The Vegas Born Voice: Carnell “Golden Pipes” Johnson

The atmosphere and pregame production inside T-Mobile Arena prior to a Golden Knights game has become a thing of legend around the NHL. Contributing to that med
Published: May. 26, 2022 at 11:35 PM PDT
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LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - The atmosphere and pregame production inside T-Mobile Arena prior to a Golden Knights game has become a thing of legend around the NHL. Contributing to that medieval mystique is the national anthem, sung by Carnell Johnson, better known as Golden Pipes. The Las Vegas native has turned a standard segment at a sporting event into one of the most important and iconic moments inside the Fortress.

“As performers we get told no so many times and you have to get used to it and it hardens you a little bit,” Johnson said. “You go to audition after audition after audition. 999 times you get told no thank you, but it takes that one yes and you never know where it might be coming from. This has blown up beyond my expectations.”

Before he became a fabric of the Fortress, and given the moniker Golden Pipes, he was simply known as CJ. An award-winning vocalist during his career at Green Valley High School.

“If you would have told high school me hey you are going to be a performer, I would have been like ok I guess, but it wasn’t what I wanted back then. I definitely would have been surprised, saying no that’s not going to happen here.”

A surprise to him, but not those who are closes to him. Kim Ritzer, has been in charge of the Green Valley High School choir for more than three decades and has been a witness to his development from day one.

“I met him when he was born, I changed his diapers, sat him on my knee,” Ritzer said. “I was doing music education at UNLV and we had to do an elementary portion and I would have to learn all these songs, so I’d sit him on my knee and sing some songs to him and he’d sing with me. It is kind of crazy, but at the same time think, ‘yeah if anybody could do it, it would be him.’”

“It’s been fun having somebody there that’s seen me, that’s not blood-related, but still family, that has seen that growth in me,” Johnson said.

After graduating in 2000, Johnson spent the next 16 years using his UNLV degree to teach, as well as using his talent on the Las Vegas strip, most notably as a Venetian Gondolier over the course of ten years.

“Typical shift there the ride would open around 11am and our shift would around 4:15, so about 5 hours of not just singing, but entertaining people and physically having to row these boats, which everyone thinks they’re on tracks, but they aren’t,” Johnson said. “Physically having to row these boats in this pool of water. I worked outside, so having to deal with 100 degree days, having to deal with people that might have indulged a little bit walking down the strip. It’s hard and people don’t understand. Yeah, I’m not in New York waiting tables for 12 hours a day, breaking away to go to an audition, but I’m still grinding in a different way. I was five days a week, Monday-Friday”, Johnson said.

By 2017 the grind had wore Johnson down to the point where he was just a couple months away from moving cross-country to be with family and re-evaluate his next move.

“I had gone to New York, gone to LA, done auditions there and it was starting to take it’s toll. I need a reset. I told myself in 2017 - if nothing happens here, I’m going to move to Minnesota. “I’m going to reset everything, get a job, refocus for a year or two and see what’s really worth it.”

Before that decision was made, the Golden Knights became the first major professional franchise to arrive in the Las Vegas valley, providing new opportunities for performers like Johnson.

“He was memorable,” said Ayron Sequeira, the former Golden Knights Sr. Director of Entertainment Experience. “He has this kindness to him and he has such a powerful gift. His voice is incredible, so yes, he made an impression during auditions, he got the highlight from everybody, like yeah, book him, he’s great. He won his spot for sure.”

Johnson was one of a handful of anthem singers selected to perform throughout the inaugural season, but it wasn’t till February 13th, when the scheduled anthem singer called out sick, setting up the first of many iconic moments.

“I don’t remember if he we won or lost, I just remember he crushed it.” Sequeira said. “He was absolutely amazing.”

“I came in I sang and I honestly thought that as going to be it,” Johnson said. “They called me next week, can you do the Canadian anthem, ‘yeah.’ Called me the week after that, we need an anthem singer tonight, can you do it, ‘yeah.’ Just kept saying yes.”

Johnson continued to sing, the Golden Knights continued to win, and it wasn’t just the fans taking notice.

“I had booked a relatively well known vocalist for an anthem,” Sequeira said. “I looked at George McPhee and went George, we’re winning, but I have this particular artist who is headlining on the strip right now booked for the next game. What do you want to do. He said, ‘We don’t change.’”

It wasn’t till the middle of the Golden Knights second season, the organization decided to make Johnson the permanent anthem singer moving forward. His voice no doubt was a big reason why, but as Johnson remembers, it was his silence that cemented his role.

“Once I get there I was like, why even try there is 18,000 people here, there is one of me. Yes, I have a microphone, but it only goes so far, so at that point I decided - don’t sing, point the mic out to them, shows them they got this part and they took it from there. What I am told is that I was the first to do that, to not say the Knight part”, Johnson said.

More than a hundred games later, Golden Pipes is a household name here in the Las Vegas valley, even in the Fleury home.

“{Marc-Andre} Fleury, when he came back the first time with the Blackhawks and I sang, he was a few feet from me, I waved and bowed, caught eyes with him and he looked at me and said, ‘good job’ and I turned around and just starting freaking out. Oh my God, Fleury just said hi to me, oh my God. I’ve gotten other reactions too, but that’s a core memory”, Johnson said.

And like the flower has in the past, this year Carnell Johnson will forever be immortalized by the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame, becoming just the third anthem singer to earn such an honor.

“At first I was like this isn’t really, someone is pulling my leg,” Johnson said. “I did more research for a couple days and found out this is legit.”

“He’s incredible, he iconic now, and it’s just an example of the magic that is Vegas,” Sequeira said. “It’s perfect, it’s the story you want. It’s the story a sports team who claims to be Vegas born is supposed to do. You find these people that resonate with your fanbase. Sometimes it’s players, sometimes it’s broadcasters, sometimes it’s an anthem singer.”

“It definitely does mean something to me that a Vegas native still made it in Vegas,” Johnson said.

The honor, the fanfare, and the love means a lot to the man holding the mic, but for those hoping to earn their own spotlight one day, it means even more.

“They aspire to be like him,” Ritzer said. “It gives them pride also to say, ‘hey, that kid was sitting in these seats, just like me. Maybe someday I can do that too.”

“These are people that are coming up to me and saying we love what you to, these are the people who made it possible,” Johnson said. “Thankfully this team will be here for a long time and I plan on being here for as long as they are and as long as they keep having me back, I know I’ll keep making more and more memories.”