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Johnny A: The Making of a Guitar Hero
By Matthew S. Robinson
(more articles from this author)
2001-05-14
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A veteran of the world stage who has played with the likes of Peter Wolf and Bobby Whitlock and shared stages with The Smithereens, The Joe Perry Project and Huey Lewis and the News, Johnny A. has recently made his own mark on the musical world with the highly-acclaimed instrumental album Sometime Tuesday Morning (Aglao). Though his sound is a combination of a wide variety of childhood influences, Johnny continues to strive to make his own sound and his own way in an increasingly complicated and competitive music market. Though he will not say when, Johnny A. does admit to being born and raised in Malden. Johnny grew up to the sounds of a transistor radio which he dutifully hid under his pillow night after night, listening to early favorites like The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly on WMEX.

"I really loved the Everly Brothers when I was a kid," Johnny says, recalling the days spent in his grandparents' luncheonette, pounding coins into the table-top jukeboxes to hear "Cathy's Clown" and Holly's "That'll Be the Day."

Later, Johnny would travel the dial to WILD, where he discovered the sweet sounds of Motown and the wonders of soul.

Another strong musical influence in Johnny's life was the Eastern music which permeated throughout his home. His grandfather was an amateur bazouki-ist and the sounds of the oud and clarinet were often found at family get-togethers. Johnny attributes much of his contemporary sound to the odd scales and timings of these ancient forms.

"The sound of that and my parents' 45's had an effect on me," Johnny explains.

As 45's have turned into CD's, Johnny still claims to love the oldies. "I don't know if my influences have changed," Johnny ponders, mentioning teachers like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix, "but they have expanded."

As he figures was the case with all musicians of that time (and this), The Beatles were another huge influence on Johnny's playing.

"They changed everything," Johnny says. "It was a revolutionary vibe. When I heard it, I knew it was something special!"

Johnny also says that his Beatles years was also the time when he first got into guitar.

Today, Johnny adds names like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart to his list of favorites. His is a wide array of influences and one which is evident in every note Johnny plays.

"It sounds like I'm trying to be P.C. and cover my bases in terms of influences," Johnny realizes, "but really, it's the truth!"

Many of Johnny's icons (if that is the right word) have sounds that are distinctive and quickly recognizable.

"You hear two notes of Jeff Beck or Stevie Ray Vaughan, you know it's them" Johnny says.

While Johnny may not have found his own distinctive sound yet, he melds the masters like nobody else.

For Johnny, the truly important thing is that the song is "a good song." Though he admits to having "a soft spot for pop," Johnny also appreciates the technique of a great musician.

"I like Pat Martino or James Montgomery for technique and Lennon and McCartney for sound," he says.

As Johnny is so into so many kinds of music, it has been difficult for him to find his own road. As a child, he even had trouble choosing what instrument to play.

Picking up a set of drumsticks at age six, Johnny terrorized the Malden school system with various bands. In addition to school functions, Johnny drummed his way through a slew of church events and battles of the bands.

"Anything you could do, we did," he explains.

During his middle school years, Johnny and his family moved to Saugus, where Johnny continued to bang away with whomever would have him.

"My parents were always very supportive," Johnny recalls, noting how his mother often drove him to shows and how many of his bands often rehearsed in Johnny's home.

As in Malden, Johnny performed in Saugus often with various groups. When one of Johnny's bands broke up and the other members joined a "rival band," Johnny went to catch the new line-up at a parking lot gig behind a pizza joint on Route 1.

"When I got there," Johnny recalls, "their guitarist wasn't there."

Though drumming had been his official capacity when his traitorous friends had played with him, Johnny had taken his grandfather's bazouki to heart and had begun dabbling in guitar. As he knew about one set's worth of his old bandmates' new songs, Johnny was driven back home to get his gear and invited to sit in as what he thought would be a one-shot guitar gig.

During the break after what turned out to be a wildly successful first set, Johnny was taught the next set of songs, which he executed with equal aplomb and finesse. When set two was done, Johnny learned set three. By the time the gig was over, Johnny had gotten back with his old bandmates, this time as their guitarist!

Though $25 in pizza might not have been much (at least not much more than what he typically gets paid now, Johnny jokes), Johnny still finds himself intrigued by the fact that his first time playing a guitar was also his first "paid" gig. It apparently has had quite an effect on him, as he has been loathe to turn back.

"After that," Johnny says, "I never played drums again."

Graduating Saugus High School, Johnny started a heavy rock band called The Streets which was managed by ex-Aerosmith guitarist Ray Tabano. Touring the East Coast, The Streets landed a song on Charles Lacquidara's "Big Mattress."

"We were the first unsigned band to get the song of the week," Johnny recalls with subdued pride.

Johnny was soon invited out to San Francisco to meet with bluesman Bobby Whitlock (Delaney & Bonnie, George Harrison) and drummer Doug Clifford (Creedence Clearwater Revival). However, loyal to The Streets, Johnny turned down the opportunity to play with the legendary musicians.

"I thought something was happening for The Streets so I decided to pass," Johnny explains.

Unfortunately, Johnny's powers of premonition were not so strong, and The Streets soon potholed.

After a few months of dates with other local bands (including The Nervous Eaters and The Stompers), Johnny put Hidden Secret together. Scoring opening slots for the likes of Huey Lewis and David Johanssen, Hidden Secret landed Johnny's song "No More Lonely Nights" on the WBCN "Local Top Three," hitting #1 for 13 weeks and staying on the chart for six months.

Though they were finding success as a unit, Johnny felt that the size of the band was squashing his sound and performance personality. He decided to end the Secret.

Undaunted, Johnny soon formed Hearts on Fire, a "rootsy rock country thing" that was capturing the Americana sound before anyone else was doing it. Unfortunately, it was a rootsy rock country thing that was capturing the Americana sound before anyone else was doing it.

Though bands like Lone Justice were also out there, the sound never caught on, at least not as much as Johnny would have liked. After another pair of #1s on the Local Top Three and a runner-up place at the WBCN Rock 'n' Roll Rumble, the band began to crumble under critical pressure to change their line-up and their sound.

"I wasn't happy with the changes," Johnny says. And he split them up. Shortly after Hearts broke, Johnny reconnected with Whitlock as Music Director. They did a tour of New England and New York and filmed a video for Japanese television.

Back in Boston, Johnny met Peter Wolf while doing a gig at the legendary Bunratty's.

"He was looking to tour Come As You Are," Johnny explains, "and he was looking for a second guitarist."

As Johnny knew Peter's first guitarist Jeff Golup (who had invited Peter to come see Johnny play), Johnny thought he had a good shot at landing the gig. Unfortunately, Peter thought the two were too similar and looked elsewhere. However, Johnny had made an impression on the energetic frontman, and when Peter needed an acoustic slide player for a WBCN Christmas record, Johnny got the call.

The next summer, Peter was offered a one-shot gig at Laconia by a Harley-Davidson dealer. Again, Johnny was called to audition.

"Probably along with everyone else in town," he grumbles self-deprecatingly. Regardless of who else was there, at the end of the day, it was Johnny who was picked to play the Speedway.

Or so he thought.

After almost eight weeks of rehearsals for this one gig, the dealership called to say that, due to permit problems, the show was a no-go.

"Here we had put in all this time and there was no gig," Johnny says. "Pete wanted to make it up to us, so he booked a small tour."

The House Party Five was born.

When the initial tour proved successful, Peter continued to book and Johnny continued to play. The band even landed a track on a tribute album to Harry Nilsson.

"That was my first recording experience with Peter," Johnny recalls.

When Reprise offered Peter a deal, he brought Johnny along. In fact, Johnny co-produced Long Line, an album which received much critical acclaim, but never got the support it deserved.

"We put a lot of sweat behind that record," Johnny recalls, "and we would shave liked it to have done better."

Still, Peter and Johnny kept on.

After a tour of Japan, the band returned to the States, where the Five soon became more of a Two. Johnny and Peter travelled around doing small acoustic gigs which eventually ended.

"Six years after I met Peter," Johnny says, "I was back on my own."

Though he had been in a number of bands and had more than a modicum of success, Johnny was still not satisfied with his musical trajectory. He had not yet found the right mix of pop sensibility and technical integrity.

"For a while it was really tough to find a marriage of those things in my own playing and my own songs," he explains. "Usually, I'd have bands and write pop songs but I would play them in a different way than how I wrote them. I'd play with more technique focus."

As a result, Johnny's playing never "came to fruition" with those bands. "It was sacrificed for the song," he says.

Now, however, Johnny sees himself at a point where he is able to meld his playing with the song.

"It seemed to have happened with in the last couple of years," he says. "I don't know whether it's because I've taken an instrumental path or what but a lot of my influences have been able to be realized on my record. There is a pop sensibility with jazz craftsmanship and a rock edge."

Though he makes no apologies for being a rock and blues player, Johnny is happy (and relieved) that his jazz notions finally have a forum.

"This record allowed me to try these things out," he says.

After the demise of The House Party Five and a short reunion with Wolf on Fool's Parade, Johnny had time to devote to his own work. No more 24-7 devotion to what other artists wanted. This was Johnny's time.

"They were fantastic experiences," Johnny says of his past musical endeavours, "so though I may have suffered in one way, I gained in many other ways, if only in being exposed to so many new kinds of musicality."

As Wolf and Whitlock were both so different from Johnny and from each other, Johnny's years with them were wonderfully educational and fun. However, he was happy to finally have the chance to do his own thing for and by himself.

"It's quite possible that, had I continued with these guys, I would not have made this record," Johnny realizes, "but circumstances allowed me the time to progress in my own way."

Johnny's plans for an instrumental project had been long in the percolating. However, Johnny's array of influences had made it difficult for him to find a cohesive sound.

"There was no common thread," he recalls of early versions. "It sounded like different genres and different people playing them."

Fortunately, Johnny's friend and original bassist Dean Cassell introduced Johnny to drummer Craig MacIntyre (whom Johnny had originally met while with Wolf), who in turn turned Johnny on to bassist Ed Spago. As Cassell was touring with other projects, Johnny decided to meet with Spago to explain his musical ideas. After a ten-minute get together at a Marblehead bar, the two decided to go for it.

"We had a brief conversation where I told him my concept," Johnny recalls, noting his joy at having a "concept" to share, "and we just clicked."

Since then, Johnny, Craig and Ed have built what Johnny calls "a fabulous relationship" filled with mutual understanding and support.

"They get what I'm doing and they're into it," Johnny exclaims.

After about a year and a half of rehearsals and gigs (including a two month residency in the "friendly confines" of Salem's popular Dodge Street Bar and Grill), the three hit the studio to begin work on Tuesday Morning. Last November, their joint vision was realized.

"The guys have worked hard," Johnny says. "They have been devoted and loyal and they were supportive of my trying to realize the sound I want. The more we worked, the more it fell into place and came into its own."

Johnny credits the early success of the album and of the band's live shows (which have included a six-week residency at The Original House of Blues in Cambridge and a live web cast on HoB.com) to the "easy musical rapport" he and his new bandmates share.

Such syncronicity was apparently evident early on, as label interest began during the band's Dodge Street days. Unfortunately, the independent label that first signed Johnny and the boys ran dry halfway through, leaving Johnny to reclaim his materials and go on alone.

"It was a long process," Johnny sighs.

Fortunately, Johnny's sense of the music industry has helped him overcome many obstacles which often lay waste to novice record promoters.

Though the album was ready at the end of 1999, Johnny opted to wait for the new year for the official release in order to avoid the holiday crush of marketing and publicity competition.

As the saying goes, good things come to those who wait.

"The reception of the album has been beyond what I expected," Johnny admits.

"I knew we made a good record, but it's been amazing!"

Johnny had originally hoped to break into one or two AAA radio stations in the Boston area.

"In my mind's ear," Johnny says, perhaps coining a phrase, "I thought that if we could make it to AAA radio, people would respond."

As he said, the response has been far beyond even his expectations.

First championed by Joanne Doody at WXRV and WMFO's Morgan Huke, the album is now spinning all over and around New England, from Cape Cod to Lake Placid, NY. Newbury Comics has also begun stocking the album. Two weeks ago, Sometime Tuesday Morning reached #8 on the "Album Network" AAA most-added chart!

"It's kind of overwhelming because it's instrumental and that's fighting the tide," Johnny says, realizing that the field he fits most easily into is vocal-driven pop/rock.

Still, Johnny feels "extremely fortunate" to finally have a forum for his music.

Unfortunately, success does not come without demands. As he is the artist and the record company, the better the album does, the busier Johnny is. At the same time as his gig calendar is filling, so too are his lists of requests for radio copies (which he dutifully follows-up on every week with hours of phone calls) and demands of fans and critics.

Even so, Johnny appears as undaunted and enthusiastic as ever, perhaps surprisingly so.

"I enjoy doing the business side," he says. "I may not be a crack salesman, but I am organized and try to make the best use of my time. It's harder to do it all yourself, but I'm not complaining."

Johnny admits that the process is getting to be "all-consuming," but really does not seem to mind. In fact, he has even found time to write a few new songs. However, he considers it a disservice to his current project to not give it absolutely everything he can.

Though he claims to like business as much as he likes art, Johnny would not be averse in any way to a larger power coming to take his hand. And while Divine intervention would be nice, what he really wants right now is a label.

"It's kind of a unique album and it's uniqueness makes it special and commercially viable," Johnny contests. "I'd like to see a label come and seriously look at it."

As he has done so much on his own without their help, Johnny sees himself as a good candidate for label support. As they would not have to show him how, but merely help him along, Johnny would be able to focus more on the performance while keeping an educated eye on the numbers.

"I'd like someone to come and pick up the ball with me," he says. "I'd like the chance to bring what I do to a larger audience and to take it around and have it have an honest, fair shot."

In the meantime, Johnny will continue to thank his supportive band and his quickly growing legions of fans ("A-heads"?) and to show them his appreciation by knocking their heads off with some of the best guitar this side of any of his many musical influences.

"The challenge is to maintain that voice no matter what you play," Johnny says. "I like challenges, though, so now I got one."

Though he appreciates all his new found fame and (more importantly) musical respect, the best part of the storey is that Johnny seems to finally be satisfied musically. And though he may still dream of being as recognizable as Berry or Vaughan and of having kids punch him up on the table-top jukebox, Johnny is devoted to his own sound and the people who appreciate it.

"There are so many great players out there. I never look at it as being competitive. I just do what I do," Johnny explains. "Hopefully, it will pay off for everybody."


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