available to attend conferences and workshops with her husband, she said.

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Posted by acapnews at November 3, 2015 12:00 AM

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